Why I Rejected British Tea Time
On my first day of working at an office in England, I got a crash course in British tea culture. First, the person who sat next to me offered to get me a cup of tea. I was new and thought they were just being nice to me. A moment later, my colleague had asked everyone around us if they would like a cup of tea. Everyone said yes and everyone had a slightly different request. Ten minutes later, my colleague came back from the kitchen carrying a tray of steaming mugs, all correctly delivered as ordered.
An hour later, someone else who sat near me offered to get tea. Everyone said yes again, although this time everyone’s orders had changed slightly. One person asked for a green tea, handing over a tea bag from her desk. The person offering the tea round came up to me and asked me directly if he could get me a “cuppa” tea, the two words running together. I sid yes, despite being slightly buzzed from the last one, and offered to help, trailing him into the kitchen. I watched, fascinated, as my colleague recalled who had asked for what: tea with milk and no sugar, strong tea and milk, tea with a ‘special’ milk someone had brought from home, the green tea from the box on the desk, white coffee, black coffee, decaf coffee. I stood there overwhelmed with bad flashbacks of being a waitress. I hadn’t expected to get waitressing flashbacks while working a desk job.
I watched, fascinated, as my colleague recalled who had asked for what: tea with milk and no sugar, strong tea and milk, tea with a ‘special’ milk someone had brought from home, the green tea from the box on the desk, white coffee, black coffee, decaf coffee.
It quickly became clear that this way of showing kindness is routine. I began to notice that no one ever got themselves a drink without offering everyone around them a drink as well. It would just be rude not to offer. I don’t remember people getting drinks for each other in offices in the United States. I don’t remember doing this even when I was working as an intern. Everyone just got their own drinks.
I now work in a different office in England. Here everyone also does tea rounds. Men and women offer. People in positions ranging from assistants to directors offer. There is a community structure of kindness based on getting tea. “Would you like a cuppa?” is a phrase that rings in my ears.
Wanting to avoid waitressing flashbacks, I have decided to opt out of the rounds at this office. I always say no; it’s easier that way. If I say yes, then I also have to get a round for everyone. I seem to get away with not joining in the rounds. I assume it’s because I am American, which gives me some allowance to be different. My Americanness can come off as being rude; I don’t have the same instincts to follow the “politeness” rules in England. Being aware of how important manners are in England, I am attempting to politely not follow the rules and hope I don’t seem too rude.
Photo credit: Karen Flower