How to drink tea like a royal

English high tea served at Palm Court, at the Langham Sydney. Napkin etiquette is a minefield in itself.
English high tea served at Palm Court, at the Langham Sydney. Napkin etiquette is a minefield in itself. 

I love the idea of being a lady, but I ain't got time for grace and daintiness. I'm a Millennial, so they say.

I'm putting myself in the shoes of Meghan Markle and I'm overwhelmed with despair. The prospect of taking lessons in etiquette as a fully fledged adult seems unnecessary. The first thing I want to do when I see a chicken wing is pick it up, and gnaw it to the bone like Viola in the movie She's the Man. Sure, I'll use a napkin – to mop up the lashings of grease spread freely around my mouth like a clown's lipstick. Old habits die hard.

I've always felt free to justify my laziness in one of two ways: I'm hungry, or "this is superficial and pointless". It's time to face reality. Good manners will never be outdated. I can't stand it when people spit in my face while they talk, who bang the table or poke me with their elbows. Likewise, I'll often catch myself appreciatively remarking "chivalry is not dead" when a man opens a door for me. Hello, Mr Darcy.

Turns out, having your pinkie up when holding the teacup can be rude. Oh, and keep those fork prongs pointing downwards.
Turns out, having your pinkie up when holding the teacup can be rude. Oh, and keep those fork prongs pointing downwards. Photo: Lucy Booth

Okay, so times have changed. Dresses don't need to hit the floor anymore, shoes and ankles are outrageously visible, and we've ditched the gloves and hats. But hell, I still love a high tea experience (if only to smash out a few scones just visible under mountains of whipped cream). Surrounded by pastries and sandwiches, I found myself in the most tolerable setting in which to collect some tips from Zarife Hardy, director of the Australian School of Etiquette, at the Langham hotel in Sydney.

Hardy's myth-busting astounds me. I'm already embarrassed about not knowing that cutlery should be avoided at all costs during afternoon tea. Scones are to be broken with the hands, as should bread at any meal. Turns out, having my pinkie up when holding my teacup can be rude. The cup should only be held using the thumb and index finger, neither of which sit on top of the handle. Tea should be stirred with a teaspoon backwards and forwards, not in a circular motion. I feel rude doing it, but I should be looking into the teacup while sipping, not beyond it and into the eyes of my chattering friend. Mind. Blown.

Already, I see why people hate etiquette. It's humiliating to realise your own ignorance. Hardy explains that "the hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any". If we don't use a napkin when eating at home, how are we to know the way it should remain folded on one's lap? Only the corner is to be used to gently wipe the face; it should be placed on the back of one's chair if nature calls, and only finds its way onto the tabletop when the meal is over.

At high tea, scones are to be broken with the hands, as should bread at any meal.
At high tea, scones are to be broken with the hands, as should bread at any meal. Photo: Lucy Booth

I'm not about to go blaming my mum for my uncertainty. I was raised to eat dinner with the family, hold my knife and fork properly, elbows off the table, chew with my mouth closed, blah blah blah. In fact, I am grateful we're not living in the 1800s anymore, when I would've had to sit at the table with a boiled egg behind my bottom so I'd "use my core" rather than sink back into my chair; or have books underneath both arms so that my arms remained glued to my side. The know-how is not the main issue anyway.

It's the irregularity of my employment of etiquette that makes it so inconvenient. I have to think. It's not automatic. Crisp linen and multiple sets of cutlery are the usual reminders I'll need to put on a show of my best manners. The very fact that it feels like a performance is what makes poise and primness look silly. I should uphold a uniform standard of behaviour. Manners are not just for the job interview, but for the office kitchen as well.

Reflecting on my new knowledge, I think there's an important distinction to make between formal etiquette and good manners. I think it's forgivable to break certain specific rules – sometimes I might hold my champagne in the right hand when greeting people, rather than in the left. The more general, instinctive rules are valuable, such as never stuffing more food into my gob than I can swallow after four to five chews.

Should I put the jam or cream on my scone first? "It's whatever you like," etiquette expert Zarife Hardy says.
Should I put the jam or cream on my scone first? "It's whatever you like," etiquette expert Zarife Hardy says. Photo: Lucy Booth

It's probable that I'll still be scooping my peas rather than spearing them three-at-a-time with my fork. Changes I will be making include focusing on the art of conversation, confidently balancing questions with sufficient answers. The ability to make authentic small talk is a depressingly vital skill. "Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot," states Ms Hardy.

Having said that, Queen Victoria had the milk poured first when serving her tea, so that the clay cups didn't break from the sudden heat. If Victoria can justify her customs with practicality and efficiency, why can't I? I'll bet she never had to use chopsticks or take an urgent phone call.

All I know is, the Queen and I can agree that Earl Grey tea is the bomb.