Tea Anyone?

The Brits may be on to something. I must admit it surprises me.

Ever since we canceled our satellite TV subscription, the local library’s DVD collection has been a staple of our evening entertainment. There, we stumbled across several British-made series that we’ve enjoyed very much. Several were detective series, but not all. I confess I still struggle to find the humor in British comedies, but they would probably say the same thing about my attempts to be funny.

One evening it dawned upon me that a common feature exists across the various series. Whenever there is a difficult moment, some character will likely offer to “put on a pot of tea.”  You’ve just learned your spouse has disappeared? Let’s have a “cup of tea” and sort it out. A midwife arrives to deliver a child? Let’s put the kettle on, though I’m not sure who has time to drink in that process. It was during such an episode that I blurted out, “Well, apparently if you want to solve the world’s problems, all you need is a good cup of tea. It seems nothing can be done without it.”

Tea is serious business in this culture. It has its very own time; in fact, it has more than one. Elevenses, afternoon tea, and high tea are at least three occasions often mentioned in a discussion of tea times. It has been said that the practice of afternoon tea began in the 1830s-1840s when a certain Duchess tired of being hungry between lunch and dinner. She began having tea and other food delicacies about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Tea for two is better that drinking alone, it seems, so soon she invited friends to join her. The practice caught on. I can appreciate wanting a little “pick-me-up” midway between lunch and dinner, though at our house it is more of a 3 o’clock snack. There is nothing formal about it, and I’m partial to Diet Mt. Dew rather than hot tea with mine.

My travels have allowed me to participate in a few well-executed teas. Some have been religious, complete with symbols and rituals that largely escaped me. Others have belonged to the British tradition as a purely social convention. The most recent was January 2020 on a balcony in Egypt, shown in the photo above.  Our group of 15 was probably underdressed by someone’s standards, but that didn’t deter us from making ourselves at home at these high-top tables with fine tablecloths and linen napkins. While we enjoyed the late afternoon overlooking the Nile River, several hot air balloons lazily made their way past. It was an experience one could get used to.

As formalized as tea is on the daily schedule in these locales, it has spilled out into other times as well if the TV programs are to be believed. Anytime there is difficult issue to contend with, a cup of tea will help soothe the moment. The really serious moments seem to demand sugar. On a recent episode, one character returned home and was greeted with the question from an obviously burdened friend, “Do you have time for a cup?” When she answered in the affirmative, the heavy-laden one immediately began dumping all her trials, completely forgetting to provide the promised hot beverage. Apparently, there are moments when the even tea itself is optional.

A few years ago, when I began roasting coffee, I read a book recounting its origins and popularization. One chapter covered the rise of coffee houses. It noted that because the beverage was hot, people lingered for longer periods to drink it. I guess the concept of “to-go” hadn’t arrived yet, maybe because there were no disposable cups available at the time. As coffee drinkers sat together for longer periods consuming their beverages, an opportunity was provided for lengthier conversations. (Think Starbucks without mobile devices!) This, in turn, allowed for debate, political discussions, and the like. Consequently, some suggest that coffee houses were important in fomenting seeds of innovation and revolution.

I have seen a similar result from a tactic used by carpet sellers. When potential customers enter their establishment, they often serve a hot beverage. It appears to be a gesture of hospitality, but it is more than that. The steaming drink slows your pace. You can’t gulp it quickly. Move to fast and it may slosh over the rim, burning your fingers. Now faced with being a gracious recipient and not burning your lips or any other body parts, you are less likely to breeze through the store quickly. As you sip slowly and have a gander at the merchandise, the proprietors have an opportunity to demonstrate their products in hopes of making a sale. I believe that a moment of apparent hospitality is actually one piece of a carefully thought through sales process. I have four carpets (which I treasure) that support that conclusion.

Tea was part of southern hospitality where I was raised as well. Only we preferred iced tea to hot tea. And sweetened, of course. Some people mark the beginning of the U. S. South by the Mason-Dixon line. I determine it by whether the iced tea is served sweetened or not. My paternal grandmother’s tea was so sweet some days you could nearly stand a spoon in the middle of the glass. Add a slice of lemon and a rocking chair on the front porch on a hot summer day and a person could spend an afternoon in deep conversation with anyone who showed up and shared the space. So perhaps the urge to linger and rock was not entirely about the heat.

The common denominator among the British TV series, carpet sellers, coffee houses, and front porches is that tea, hot or cold, takes time. It creates opportunity. It remains to us as to how we use those minutes together. We can “shoot the breeze,” “chew the fat,” or even take a stab at solving the world’s problems. We can stir up various kinds of trouble. We can make space for someone else to open up. We might relive the previous night’s ball game. Or possibly we listen as someone else shares their opinion or bears their soul, revealing layers and layers of pain and frustration. Amazing things can happen when we pause long enough to allow connection and conversation to flourish.

At first the frequent offers of TV tea made me chuckle. However, the more I sit with the idea, the more reasonable it seems. We might find dramatic improvement in our world if we would take the time for a spot of tea. I think I’ll go put the kettle on.

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