by Kristy Kung (ELED Year 4 student 2020-2021)
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, I wasn’t able to travel to the UK for the 8-week immersion programme. Instead, I sat in front of the computer from 4 to 9 on weekdays having online lectures and workshops. Even though I couldn’t get the full immersion experience, with actual face-to-face interaction with the locals and cultural experience, that didn’t stop me from gaining a more in-depth understanding of the UK culture.
What comes to mind when you think of British culture? Probably quite differing stereotypes. Fish and chips? Mr. Bean? Or classy ladies and gentlemen enjoying Afternoon Tea and holding their pinky up when drinking tea? Having tea and cake is often perceived as a stereotypical British activity. Kudos to Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who got hungry by late afternoon and needed some tea and light treats to get her through till dinner, scones, small sandwiches, cakes and tea are served in tearooms and cafes in the UK. A lot of scenes in movies have featured this more ‘sophisticated’ side of English life: The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Mary Poppins (1964)… Oh, and let’s not forget the Mad Tea-Party in Lewis Carol’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1951).
In reality, however, going to tearooms and cafes for a relaxing Afternoon Tea and some leisure time is not common for UK people, especially those who don’t get off work until late evening. To locals, Afternoon Tea served on a 3-tier stand is more of a treat they would enjoy during weekends, or on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. At tearooms in the UK like Bettys, as a variety of scrumptious cakes and desserts are freshly made and sold daily, UK people would occasionally pay a visit and buy some treats that they wouldn’t necessarily make at home. Instead of a local practice, Afternoon Tea is rather a touristy thing. Every day, there is always a queue outside Bettys and other famous tearooms, but most of the people waiting are mostly tourists or non-locals who would like to enjoy a classical Afternoon Tea, which serves the savoury course and sandwiches on the bottom tier, scones with cream and jam in the middle, and miniature cakes on top. And to accompany the delicacies, you could opt for champagne or a selection of speciality teas – black, green and white teas as well as some herbal infusions.
Although it may be touristy, you should definitely go enjoy a luxury British tea experience when you visit the UK. But before you sit down at a tearoom to enjoy a traditional English Afternoon Tea, sipping tea and noshing on dainty treats, be sure to pay attention to the English afternoon tea etiquette rules! These days, most venues have a rather relaxed ‘smart casual’ dress code, so for men, trousers or smart jeans, collared shirts and unscuffed shoes are good to go. For ladies, going out for an Afternoon Tea is the perfect excuse to get dressed up! Furthermore, no matter what tea you are opting for, there is one thing that always stands: you must know how to stir your tea properly! Tea should be stirred back and forth, not in circular motions! You should also avoid bashing the sides with one’s spoon.
Last but definitely not least, a common misconception is that raising one’s pinky when drinking tea is a sign of culture, and that it makes you look posh. However, it is almost certainly a faux pas. Just observe how the British Royal Family drink their tea – They tuck their pinky in and grasp the cup between their thumb and forefinger. Despite all the rather quaint practices associated with Afternoon Tea, remember: Afternoon Tea is meant to be fun, so don’t let the etiquette get too much in the way of your own enjoyment!