The British have a reputation worldwide for being reserved and having the ability to put you at ease whenever you’re at their house or even out at some event, such as the annual Buckingham Palace Garden Tea Party, which I wrote about earlier on this blog. Two questions here: 1. How do they manage this? And 2. Is it a nature vs. nurture type of thing, that is, are they born this way or are they taught it in childhood? I can’t answer this second question, and considering the ongoing debate among behavioral psychologists, neither can they. But the first question is another matter.
British etiquette (per the Oxford English Dictionary, the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group) dictates courteousness at all times. When it comes to tea time, special circumstances prevail and can tax that courteousness to the max.
Here’s how the British deal with it:
1 Ignoring Your Faux Pas
We all slip up now and then and do something quite egregious. Clomping into a room and not noticing that everyone is on hands and knees gently searching for that lost contact lens (and you hear that tiny crunch under your shoe), for example. Or wanting to be “mother” at tea time and over tipping the teapot so the lid falls off into the teacup, smashing both lid and cup which are part of a priceless heirloom set handed down for several generations (possibly even qualifying as museum pieces). Or lighting up your cigarette despite protests and then dropping the still lit match on that silk Persian rug, scorching a big hole in it. No, the British will never make you feel like a total clod, buffoon, or worse. They will say, “That’s alright. I never liked that contact lens/teacup/Persian rug/etc. anyway. Great chance to get something new and modern.”
2 Mimicking Your Bad Manners
Etiquette and manners are not often taught these days. So when you madly stir your tea with the spoon, clinking and clanking loudly, don’t be surprised if your host/hostess joins in, just to make you feel at home. She or he may draw the line at dumping their plateful of finger sandwiches and cakes on the floor just because you spill yours. This would more likely fall into the category of #1 above.
3 No Fighting Over the Last Item
The British will most likely not arm wrestle you for that last scone or cup of tea. They will bake more scones and steep more tea if you so desire. Even during World War II and the decade or so after when they were rationed, they would lay out quite a spread for their guests. No one ever left hungry. You should try to contain yourself, though, and ask before grabbing that last remaining slice of buttered toast.
Lulls in the conversation can kill a tea party. One person yammering on so no one else gets a word in isn’t good either. The British will have a supply of “small talk” ready to fill in the gaps but also to steer the conversation away from whatever the yammerer has been droning on about forever. A few safe topics:
- “Have you lived in this area long?”
- “What sort of work do you do?”
- “What sort of music do you like?”
- “Do you have any hobbies?”
- “The garden looks lovely, doesn’t it?”
- “What a lovely dog/cat. What is his name?”
5 Friendly Farewells
Once the tea party has ended, the British host/hostess will be sure to let you know they enjoyed your coming, no matter how things went. You may not get invited back if things went too badly, though. And that’s one of the biggest problems with such behavior: you never know when you’re being mentally put on their “no way this person is setting foot in my house again” list.
Here’s hoping your manners will be at their best.
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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