Last week, I hitched a ride with Viking Cruise—you know, the folks who sponsor Downton Abbey–to visit Highclere Castle, the real-life castle that stands in for the home of Lord and Lady Grantham in the TV series and movie.
After touring Highclere and seeing the library where Lord Grantham spends much of his time on the show and the dining room where the Crawley family eats, I got to sit down with Lady Carnarvon, the real lady of the castle, for a cup of tea. As we sipped our tea and daintily nibbled on shortbread and British flapjack (nothing in common with the South’s version) I noticed something alarming—Lady Carnarvon was not crooking her little finger as she lifted her cup to her mouth. On the contrary, her pinky was firmly down. I dropped my pinky and quickly re-thought everything I swore I knew about tea-drinking etiquette.
After a little research online, it turns out that, as expected, Lady Carnarvon was completely right and lifting your pinky is frowned upon. I was aghast. I truly believed and had been taught that crooking your finger was correct. I so deeply believed it was the proper thing to do that I had even written a joking Instagram caption about crooking my pinky while visiting Highclere. I was wrong and really wish I had Googled it before sitting down to tea with a Baroness.
Etiquette expert Emily Post was “adamantly opposed” to crooking one’s pinky, because she thought “it was improper and rude.” If you need to balance your teacup, while you sip, use your pinky or thumb to support the cup from the underside. Vogue includes “extend your pinky finger” on their list of don’ts for enjoying afternoon tea. The Huffington Post agrees, saying that when you’re drinking tea, “Never cradle the cup in your hands and avoid raising your little finger.”
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Jill Haney, a corporate image consultant who helps people look poised and polished, wrote for Cincinnati.com that, “There is something quite snobbish about holding the pinky out when drinking. It is as though the small gesture is meant to make others feel bad about themselves and there is nothing kind, courteous, or respectful about that.” She says that the only reason to put your pinky in the air is if “you want to draw attention to yourself as an affected wannabe.” Ouch.
So where did this idea come from? Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners believes the practice originated back in the 17th Century, when tea was first brought to Europe from China. It was sipped from handle-less cups and “anyone with any sense kept as few fingers as possible on the (yeow!) hot cup.” Since only the rich could afford to drink the expensive, imported tea, the gesture became an affectation, sticking around even after teacups with handles came along.
If you do get invited to tea at Highclere Castle, or elsewhere, keep in mind, don’t make my mistake. Instead keep in mind these tips from etiquette expert William Hanson: Afternoon tea is not the same as high tea, milk is added last, and the correct way to hold your tea cup is by making your thumb and index finger meet in the handle, no pinky extending required.