As mesmerising as the world of tea is, the legends around tea and the teacup are no less complex. Anything but a simple cup of tea!
Of the many ways that the world takes tea, the British mannerism remains among the most debated ones. Our endeavour today is to identify how the custom of sticking your little finger out while holding a teacup came into being and whether it is still an acceptable practice today. Hold on to your teacups!
In an earlier post we told you about how the modern day teacups came into being. From the simple earthen cups that were used in the East to the wooden ale mug inspired porcelain beauties with elegant handles. If only the troubles would end there! It didn’t.
Holding a hot teacup is quite a balancing act for 3 fingers!
Given the size of the teacups and the handle, it was not possible to get all the fingers to form a perfect hold. The ale mugs, being much larger in size, did not pose such a problem. Was it appropriate to hold the handle of the teacup with just the thumb and top three fingers? If so, then what was the right posture for the ring and little finger? While some may consider this obsessive, attention to detail has always been imperative to the British way of life.
Driven the logic, the first obvious solution was to pour the tea into a flat vessel for it to cool faster and to drink from it. According to historian and tea sommelier, Jane Pettigrew, the Chinese too had developed small dishes to avoid the handling of hot clay cups of tea. And that is how the saucer came to complement the teacup in England as well. The practice of pouring out the tea into the saucer and sipping it as it cooled did not live for very long. The practical, yet noisy practice, was soon cast aside.
The problem persisted.
An artist’s capture of an English noblewoman taking tea with a curled little finger
As tea gained popularity and started becoming the preferred beverage to bond over, its position as a status symbol enhanced to quite a degree. The mannerism of holding a teacup became very important. ‘How you were seen taking tea’ had become as important as ‘where you were seen’ doing so.
As always, all eyes turned to the royal family members to seek guidance on how to hold the teacup. The first instances of the raised little finger was spotted by noblewomen, an affectation — as many historians now suggest — instead of ding exactly what the nobility did, some tried to improvise by sticking out the little finger completely. This affectation soon became a statement of the posh in society.
To say that that sticking out your little finger while sipping your tea is silly, would be incorrect. What has been considered unacceptable is looking over the cup while taking tea. “A guest should look into the teacup when drinking — never over it,” warns an authority on British etiquette.
Shirley Temple flaunts her little finger
Over the years, several noted celebrities have been spotted raising their little fingers as they sip on their tea, or not. But it is safe to say that raising of the little finger is not longer a sign of anything at all.
“Today, most all etiquette authorities agree; The proper way to hold a tea cup is with one or two fingers of the right hand put through the hole of the cup handle, while balancing the cup with your thumb on the top of the handle. Your other fingers should be curled beneath the handle,” says an article on Etiquipedia.
Celebrity speaker Arden Clise remarks, “People often think proper tea drinking means sticking your pinky out. That’s actually rude and connotes elitism. It comes from the fact that cultured people would eat their tea goodies with three fingers and commoners would hold the treats with all five fingers. Thus was born the misguided belief that one should raise their pinky finger to show they were cultured. Tuck that pinky finger in.”
Former US President Barack Obama doesn’t always curl his little finger
That’s not all, Clise provides the complete guide to taking tea in the traditional British way. Here is what she has to say:
“When enjoying your tea, never swirl the liquid around in the cup like wine in glass. You might spill.
The hostess pours her guest’s tea and asks, ‘With sugar, lemon or milk?’ Put the sugar in first then the lemon, otherwise, the lemon will keep the sugar from dissolving. Always take milk, not cream which is too heavy for tea, after the tea has been poured. That way you can decide how much milk to add by seeing the color of the tea. And, never combine lemon and milk; the lemon will curdle the milk.
When stirring your tea avoid clanking your teaspoon against the cup. Instead swirl it quietly and then rest the teaspoon behind the cup on the saucer with the handle facing towards the tea cup handle. Never leave the teaspoon in the cup and never put it in your mouth.”
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