Tab guide to etiquette: Afternoon tea

How to make it seem like you have tea more than Her Majesty, the Queen.

afternoon tea biscuits Cambridge column etiquette posh robert shearme scones tea

Afternoon tea originated as a custom in the 1840s as a way of sating the appetite between lunch and dinner in smarter households.

Tea drinking became increasingly prevalent as, funnily enough, one of the main constituents of afternoon tea, is tea. Tea subsequently became farmed on land colonised in India so enjoy your afternoon tea now because it must fall after Rhodes.

Here are your list of DOs and DON’Ts.


The Tea

DON’T stick your little finger out. No, that’s not a euphemism, although, in high society it typically is frowned upon when one dickslaps the cutlery.

DO place the spoon on the other side of the cup facing in line with the handle. Imagine it’s one of Cambridge’s many homeless people – you want it out of sight, and out of the way.

Why help out a fellow human being when you can treat yo’ self?

DO look into the cup. Just like eating a banana, do not make eye contact with anyone whilst swallowing.

DO expect to use a tea strainer. Good tea is brewed loose leaf and will need to be strained. Think of the tea strainer as being like the admissions process in Cambridge – it removes all the riff raff.

DO push your teaspoon back and forth rather than stirring your tea. This helps dissolve the sugar faster, and prevents you from doing an impression of Big Ben with your fine bone china.

DO put the tea in before the milk. If you don’t put tea in before the milk, the tea will not reach the correct colour. The milk-before-tea ritual originated in the downstairs of houses which had cheaper china that would break if it received hot tea directly. Show everyone else that you like your tea how you like your dates – hot, and straight in.

It’s hot in here, come join me


The Foodstuffs

DON’T eat the sandwiches with a knife and fork. The cutlery is actually just placed there to trick people who didn’t go to public school into revealing themselves.

DON’T talk with your mouth full, or make noises whilst eating. In some of Chinese culture making noises whilst eating signifies appreciation of the food, but this is a clear example of why we don’t need cultural appropriation.

DON’T rhyme “scone” with “moan”. It rhymes with “gone”. That is of course unless you mispronounce “moan” and “gone” too.

DON’T cut the scone. Imagine you are Jesus and this is the Last Supper. Take the “bread” and break it with your hands. Probably best not to raise it above your head or recite religious passage though – the latter tip actually applies to all of life really.

A lesser known painting – the last afternoon tea

DON’T care too much about whether you put jam or cream on the scone first. The Devonians like to put their Devonshire cream on first (to seep into the bun), whereas the Cornish do the opposite. This is one of the actually slightly pointless “rules” of etiquette that you can ignore.

DON’T sandwich your scone together after jamming and creaming it. [explicit joke about “jamming” and “creaming” removed by editors].

The Tab does not recommend using whipped cream or preserves as lubricants.

DO put the fork in your right hand, turned upwards, to eat pastries and small cakes. It will probably be a small fork; use it to make yourself feel bigger and more important than the other diners around you.

DO dab your mouth when you finish your meal. Just like a sex worker at the end of the shift, you don’t want to walk around town with cream around your mouth.

DO excuse yourself if you must visit the lavatory. If one of your fellow diners is Oscar Pistorius, it’s especially important to let them know you’ll be in the lavatory.


Now is the time to explore and venture into a tearoom to show off your new-found skills to your friends (without bragging like an American). Treat yourself to a teatime retreat from revision.