Tea Drinking Etiquette Everyone Should Know

Sitting down for a cup of tea is the picture of elegance.

Adult and Child Drinking Tea
Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

Last week, I hitched a ride with Viking Cruise—the folks who sponsor Downton Abbey–to visit Highclere Castle, the real-life castle that stands in for the home of Lord and Lady Grantham in the TV series and movie.

After touring Highclere and seeing the library where Lord Grantham spends much of his time on the show and the dining room where the Crawley family eats, I got to sit down with Lady Carnarvon, the real lady of the castle, for a cup of tea. As we sipped our tea and daintily nibbled on shortbread and British flapjack (nothing in common with the South's version), I noticed something alarming—Lady Carnarvon was not crooking her little finger as she lifted her cup to her mouth. On the contrary, her pinky was firmly down. I dropped my pinky and quickly re-thought everything I swore I knew about tea-drinking etiquette.

After a bit of research online, it turns out that, as expected, Lady Carnarvon was correct, and lifting your pinky is frowned upon by etiquette experts. Here is the proper etiquette for drinking tea and convincing advice to avoid the "pinky-raising" mistake.

Tea Drinking Etiquette

Why Is Tea Drinking Associated With "Pinky Raising?"

So, where did this idea originate? Judith Martin, or Miss Manners, believes the practice originated in the 17th century when China first brought tea to Europe. People sipped from handle-less cups, and "anyone with any sense kept as few fingers as possible on the (yeow!) hot cup." Since only the rich could afford to drink the expensive, imported tea, the gesture became an affectation, sticking around even after teacups with handles came along.

Don't "Raise Your Pinky" Because It Is Considered Rude.

Etiquette expert Emily Post was "adamantly opposed" to crooking one's pinky because she thought "it was improper and rude." If you need to balance your teacup while sipping, use your pinky or thumb to support the cup from the underside. Vogue includes "extend your pinky finger" on their list of don'ts for enjoying afternoon tea. The Huffington Post agrees, saying that when you're drinking tea, "Never cradle the cup in your hands and avoid raising your little finger."

Don't "Raise Your Pinky" Because It Is Considered Discourteous.

Jill Haney, a corporate image consultant who helps people look poised and polished, wrote for Cincinnati.com, "There is something quite snobbish about holding the pinky out when drinking. It is as though the small gesture is meant to make others feel bad about themselves, and there is nothing kind, courteous, or respectful about that."

She says the only reason to put your pinky in the air is if "you want to draw attention to yourself as an affected wannabe."

Do Follow These Tea Drinking Rules.

If you get invited to tea at Highclere Castle or elsewhere, keep in mind, don't make my mistake. Instead, follow the tips from etiquette expert William Hanson: Afternoon tea is not the same as high tea, add the milk last, and the correct way to hold your teacup is by making your thumb and index finger meet in the handle, no pinky extending required.

Remember How To Drink Tea Properly

Etiquette experts advise sitting with the correct posture and a napkin on your lap. After properly positioning yourself, bring the cup to your mouth—do not lean forward, slurp, or blow on hot tea. Place the cup back on its saucer between small sips, and remember, keep that pinky down.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles