Everything You Need To Know About Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a British tradition that dates back to the 19th century. The ritual of taking tea in the afternoon was popularized by Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, who found that she was hungry between lunch and dinner. She began to take a light meal of tea, sandwiches, and cakes in the afternoon, and the tradition soon caught on among the upper classes. Today, afternoon tea is a popular social event that is enjoyed around the world. As we explore the history of afternoon tea and formal etiquette, TalkShop CEO Dr. Sheila Viesca shares some social graces tips to prepare anyone who needs training in confidence building, interpersonal skills, and networking.


Afternoon tea became popular in the mid-19th century when the working classes began to take their main meal at midday, leaving the upper classes with a long gap between lunch and dinner. The Duchess of Bedford began to take tea and a light meal in the afternoon to stave off hunger, and the tradition soon spread among her friends and acquaintances.

The ritual of afternoon tea soon became a social event, and it was accompanied by a strict code of formal etiquette. The rules of etiquette were designed to ensure that the occasion was a refined and elegant affair. Guests were expected to dress formally, and the hostess would serve tea, sandwiches, and cakes on a three-tiered cake stand. The order of service was strict, with tea served first, followed by sandwiches, and then cakes.

Formal etiquette was also observed in the way that guests interacted with each other. Guests were expected to be polite and courteous, and to engage in small talk and light conversation. They were also expected to observe certain rules of behavior, such as not speaking with their mouths full and not using their mobile phones during the event.

Proper tea etiquette shows your appreciation for the company of friends as you enjoy  the flavors and aromas of the tea and food in front of you.

Make sure to observe the following etiquette:

  • When your tea and pastries are served, wait for everyone in your party to be served before beginning to eat or drink.
  • Tea time etiquette: When stirring your tea, make sure to stir gently and avoid clinking the side of the teacup. Lift your teacup and saucer together when drinking your tea, and never extend your pinky finger when holding the cup.Do not blow on the tea to cool it down.
  • Use the provided utensils, such as a teaspoon or pastry fork, to eat your pastries.
  • Begin with the sandwiches: Your first course of the tea will be the savory finger sandwiches. Take small bites of each sandwich and finish each one before moving on to the next.
  • Move on to the scones: Spread clotted cream and jam on half of your scone and eat it with a fork and knife. Eat the second half plain or with butter if you prefer. 
  • Enjoy the pastries: After finishing the sandwiches and scones, enjoy the sweet pastries, such as macarons, eclairs, and cakes. Use your fingers or a small fork to nibble on them.
  • Take small bites of your pastries and avoid taking large bites or stuffing your mouth. 
  • Use a napkin to wipe your mouth occasionally and to blot any spills or drips.
  • When finished with your tea and pastries, place your napkin to the left your plate or saucer. Do not push it away from you.
  1. Thank your host or hostess for the afternoon tea experience before leaving.

Here are some common etiquette mistakes to avoid:

  • Using the wrong utensils: Make sure to use the correct utensils for each food item.
  • Holding the teacup incorrectly: Avoid holding the teacup with your pinky finger extended.
  • Stirring the tea too vigorously: Stir the tea gently with a back-and-forth motion and refrain from making noise.
  • Talking with your mouth full: Wait until you have finished chewing and swallow before speaking.
  • Placing elbows on the table: When sitting at the table, keep your elbows off the table.
  • Taking too much food: Only take a small amount of food at a time, so there is enough for others.
  • Gulping down tea: Sip the tea slowly, and avoid making slurping sounds.
  • Using your phone or electronic device: Turn off your phone and give your full attention to the tea service and your companions.

TalkShop’s social graces sessions provide learners the skills and techniques they need to succeed in social and business situations. They cover a range of topics, including etiquette, communication skills, and networking.

Dr. Sheila Viesca shares the important aspects and pointers on how to dress appropriately for afternoon tea meetings, how to introduce one’s self and others, and how to engage in small talk and conversation, along with using body language effectively and making a positive first impression.


1. Dress Code

Afternoon tea is a formal occasion, so dress appropriately in formal attire. Men should wear a suit or a blazer with dress pants and a dress shirt. Women should wear a dress or a skirt with a blouse. Avoid wearing anything too casual, such as jeans or shorts.

2. Colors

Choose colors that are appropriate for the occasion. For afternoon tea, pastel colors, such as light blue, pink, or lavender, are appropriate. Avoid wearing anything too bright or too bold.

3. Accessories

Accessorize your outfit with jewelry, such as pearls or diamonds, and a hat or a fascinator. A small clutch or a handbag is also appropriate for carrying essentials, such as a lipstick or a handkerchief.

4. Shoes

Wear comfortable and stylish shoes, such as pumps or flats. Avoid wearing anything too casual, such as sneakers or sandals.

5. Grooming

Make sure to groom yourself appropriately for the occasion. Men should be clean-shaven or have a well-groomed beard or mustache. Women should have their hair styled and their makeup applied in a natural and elegant way.

Dr. Viesca quips, “Choose clothing that is comfortable, stylish, and appropriate for the occasion, and accessorize appropriately. With the right attire, you can enjoy the experience of taking tea in a refined and elegant manner.”


1. Introducing Oneself

When introducing oneself, make eye contact and smile. State your name clearly and confidently, and offer a handshake if appropriate. For example, “Hello, my name is John Smith. Nice to meet you.”

2. Introducing Others

When introducing others, make eye contact with each person and smile. Use their full names if possible, and offer a brief description of their relationship or profession if appropriate. For example, “I’d like to introduce you to my colleague, Jane Doe. She’s a marketing manager at our company.”

3. Formal Introductions

For formal introductions, use the person’s full name and title, if appropriate. For example, “May I introduce you to Dr. John Smith, our keynote speaker for today’s event.”

4. Remembering Names

To help remember names, repeat the person’s name back to them and use it in conversation. Try to associate their name with something memorable, such as their profession or a unique feature. For example, “Nice to meet you, Sarah. I love your necklace.”

Dr. Viesca impresses that “it is essential to make eye contact, smile and use appropriate language and tone. With the right introduction, you can start a conversation and build a relationship with others in a polite and respectful manner.”


1. Start with a Greeting

Start the conversation with a greeting, such as “Hello” or “How are you?” This helps to establish a friendly tone and sets the stage for further conversation.

2. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Ask open-ended questions that encourage the other person to share more about themselves. For example, “What do you do for work?” or “What are your hobbies?” This helps to keep the conversation flowing and shows that you are interested in the other person.

3. Listen Actively

Listen actively to what the other person is saying and respond appropriately. Show that you are engaged in the conversation by nodding, smiling, and making eye contact. Avoid interrupting or talking over the other person.

4. Share Your Own Experiences

Share your own experiences and opinions, but be careful not to dominate the conversation. Keep your responses brief and focused on the topic

Dr. Viesca points out, “Bear in mind that what we say or not say must at all times communicate respect for the other person. Maintain a positive tone and use courteous and polite expressions at all times.”


1. Posture

Maintain good posture by standing up straight and sitting up straight. This shows that you are confident and engaged in the conversation.

2. Eye Contact

Make eye contact with the person you are speaking with. This shows that you are interested in the conversation and that you are paying attention.

3. Facial Expressions

Use appropriate facial expressions to convey your emotions. Smile when appropriate, and avoid frowning or scowling. This helps to establish a positive tone for the conversation.

4. Gestures

Use appropriate gestures to emphasize your points. For example, use hand gestures to show the size or shape of an object you are describing. Avoid using gestures that are too large or too distracting.

5. Personal Space

Respect personal space by standing or sitting at an appropriate distance from the other person. Avoid standing or sitting too close, as this can be uncomfortable or intimidating.

6. Mirroring

Mirroring the other person’s body language can help to establish a connection and build rapport. For example, if the other person is leaning forward, you can lean forward as well.

Dr. Viesca reiterates the importance of “maintaining good posture, making eye contact, using appropriate facial expressions and gestures, respecting personal space, and mirroring the other person’s body language. With the right body language, you can establish a good rapport and lasting connection with the other person.”


1. Preparing the Tea

When preparing tea, use loose tea leaves or tea bags and boiling water. Allow the tea tosteep for 3-5 minutes, depending on the type of tea. Once the tea is brewed, remove the tea leaves or tea bags.

2. Serving the Tea

When serving tea, use a tea pot and a tea strainer. Pour the tea into a tea cup and add milk or sugar, if desired. The hostess should pour the tea for the guests, starting with the guest of honor and moving clockwise around the table. The tea cup should be placed on a saucer, and a small spoon should be provided for stirring.

3. Holding the Tea Cup

When holding the tea cup, use the handle of the cup and place your index finger on top of the handle. Use your thumb and middle finger to support the bottom of the cup. Do not hold the cup with your pinky finger extended, as this is considered impolite.

4. Drinking the Tea

When drinking tea, take small sips and do not slurp. Do not blow on the tea to cool it down. Use the spoon provided for stirring, if necessary.

5. Eating the Food

When eating the food served with tea, use the small plates provided and eat with small bites. Use the cutlery provided and do not use your fingers to pick up food.

Dr. Viesca emphasizes, “The proper way to serve and consume tea indicates one’s respect for the tradition of afternoon tea and knowledge of formal etiquette. It does not take much to be polite and courteous to your fellow guests and just requires a bit of practice to enjoy the experience of taking tea in a refined and elegant manner.”


Proper etiquette at afternoon tea events includes not only how to serve and consume tea, but also how to use cutlery, how to sit and stand, and how to interact with other guests

1. Using Cutlery

When using cutlery, start with the outermost utensil and work your way in towards the plate. The knife should be held in the right hand and the fork in the left hand. Use the knife to cut food into small bites, and then use the fork to lift the food to your mouth. When finished, place the cutlery on the plate with the handles facing to the right.

2. Sitting and Standing

When sitting at a formal event, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your hands in your lap when not using cutlery. When standing, rise slowly and gracefully, without pushing your chair back. When leaving the table, excuse yourself politely and say goodbye to the other guests.

3. Interacting with Other Guests

When interacting with other guests, be polite and courteous. Introduce yourself and others, and use small talk to engage in light conversation. Avoid controversial topics or anything that might be considered offensive. Listen actively to what others are saying and respond appropriately. When leaving the event, thank the host or hostess for their hospitality and say goodbye to the other guests.

Dr. Viescaadds, “Afternoon tea etiquette includes not only how to serve and consume tea, but also how to use cutlery, how to sit and stand, and how to interact with other guests. It leaves one with a good feeling, great experience, and lasting friendships when politeness, courtesy, refinement, and respect are shown to the host and fellow guests.  In such short engagements, aim to make a positive first impression at the onset.”

She concludes, “Afternoon tea is a delightful occasion to gain confidence in being yourself while remembering to put your best foot forward. Dress appropriately for the occasion. Choose clothing that is clean, neat, and appropriate for the event. Arrive on time or a few minutes early to show that you are reliable and respectful of the other person’s time. Smile and make eye contact when you meet the other person to show that you are friendly and approachable. Use appropriate body language, such as good posture, a firm handshake, and appropriate facial expressions. They reflect that you are confident and engaged in the conversation. Introduce yourself clearly and confidently. State your name and offer a handshake if appropriate. Listen actively to what the other person is saying and respond appropriately. Be able to show that you are engaged in the conversation by nodding, smiling, and making eye contact. Be polite and courteous throughout the conversation. Use appropriate language and tone, and avoid controversial topics or anything that might be considered offensive.”

TalkShop’s social graces training can be availed by anyone who wants to improve their interpersonal skills and succeed in any social or business situation. In particular, TalkShop’s afternoon tea etiquette training includes not only how to serve and consume tea, but also how to use cutlery, how to sit and stand, and how to interact with other guests. The sessions leave one with a good feeling, great experience, and the realization that lasting friendships are forged when politeness, courtesy, refinement, and respect are shown to the people we meet.  In such short engagements, anyone can learn to make a positive first impression and gain more confidence in varied social settings.

Posted by TalkShop
Sheila Viesca, TalkShop CEO and Director of Communication finished her bachelor degree in Literature, masters in Entrepreneurship, and doctorate in Applied Cosmic Anthropology. She designed the Philippines' Language Competency Benchmark for the Department of Education and pioneered Integrated Language Teaching (ILT) in workshop designs and corporate communication training. You can follow her on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, LinkedIN, and Google+


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