Raised pinky fingers, scone slicing and other tea faux pas

AfternoonTeaWith a Starbucks on every corner and American’s addiction to coffee, it’s hard to believe that at one time tea was the beverage of choice.

Perhaps because it seems like a novelty, afternoon tea and tea parties are now in vogue – a fun reliving of a past tradition. Many hotels advertise High Tea, but the proper term is Afternoon Tea. High Tea was actually a full meal served to the laborers and miners at 6:00 PM. Afternoon Tea is the repast that includes petit fours, tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and is traditionally served between 3:00 and 5:00 PM.

I recently held a birthday afternoon tea party at the fabulous Columbia Tower Club. Eleven of my friends helped me celebrate my special day. It was so much fun! The food was fabulous, the view was incredible and the company was divine.

I shared a few tea facts and etiquette with my guests for fun. Did you know when drinking tea, or any liquid, you’re supposed to look into the cup rather than over it? The reason is it is easier to spill when you’re not paying attention to your cup. It also looks more demure when your eyes are focused on your cup.

Here are some other fun facts and tea etiquette tips.

When you are standing, hold the saucer and tea cup by cradling the saucer in your four fingers with your thumb securing the saucer on top. If you’re sitting at a table there is no need to hold the saucer, keep it on the table and just pick up the cup. For larger handles, put your index finger through the handle with your thumb resting on the top of the handle. Your middle finger should support the handle and your fourth and fifth (pinky) fingers should curl in towards your wrist. For smaller handles, you would squeeze the handle with your thumb and pointer finger while resting the handle on your third finger and using the rest of your fingers to press against the cup to balance it.

People often think proper tea drinking means sticking your pinky out. That’s actually rude and connotes elitism. It comes from the fact that cultured people would eat their tea goodies with three fingers and commoners would hold the treats with all five fingers. Thus was born the misguided belief that one should raise their pinky finger to show they were cultured. Tuck that pinky finger in.

When enjoying your tea, never swirl the liquid around in the cup like wine in glass. You might spill.

The hostess pours her guest’s tea and asks, “With sugar, lemon or milk?” Put the sugar in first then the lemon, otherwise, the lemon will keep the sugar from dissolving. Always add milk, not cream which is too heavy for tea, after the tea has been poured. That way you can decide how much milk to add by seeing the color of the tea. And, never combine lemon and milk; the lemon will curdle the milk.

When stirring your tea avoid clanking your teaspoon against the cup. Instead swirl it quietly and then rest the teaspoon behind the cup on the saucer with the handle facing towards the tea cup handle. Never leave the teaspoon in the cup and never put it in your mouth.

Scones, petit fours and tea sandwiches are all traditional Afternoon Tea fare. To eat scones properly, do not use a knife to slice them open. Instead, just as you would with a bread roll, break off one small piece at a time, put butter, cream and/or jam on just that piece and enjoy.

The word “petit fours” means small oven in French. They are so named because they were baked in a small oven next to the main oven.

Afternoon Tea is a wonderful tradition. It’s a lovely way to enjoy the company of friends while indulging in some delicious treats. Enjoy.

 


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Arden

Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

44 Comments

  1. Brenda Kelly on November 30, 2016 at 2:49 am

    Hi Folks,
    Whether or not one raises the pinkie, while
    drinking tea, depends on the size and weight
    of the cup and especially on the length of the handle. It’s a matter of balance really and not
    one of either snobbery or rudeness. A nice
    big mug needs all fingers curled around it.
    A dainty china teacup forces the raised pinkie
    grip. Do what feels comfortable and above all
    else e



  2. Arden on December 27, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Hi Brenda,

    Thanks for stopping by. One can hold a tea cup without raising one’s pinky. It will continue to be seen as a snobby gesture, so best to avoid doing it. You can actually tuck that little digit in under the handle or hold it against the cup and balance the cup beautifully.



  3. Daniel L on February 3, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    “Always add milk, not cream”
    Always USE milk, not cream.

    Adding would mean you put it in AFTER the tea…and there is no rule to say you must.
    While adding milk after does make it easier to judge the strength, putting it in first changes the flavors to somewhat creamier ones, and also cools your tea a little more at the start, making it ‘safer’ to drink, instead of risking a scalding.

    And don’t stir in a swirling, circular motion if you add sugar. You’ll leave it in the ‘eye’ of the circle, and thus leave the top of your tea short on sugar, and the bottom VERY strongly sweetened. Instead, stir in a cross-wise fashion, up-down and then around left-right(or the other way, if you’re left-handed). That will spread your sweetener evenly.



  4. Arden Clise on February 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you Daniel, for your comment. You’re right, milk is not required. It’s up to the tea drinker to decide if they want milk, sugar or lemon or none of the above.

    At one time it was traditional to put milk in first because it was believed pouring hot tea into a porcelain cup would possibly crack it. That was proven wrong and so it’s better to put the milk in after the tea so you can determine how much to put in and not cool the tea down right away.



  5. Marianne Rousseau-Vanderkamp on February 9, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Your argument of pinky finger positioning is a bit dogmatic at best. Tea etiquette is elitist. Etiquette as an entirety is elitist. Elitism is not inherently bad, but it does erase AAVE and other mannerisms that are no longer considered low brow, and are rather just a part of a larger collective of cultures. There are many places in the world where holding your pinky finger out is the standard.

    Class as a noun is elitist, class as an adjective is not.



  6. Connie mead on May 7, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    No pinky fingers should stick out. Looks saloon girl manners. What proof do you have it is all right?
    Post and Vanderbilt say no pinky stick outs



  7. Mark Condon on June 9, 2017 at 12:29 am

    I habitually have my pinky finger raised when I eat and drink and I beleive it to be because when I hold a heavy glass, I have my pinky rest under the glass and the rest of my indexes around the side. I refuse to conform to putting in my pinky for the fact of “etiquette” and I beleive one should do how he or she feels most comfortable. It is in fact, people like yourself Arden that are judgemental and feel there needs to be a certain guidelines on how to drink or eat. I also recommend travelling to other parts of the world, where for example burping is not seen as rude but in fact a gesture of appreciation of good food.



  8. Shea on June 22, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Interesting information, thank you for the article!



  9. Terry Lovelace on June 24, 2017 at 12:18 am

    Etiquette is simply good manners. To ignore your hosts etiquette is rude and insulting. It might make you feel superior, but in reality you look inferior



  10. JB on July 9, 2017 at 5:08 am

    People apparently used to stick their pinky up as a sign to potential lovers that they had a venerial disease. So yeah, keep that pinky down.



  11. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I’ve never heard that before. Seems a little odd someone would advertise that, but you never know. Either way, yes, pinky down.



  12. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Hello Mark, absolutely agreed that when in Rome do as the Romans do. If it’s polite to burp and slurp your soup in Japan then by all means do it. However that is not culturally acceptable in the United States. If you slurped and burped in the U.S. people might think you were not being very mannerly. It’s all about the cultural and etiquette norms for the country and region. As a trained and certified etiquette consultant I am simply sharing my expertise. People can take it or leave it. Etiquette is guidelines and rules that help you to better present yourself and be kind and respectful to others. People may think you’re being ostentatious by sticking your pinky out, but if you don’t care then go for it.



  13. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Shea.



  14. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Agreed Terry.



  15. Sir Wolf on April 23, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    Pinky should be down. I have gone to many royal parties and other “high fashion” events, balls, galas, and afternoon teas, and for the most part I have never seen royalty put a pinky up.
    If you don’t care about that kind of etiquette, then you probably would not be invited to something that high brow anyway.



  16. Nigel Buchalter on April 29, 2018 at 2:28 am

    One of the readers had said that he habitually leaves his little finger pointing out and that he refuses to conform.
    I have to agree with the general consensus that it looks rather odd leaving it pointing out or up.
    Without ever being aware of the reason, I had thought that it looked quite hoity-toity.

    You wouldn’t leave your zip unfastened so as not to conform. So all of you who stick it out, please stop. And the tea really should be brewed from tea-leaves whenever possible!



  17. Arden on May 1, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    Good points Nigel.



  18. Kate Corwyn on May 17, 2018 at 8:36 am

    “just as you would with a bread roll, break off one small piece at a time, put butter, cream and/or jam on just that piece ”

    In England you do not break off small pieces from a scone, that would immediately mark you out as an American here. A scone should be torn in half, that should be quite easy due to the method of making and baking the scone that produces a natural division that comes apart easily. Then on each half you spread jam and cream, never butter. Ideally you should use clotted cream, we Devon and Cornish people wouldn’t consider anything else suitable. Jam is almost always strawberry although other jams are not actually wrong. Whether you put the jam or the cream on first is a matter of some dispute between those who live in Cornwall and those of us who live in Devon. Then you eat the two halves separately, taking bites from them, do not try to sandwich them back together.

    Despite the many recipes I have seen from American writers, scones should be plain. No chocolate chips(!), no blueberries, the only dried fruit that is just about acceptable is currants, and only a very small amount of sugar in the mixture. No sugar sprinkled on the top either.



  19. Arden on May 22, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Hello Kate,

    You’re not the first Brit to state that scones are torn in half rather than a bite size piece being broken off. Yes, clotted cream is much better than butter, but it’s not a common item here in the U.S. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.



  20. Rsolis on May 31, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    I’ve always naturally raised my pinky finger while holding anything to drink, ever since I was a little girl. It’s not forced or snobbery, it’s just the way I’m wired. Personally, I wouldn’t care to be around people that find this so rude and offensive. I feel its presumptive and judgemental for someone to assume I would be trying to connote elitism just by raising my pinky finger while drinking. Also, I find it ridiculous for some one to compare a pinky sticking out to a zipper being unfastened or burping in public. Really?? If you live in America you most likely won’t be having tea at a royal party anytime soon, so their etiquette wouldn’t matter anyways. So, hold your tea cup however you choose and just enjoy!



  21. Callum on July 9, 2018 at 4:39 am

    As an Englishman I’m pretty offended at the suggestion for eating scones…what a nightmare. Always cut them in half and eat separately – scones are flakey and you’re just going to make a mess by treating it like a bread roll.

    Pinky finger isn’t rude, some people do it and some people don’t, it’s about comfort. We obviously don’t point it outwards like a needle but it but a bent pinky finger is completely acceptable in tea culture.

    Too much thinking! Enjoy the tea and focus less on what others think, afternoon tea is far more about socialising and relaxing with good company than it is about snobbery – if someone complains about a finger here and there, they’re not good company!



  22. Jason on July 24, 2018 at 2:13 am

    Interesting article, Arden. My experience in England as a card-carrying tea-drinking Englishman (they issue cards over here) is a little different. This is based purely on my experience rather than cultural research into High Society, so may be hogwash, but anyway…

    The tea/milk debate. If the tea is brewed in a pot (either tea leaves or bags) I’ve always understood that the milk goes in the cup first. You should KNOW how much milk to use – this isn’t guesswork, people!

    If the tea is brewed in the cup with a tea bag, then the milk goes in last, after the bag has been removed. This keeps the water temp up, so the tea brews properly.

    Lemon in tea is considered witchcraft, and is punishable by stoning or having to listen to Nickelback.

    Pulling apart the scone. That seems like blasphemy to me. Having had cream teas in their birthplace – Devon (and Cornwall too, to keep the completists happy), the scones are always sliced. Then both halves are jammed (strawberry) and creamed (clotted) and consumed like you’re eating toast or inserting a CD. I favour the Cornish order – Jam first, cream on top, as the jam accepts the cream being spread on top better than the other way around.

    I’d love to know where you learned your alternative methods. Are they historic pieces of etiquette, or am just not invited to the correct parties (this would not surprise me)?



  23. Arden on July 29, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Hello Jason,

    Thank you for sharing your Englishman insights. Always great to hear from others. My research is based on several books and websites on tea drinking. I think there are some differences of opinions on various things such as pouring milk in the cup before or after tea, but what I wrote seems to make sense to me. Also, you’re not the first Brit to mention a scone should be cut in half and slathered with the desired goodies. However, in the U.S. it would be incorrect to use your knife to cut it, just as we never cut a bread roll or bread slice.

    I hope that helps.



  24. Eileen Connelly on July 30, 2018 at 8:27 am

    “The hostess pours her guest’s tea…” Really? Because men can’t host tea parties? You want to say that raising a pinky promotes elitism, but still conform to stereotypes?



  25. JLP on August 26, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    “You’re not the first Brit to state that scones are torn in half ”

    Briton, not Brit. If we are talking about good manners, please note that people from Britain are called Britons. Just as if I am being polite, I wouldn’t refer to you as a Yank.

    Tearing up a scone and buttering as you mention it should be an offense. Possibly it is.



  26. Lucy B Roper on October 4, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Sick of the political bickering, I sought refuge in learning more about the art of taking tea. Incidentally, I saw a You-Tube video where some sort of “certified” tea expert said, “one lifts the pinky to distribute the weight evenly and keep the teacup in better balance.” I tried it and she’s right. It does balance things better. Other say, “Fo, no, no! Faux pas. The purpose of manners and knowing proper etiquette should be to make everyone more at ease. I think I’ll go back to politics. Less controversy.



  27. Cody berdan on October 30, 2018 at 9:43 am

    All of this is wrong, the pinger finger was held out as to not get condensation on it from the cup, because spices were so expensive they would dab a dry finger into them to spread them on food. The moisture would prevent that. Pick up a book instead of making up an essay about fake stuff.



  28. Cody berdan on October 30, 2018 at 9:44 am

    I clearly meant to say pinky finger lol



  29. Alice on December 9, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Both a scone and a bread roll need to be sliced in half in order to butter them, what sort of uncivilised folk would do otherwise! What’s next, using a fork with your right hand!? (I’m always amused at the level of snobbery Americans have when talking about etiquette. It’s as if they got stuck trying to imitate 18th century British etiquette)



  30. Julian Willson on January 2, 2019 at 5:01 am

    I’m amused by the divides happening here, be they caused by the wide Atlantic or adjacent English counties. All are, however, simultaneously correct. A cream tea with a scone (and there’s an eternal discussion of the pronunciation of ‘scone’) should be cut in half, and that is right for that object. Just because it is a baked item does not mean it should be treated the same as all other baked goods. Breaking off the mouthful is correct for bread, without doubt, however etiquette is knowing not just one rule but what is right for each specific thing; therein lies the real screw. The foibles are the character and detailed knowledge is one of those things you only really learn over a lifetime and/or from a Grandmother. So the fact that there are giveaways that somebody is not from round here is built in, sometimes on purpose, and they get clouded along the way too. The fact that America broke away, changed some of the language and customs, set some of it in stone and romanticised yet others means that we really are reading from different bibles.
    If the true purpose of etiquette in this thread is to find origin of design, then U.K rules must apply. If not, then whatever your Granny told you is right (even if it isn’t).

    Oh, and it’s pronounced ‘scone’ as in ‘gone’ and not like ‘stone’ or else you can’t ask what the fastest cake in the world is…

    Scone!

    And if you ruin my joke I’ll turn my nose up at you.



  31. Arden on January 10, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    Haha, very good!! And good points all. You say tomahto, I say tomayto…



  32. Kristopher Long on January 15, 2019 at 11:13 am

    Actually most americans cut the roll open with a knife and smother the butter on the inside of the roll.



  33. Arden on February 19, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Kristopher,

    That is actually the incorrect way to eat bread. The correct way is to break off a small piece with your fingers, butter just that piece, eat and repeat. It’s not as awkward as trying to use a dull knife to cut the bread open.



  34. CYR on March 8, 2019 at 8:33 am

    I’ve been quite entertained by the bickering in the comments. As long as everyone at your tea party is on the same page about what constitutes “good etiquette” then it should be fine. To combat this, I’d recommend combining your tea party/book club and read the same etiquette book lol



  35. Kevin on June 15, 2019 at 5:52 am

    Balderdash if you are comfortable do it for left or right who cares the best way your own way tally hi come on be independent



  36. Offended on September 21, 2019 at 10:17 am

    I am a quite offended. I instinctively raise my pinky not to be rude or exude elitism but because it feels natural. In fact if I try to hold all 5 fingers closely together my pinky naturally moves away from the others. This is like telling a left handed person that they’re rude or that being gay is rude. No, some of us are made differently than others. If I am sitting at a tea party telling people how much better I am then call me rude otherwise leave me alone and let me drink with my pinky up.



  37. Tom on December 19, 2019 at 11:10 pm

    I remember once being told that the pinky finger thing was done for one of two reasons but that it wasn’t pointed directly out in front.

    One was to help with the balancing whilst holding the cup, and the other was that when placing the cup back down onto the saucer you would angle it downwards and use it to slow down the speed you returned the cup to help in reducing any noise or clattering of the cup on the saucer, as a way of aiding in the grace in which you moved. The same technique was also used when placing down any glassware.



  38. bob on May 12, 2020 at 9:37 am

    hi, I’m Bob and I wanna know that you shouldn’t stick your pink finger out because my brother thinks so and I think it is rude so can anyone tell me??? thx just put #yesBob



  39. Arden on August 26, 2020 at 11:42 am

    Hi Bob,

    As I said in the post, sticking your pinky finger out makes you look ostentatious, like you’re putting on airs, so it’s not polite and it’s not necessary. I hope that helps.



  40. M on March 20, 2021 at 11:03 pm

    The part about the pinky being elitist is complete bs. It would be pretentious of the other person to claim that they’re elitist. It’s such an overcritical statement to say and claim that a person would somehow be showing elitism by working on ettiquacy. Besides, it’s not enough information to begin with to present such an exaggerated and fussy claim. So just do whatever you feel comfortable with. I’ve never heard such a dull statement until only this article.



  41. M on March 20, 2021 at 11:26 pm

    I’ve done a little bit more research and my bad. I found out that it is actually better to not raise your pinky when drinking tea.



  42. Arden on March 22, 2021 at 10:35 am

    So glad you were able to resolve this M.



  43. S Miller on July 3, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    Arden, I thoroughly enjoyed your article as well as your responses to the comments. You have obviously researched the history on this topic and I appreciate you sharing it. I now feel that I can enjoy a cup of tea in any company without appearing boorish! I also enjoyed many of the comments, especially from out Briton cousins. It’s nice to know both how to pronounce “scones” and how to eat them! Well done!



  44. Arden on July 8, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Thank you S. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and the comments. Who knew there would be so much controversy around tea drinking.



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