English Afternoon Tea – 7 Rules of Etiquette

How to properly pronounce scone and six other rules of etiquette to follow when enjoying English afternoon tea.

As a German-American who’s never watched an episode of Downton Abbey and who needs the subtitles turned on to understand The Crown, I was beyond clueless about English Afternoon Tea when my daughter, Charlotte, suggested it. The folks working the Clock Tower Bakery’s stand at the Overland Park Farmer’s Market presented her with a flyer, and it sounded like a fun and delicious way to experience something new close to home.

Despite dressing up “smart casual” and using our best American table manners, we coffee-drinking Yankees had a lot to learn.

Here are seven rules of etiquette we’ve since learned about English Afternoon Tea:


1.  A Tea by Any Other Name…

An early afternoon gathering featuring finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, and, of course, tea, is called afternoon tea. While it might sound fancier, this is not the same thing as high tea.  As it turns out, high tea is a later in the day, heartier meal for workers.

At English Afternoon Tea, you want to accept some tea, not a tea.  

“Yes, I’d like some tea.”

and not

“Sure, I’ll have a tea.”

Fun Fact:  Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, is credited with conjuring up afternoon tea. Dinner was usually served around 9pm, causing the Duchess to be hangry in the mid-afternoon. Since Snickers bars weren’t invented yet, she ordered tea, bread, and cakes up to her room. Voilà! A tradition was born.

Etiquette Tips for English Afternoon Tea


2. Order of Operations

In order to assemble a proper cuppa follow these steps:

  • Start with sugar
  • Fill your teacup about 3/4 full
  • Add the desired amount of milk

Centuries ago, servants added milk before tea as a way to prevent the scalding tea from cracking their lower quality teacups. Since that’s no longer an issue, everyone is expected to follow the classier order of events above.   


3. Stir at Six and Twelve

To properly stir the sugar and milk into your tea, place your spoon in a six o’clock position in the cup and gently move it up and down, not around. It is also important not to clink the spoon against the sides or bottom of the cup. As I write this, I can hear Julie Andrew’s voice as Mary Poppins saying, “Do not clink your spoon please, Jane. We are not a bull in a china shop!”

When you are done with your vertical (not circular) stir, place the spoon on the saucer alongside the back of the teacup.


4. I Only Have Eyes for You

When it’s time to take a sip of tea, look into your teacup, not over it. Just like it’s easier to hit a home run when you keep your eye on the ball when it’s pitched, it’s easier not to spill tea down your front or on the tablecloth when you keep your eye on your cup. 

Apparently, casting your eyes down as you sip also makes you look more demure, in case that’s the look you’re going for…


Etiquette Tips for English Afternoon Tea


5. Pinkies Up?  Absolutely Not!

Forget the etiquette rules followed during the Kool-Aid tea parties you hosted as a child. As it turns out, extending your pinkie finger is quite rude. Instead, tuck your pinkie finger in and pinch the handle with your thumb, index, and middle finger.


6. Know the Nibbles

English afternoon tea selections are bite-sized and served in a three-tiered display with the savory selections on the bottom, scones in the middle, and sweets on the top. They should be enjoyed from the bottom, up. 

English afternoon tea at the Clock Tower Bakery
The three tiers of delicious finger foods at the Clock Tower Bakery’s English afternoon tea

If You Don’t Eat Your Meat, You Can’t Have Any Pudding

Traditional savory items include finger sandwiches, pinwheels, and other bite-sized offerings, like mini sausage rolls. Common sandwich fillings include:

  • Thinly sliced cucumbers and butter
  • Smoked salmon and dill
  • Egg salad
  • Deviled ham
  • Tuna salad

Scones at English Afternoon Tea

ToMAYto, ToMAHto

Moving on to the scones which are pronounced “sCON” and not “sCONE”. Ooops! I’ve been saying that wrong all these years. Just like mascarpone.

British scones are plain, round cakes that resemble American biscuits. This is quite different from the triangle-shaped scones with “mix-ins” and glazes you may be more familiar with at your local coffee shop.

The scone should be broken in half horizontally and enjoyed with clotted cream and jam.  For the record, the scones at the Clock Tower Bakery were amazing!

A Chicken and Egg Situation

Apparently, there is some debate over which should be applied first to the halved scone — clotted cream or strawberry jam.  But, just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reece’s peanut butter cup, it turns out there’s no wrong way to top off a scone. After the four of us debated the pros and cons of clotted cream versus strawberry jam first, we went Cornish-style with jam first followed by clotted cream.

Sweets for my Sweets

The top layer of the serving tray features a variety of sweets including petits fours, tarts, and other desserts. A traditional English afternoon tea sweet is Battenberg cake, a pink and yellow checkered cake wrapped in marzipan.

Sweets Last at English Afternoon Tea


7. Wrapping Up

As tea time draws to a close, remove your napkin from your lap and place it to the left of your dishes.  

Pro Tip:  If you need to excuse yourself during afternoon tea, place your napkin on your chair, and not on the table.

What about you?  Have you ever enjoyed English afternoon tea?  Any etiquette rules I’ve missed?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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