British people don’t joke when it comes to tea. Watching English movies as a kid, I knew that they liked tea, but I didn’t know how ingrained tea is in their culture until I studied abroad in London. I had an internship at a boutique PR agency where my colleagues drank 6-8 cups of tea a day. There was a whole etiquette that went with drinking tea. The most stressful part about my first day at my internship wasn’t keeping up with all of the training that I was receiving; it was learning how everyone interacted when it came to tea. My first day I quickly learned that it is good manners to ask the entire office if they would like a cup of tea when you feel the urge to make one for yourself. It was a small company, and the entire top floor was all women. The space was also completely open, there were no cubicles separating us. The office had three large tables, one for each different department and then a large desk for the founder of the company. Everything and everyone was out in the open and exposed. I worked in the Beauty department, which was comprised of two other interns and two full-time employees. Since there were only about 15 of us in total, it was expected that you extend the tea offer to the entire office, not just your own department.
On my first day my boss, the head of the Beauty department, offered to make me a cup of tea, which I thought was so cool of her since she’s so much higher than me in rank. I quickly realized why English people love tea so much, it tastes so much better over there! I wanted to make a good impression on my first day so when I was craving my second cup of tea, I did what I had been observing everyone do the entire day, I extended the offer to the entire office. Normally I’d noticed roughly three people request a cup of tea when someone extended the offer since it was made roughly every half hour. However when I extended the offer, eight people took me up on it and requested a cup of tea. Eight. I was freaking out. I didn’t know how any of these people took their teas and honestly since I wasn’t an avid tea-drinker myself, I didn’t really know how to make an excellent cup of tea. Trust me, it’s an art for them. I went as low as taking out a piece of paper and pen to write down how each person takes her tea since I’d just met them all that day. My boss made it clear that she was the pickiest of them all. She said, “I want milk, but not too much, just a splash, because I hate it when it’s too milky.” I was terrified of failing.
Making tea is something simple enough that any competent person should be able to do. However, making tea at Starbucks where all I do is throw a teabag in a cup and add hot water is totally different from the way people make their tea in the UK. I tried the best that I could, but I’m pretty sure my boss hated the tea I made her on my first day, because I noticed that she barely touched it. However, when you get it just right, you earn yourself a lot of praise. I’m not joking when I say I watched all of my co-workers to pick up on their tea habits so I knew how often they drank tea, what they said when they were going to make themselves a cup of tea and how each person liked to take her tea. This whole tea culture was completely foreign to me. Although, I assimilated quickly, because the tea over there was delicious. It didn’t take long for me to get to their level of drinking at least six cups a day.
One day however, when I thought I’d already fully adapted to the tea culture, I was in the kitchen cleaning up the plates I’d used for lunch. I had an urge for a cup of tea. It seemed silly to go back to the office area and announce that I was about to make myself a cup of tea and ask if anyone wanted one, since I was already in the kitchen. I made myself the tea and walked back to my computer, which is literally right next to my supervisor’s computer. She immediately saw my cup of tea and scoffed, “I see you made yourself a cup of tea and didn’t offer to make me one. I ALWAYS offer!” I was speechless. She literally called me out in front of everyone for not offering to make her a cup of tea on this one occasion. My blood boiled. I couldn’t talk back to her, because she was my boss, but seriously? I know how diligent I’ve been with asking the entire office if they wanted a cup of tea, since it was such a foreign custom that I had to consciously make the effort to integrate well. This was the first time that I hadn’t offered everyone a cup of tea while I made myself one, because I was literally already in the kitchen when I got the craving. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. I was wrong. I bit my tongue to avoid saying anything I’d regret, and simply apologized to her for not making her a cup of tea. What else was there to say?
I wasn’t the only person my boss called out for having bad “tea etiquette.” A few weeks later she yelled at another intern for the same thing, but the intern actually talked back and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I always offer to make you tea!” My supervisor got so angry that she started yelling at the intern and the CEO who sits roughly five feet away from us intervened and told my supervisor, “Enough is enough, back off with the whole tea thing.” My boss quickly shut up after that. Although, it still baffles me how she could get so angry over the rare occurrence of not being offered to a cup of tea. At the end of the day, she has two hands and two feet that work perfectly, and the kitchen is about ten feet away. Make your own damn tea!