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How to Hold a Teacup

Updated on February 12, 2014

Have you ever wondered about the tradition of holding up one’s pinkie when drinking tea? Do you wonder if that is, in fact, part of good manners? I certainly have. When enjoying afternoon tea with a friend the other day, I felt a bit of a goof holding my pinkie out, but was afraid it might be poor manners not to. Since the pinkie question is a legitimate concern when having tea, I decided to research the matter and settle the question once and for all (at least in my own mind). Here is what I have learned.

The tea tradition arrived in Europe from China, where the people had developed a complex and rich culture with many years of established protocol and etiquette. Asian-style tea bowls, of which I own a few, do not have handles. In order to avoid spilling the tea, one should hold such a teacup with the right hand (unless the drinker is left-handed), curling the thumb at six o’clock and the index finger at 12 o’clock. The rest of the fingers follow the curve of the teacup, with the possible exception of the pinkie. The pinkie can be held out slightly for balance, but not in a pronounced or awkward manner.

Sometime in the 1700’s European teacups began to have handles, necessitating adaptations in the etiquette of holding the cup. Teacups tend to have very small, delicate handles that are not really meant for looping finger through. Rather the handle of the teacup should be pinched between the thumb and index finger, with the second finger below it for stability. The fourth and fifth fingers follow the curve of the cup. Do not hold the cup in the palm of your hand, or curl the hand tightly around it in the manner of a coffee mug. Do hold the saucer in your left hand, slightly forward so it rests on your fingers, and is stabilized by the thumb barely resting on the edge of the saucer. Do not bring the saucer up to your mouth with the cup, unless you are at a standing event rather than a seated one.   

Now we are back to the pinkie finger. There is conflicting advice on this issue. Some say the little finger should be extended slightly to add grace and balance, while others claim that is just an affectation.  Most sources to agree that since the whole point of extending the pinkie finger is to add balance, it is just silly to crook it, or point the little finger straight out.

Table manners have for the most part been passed down from previous generations, and most of what comprises good etiquette is pretty old, right? So, to settle the question, I turned to a book from 1930 that my mother –in-law used to teach her children manners. According to ‘Family Table Service’, one should “Avoid the exaggerated ways as curling the little finger or holding a cup or glass with both hands” (Niles, Streufert 109). So, there you go. Hold your teacup lightly, without looping fingers through the handle or clenching the cup tightly. Never use both hands to hold one cup, do not gesture with the cup, swirl it around, or clink your teaspoon on the sides of the cup. There seems to be little or no need to hold the pinkie finger up or out.  Above all, enjoy your tea. There are few things more relaxing than a good cup of tea.  

Citation and additional Sources

Niles, Streufert, Kathryn B., Hildegarde. Family Table Service For Today's Living. Second Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Punlishing Company, 1930, 1958, 1967. 109. Print.


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