Afternoon Tea Etiquette Tips



Attire and Dress Code

When attending an afternoon tea, it's important to dress the part. This means not wearing casual clothing you'd wear to run errands like ripped jeans, leggings and t-shirts, but rather wearing what would fall under the 'business casual' or 'smart casual' dress code. You might even want to add some British flair to your outfit by adding a fascinator to your outfit too.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wearing a red fascinator during her visit to Canada in 2011
The Princess of Wales, Catherine (then the Duchess of Cambridge), wearing a red fascinator during her visit to Canada in 2011 (Source: Wikimedia)


Napkins and Getting Seated

Upon arrival, do place the napkin onto your lap to catch any crumbs while dining. If excusing yourself to leave the table, place the napkin to the left of your plate with the open edge to the right. Never, ever place your napkin on your chair when getting up from the table. Another good rule of thumb is to sit upright with good posture.


Serving the Tea

Generally, the host will serve the guests tea from the teapot. In the event that you are dining out as a group, one person should be assigned the duty of pouring tea for everyone at the table. If enjoying loose tea, use a tea strainer and fill each tea cup 3/4 of the way to ensure that there's room for people to add in milk, cream, sugar, etc. If assigned the role of serving the tea, always serve others before serving yourself.

Historically, milk used to be added to teacups before the tea when they were made of very delicate material. This approach was taken to ensure that the cups did not crack or break once the hot tea was added. Now that today's teacups are made from super durable material, this rule is not really relevant anymore. Also, by pouring the tea first for your guests you give them the option to add in milk or other things (or to take their tea black) to suit their personal taste.


Enjoying the Tea

If hosting your afternoon tea on a low table (like a coffee table), you must pick up both your teacup and the saucer together when sipping. If at a regular dining table, you need not hold your teacup and saucer together; they can stay on the table and you can simply hold your teacup, but remember - always keep your elbows off the table.

Never, ever, ever hold your teacup with your 'pinkie up'. Despite pop culture references, it's actually rude and pretentious. Always hold your teacup with your fingers tucked in. You should hold the teacup by meeting your thumb and index finger in the handle and resting your remaining fingers underneath it.

Mary Cassatt, Five O'Clock Tea, 1880. Image via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Don't hold your teacup like this girl lol. Mary Cassatt, Five O'Clock Tea, 1880. (Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston)


Another "don't" to not stir your tea in a circular motion, clanking your spoon against the teacup. Instead, you should stir your tea in an 'up and down' motion from '12 o'clock to 6 o'clock', silently.

Also, please don't slurp your tea. Enjoy it elegantly between small sips.



For a full, traditional afternoon tea there will be a three-tiered cake stand. At the bottom will be the savoury treats, on the second tier will be the scones, clotted cream and jam, and on the final top tier will be the desserts. Always start from bottom and work your way to the top by finishing with the desserts.


Photo Credit: Sebastian Coman


Scones: When eating scones, never cut them with a knife. You should always break them in two with your hands. The traditional condiment spreads for scones are jam and clotted cream, but note: you shouldn't spread them on top of your scone to make a sandwich - and don't dunk it into your tea, please.

You may have heard that there are two approaches to spreading jam and clotted cream onto your scone. 

  • Cornish Method: Spread jam first on each split of the scone and then add clotted cream.
  • Devonshire Method: Spread the clotted cream on each split of the scone and then add jam.



Whichever method you use, it doesn't really matter for the purposes of afternoon tea.  The most important rule to remember for afternoon tea make sure you have fun!