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What is Afternoon Tea Etiquette?

Your ultimate guide to the questions and queries behind the history of afternoon tea and afternoon tea rules.

Here you'll find answers to why afternoon tea is so popular and what exactly is the history of afternoon tea in Britain. I will start with the question I get asked most of all: what's the difference between high tea and afternoon tea?

Four people are sitting round a table sipping on their afternoon tea
A group of people are having afternoon tea in an elegant drawing room

1. What is 'high tea' etiquette?

There is no 'high tea' etiquette. High tea is not the same as afternoon tea. It is the name used by hotels and other tea establishments around the world to make this timeless ritual sound more elegant. Indeed, high tea was a more filling meal taken later in the day (around 6pm) among the working classes during the Industrial Revolution and was simply an evening meal. High tea would consist of hearty foods such as bread, various joints of meat, pies, potatoes, haddock as well as ale, and tea, served at a high table.

2. Were there sandwiches for high tea?

Yes, there were but they would not have been served as a dainty finger food.

3. Low tea

The upper classes, on the other hand, were served afternoon tea on low tables and the selection of foods were similar to those served today. The restaurant version of afternoon tea is indeed based on the meal as it existed in wealthy homes during the Victorian period and immediately after.

Four people having tea in the parlour in the 1800s
The cartoon refers to the English custom of leaving a spoon either across or inside the teacup to show the drinker has had enough

4. How Much do Manners Cost?

Manners cost nothing. They help the world go round and make transactions run more smoothly and joyously. Adopting good manners makes everyone around you feel appreciated, valued and respected. When partaking in the ritual of Afternoon tea - afternoon tea etiquette is required to ensure everything runs seamlessly.

5. What time is afternoon tea traditionally taken?

Traditionally, it’s taken between 4 and 5pm. The British Royal family, take our late Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, would have her afternoon tea at 5pm, which would include Earl Grey tea, and her favourite sandwiches were salmon and watercress.

6. Why do people say 'tea' when they mean 'dinner'?

Using tea instead of dinner is related to a socio-economic status as well as a geographic one. Tea is a working class term, shortened from the high tea evening meal born from the Industrial revolution. Instead, dinner is the term used in middle-to-upper class households.

7. Why is afternoon tea so popular?

Afternoon tea as a popular pastime cannot be disputed, but after WWII until the 80’s, it was indeed in danger of dying out all together and becoming a mere quick beverage break. However, during the 1980’s and 90’s due to the fast-paced world, people were looking for ways of slowing down and it soon reclaimed its popularity as a communal beverage. In the 1970’s the National Trust began to offer Afternoon tea to visitors at many of its properties, which brought with it renewed interest in the traditional afternoon tea ritual.

The afternoon tea foyer at the Ritz in London
Afternoon tea at the Ritz London

8. The most famous afternoon tea tea room

Afternoon tea at The Ritz London is the one that comes to mind the most.

Etiquette professional having her photo taken for Le Figaro
Laura Windsor posing for Le Figaro Magazine

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