Straight-talking American comedian Chelsea Handler recently received a lesson in afternoon tea etiquette from William Hanson at Fortnum & Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon for her Netflix show Chelsea. Her sleeve length was perfectly acceptable, says etiquette expert Philip Sykes, but her greeting - and swearing - was not.
Chelsea Handler: “Hi.”
William Hanson: “Good afternoon.”
Chelsea Handler: “Oh hi, look at you!”
William Hanson: “William Hanson. How do you do?”
Chelsea Handler: “Fine, how are you?”
William Hanson: “Fine, thank you very much.”
Mr Hanson is absolutely on-point in calling Ms Handler’s reply to his greeting a “quaint mistake”. I would say, “Philip. How do you do?” and it is a rhetorical question, so the correct response is also: “(Your name.) How do you do?”
Mr Hanson says Ms Handler’s sleeves were too short for afternoon tea. Here I must disagree - she is wearing a perfectly acceptable dress, with elbow-length sleeves. This is splitting hairs. If Ms Handler were preparing for an afternoon garden party to meet the Queen, quite so. But for a general afternoon tea in this modern day and age, the sleeve length is neither here nor there.
If you go back to the 1800s, it would have been completely different - women would have worn proper tea dresses and, if the hostess had warm hands, she would wear long gloves to greet her guests. They would be removed before eating; you should never help yourself to food while wearing gloves.
Chelsea Handler: “What an interesting accent you have. Where is that from?”
William Hanson: “Well, it’s English. You have a very interesting accent too. Very charming.”
You can comment on someone’s accent and say it is interesting, but I would not say anything derogatory. I would tend not to make conversation about anyone.
Subjects to avoid are: money; sex; religion; and politics. Small talk is the best ice-breaker and, at an afternoon tea or dining with people, I would recommend asking about travel and holidays, sport and culture to find common ground. Asking what someone does for a living is also not really the done thing these days.
Coughing and sneezing
In the show, Ms Handler has contracted SARS and has a coughing, spluttering attack at the table. This is not really appropriate. Ideally, you should relieve yourself before going to a formal get-together.
If you must cough or sneeze (and who can curtail a sneeze?), do it as discreetly as possible and without turning to the left or right, if you have people either side of you. Cough or sneeze into a hanky, held in your cupped hands.
If you need to blow your nose, discreetly disappear to the bathroom - do not announce it to guests. If you are talking to the person to your left, simply say: “Would you excuse me for a moment?”
Ms Handler is infamous for her swearing so there was bound to be a coarse word or two. When she dropped the F-bomb, Mr Hanson responded, “Please don’t swear. I’m not sitting here, surrounded by expensive wallpaper, for you to swear. Thank you.”
Swearing is uncalled for. It cheapens you as an individual, it does not add anything to a conversation and it hints that you are lacking in vocabulary. I don’t want to poo-poo anyone, including Ms Handler, but swearing is simply not necessary, even if you get angry.
As Mr Hanson says, no pinky finger extension is required. When you pinch the cup handle, your fingers should fall in line with each other. Don’t lift the saucer from the table either.
The handle should face right, if you are right-handed. if you have an attentive host or server and they notice that you are left-handed, they will place your cup on the left. If not, discreetly move the cup to your left yourself and drink with the handle facing left.
“With the champagne, we hold the glass from the stem, not the bowl, because otherwise you look like an alcoholic. Try not to make noises when we are drinking.”
Mr Hanson is spot-on about how to hold the glass - if it is a flute. If it is an old-fashioned champagne saucer (and they are still seen occasionally), you should hold the base of the bowl for support, as it is top-heavy. The problem with saucers is that the champagne bubbles go flat too quickly because of the large surface area and, with your hand on the bowl, the liquid warms up quickly. The flute is a more sensible vehicle for champagne.
Finally, don’t guzzle your champagne down - try to match sips with your fellow guests. If you are offered a top-up, it is perfectly acceptable to say yes - but more than two would be over the top.