Afternoon high tea is served in the Lanesborough's Celeste Restaurant. (Photo credit: The Lanesborough)
Afternoon high tea is served in the Lanesborough’s Celeste Restaurant. (Photo credit: The Lanesborough)

“The tea service is a vehicle for explaining British culture,” says Rupert Wesson, Academy Director of Debrett’s as he presides over just such a service in the dining room at the Lanesborough Hotel in London’s Hyde Park Corner. “There is a certain order and attention to details – a celebration of small, beautiful details: beautiful china, fine silver, a beautiful display of food, a choice of teas…”

Wesson’s little speech is part of the collaboration between the five-star Lanesborough – the Oetker Collection’s first foray into the Anglo-Saxon hotel world – and Debrett’s, the renowned London publisher that has been chronicling the who’s who of British peerage since 1769. Both are exploring news ways of being relevant in today’s disrupted, flat social world: the Lanesborough by creating differentiated bespoke programs for a customer base that can afford an average of £490 per night but may feel uncomfortable at a dinner table laden with silverware; Debrett’s by venturing into consulting, corporate training, and food and style guides for just such a clientele.

“The Lanesborough partnering with Debrett’s is the perfect match, allowing us to offer our guests what the modern traveler is looking for; exclusive, special and relevant experiences,” says Geoffrey Gelardi, Managing Director at The Lanesborough. “These are the little moments that make staying in a hotel like ours special, creating a family feel, extended with the friendly and informal nature of this afternoon tea experience. Guests feel comfortable and at home with the Debrett’s tutor while enjoying our famous afternoon tea.”

Only For The Wealthy?

“It was the Duchess of Bedford sometime in the 19th century who popularized the ritualized British afternoon tea as a preserve of the wealthy, a very delicate and finessed ritual,” Wesson continues. “It was a question of who could afford enough candles to eat a meal at night, and that was the wealthy. So they needed something to tide them over until dinner – tea. Working class families tended to eat much earlier, and generally only two meals a day.”

The term “high tea,” he tells me, refers to the height of the table on which the tea is being served, not the level of pomp and circumstance. “Historically the workers would eat their main meal of the day as soon as they go home from work and do so at the kitchen table,” Wesson explains. “The gentry would take afternoon tea as a light meal in their drawing rooms from lower coffee tables.”

Afternoon tea served in the Lanesborough;s Withdrawing Room. Photo courtesy The Lanesborough)
Afternoon tea served in the Lanesborough’s Withdrawing Room. (Photo courtesy The Lanesborough)

The British will take milk with their tea; the French will not – but they might have a glass of champagne or wine at tea. For example at the Lanesborough, tea is served in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant Celeste, where the kitchen is directed from Paris, by Eric Frechon, chef de cuisine at Le Bristol. The tea features a choice of myriad teas, while the food includes finger sandwiches, French pastries, cakes and Devonshire scones – with enough of the irresistible creams and preserves to warrant an extra trip to the gym or a jog in Hyde Park.

The tea ceremony is perhaps a rather extreme example of etiquette, but Wesson has many others more suited to globetrotting executives. And it’s all down to his 16-year military background before turning to corporate training. A graduate of Sandhurst – the U.K.’s West Point – and stationed in such diverse places as Cyprus, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Germany, he has first-hand command of British and international cultures and traditions.

It may seem strange for someone who has had to rough it in many of the world’s trouble spots to be now explaining the intricacies of dining etiquette. However, Wesson explains that the British Army does reflect some very traditional British values and behaviors. “Officers will dress for dinner in the officer’s mess (dining hall) in suits or black tie most nights, and the dinner table will have the sort of china, silver, and crystal that would not look out of place in The Lanesborough,” he says. “The British Army takes great pride in holding on to the most civilized parts of the country’s culture and traditions for their own sake. But of course showing our guests great hospitality helps to build relationships.”

The Lanesborough front entrance (Photo courtesy Lanesborough)
The Lanesborough front entrance (Photo courtesy Lanesborough)

In today’s society of globally distributed teams, so much human interaction takes place online and digitally, that the idea of etiquette seems almost quaint. But even the most devoted teleconference attendee must come into contact with other lands once in a while. “Etiquette,” says Wesson, “is like a dress code – it’s the ground rules on which we operate.” And cultures are different in ways you might not expect.

The Crushing Handshake

Handshakes, for example. “Be self-aware as well as culturally aware,” advises Wesson. ”Especially if you have a crushing handshake. You don’t want to inflict pain on someone you want to do business with! Handshakes are less frequent and less forceful in the East. On the other hand, during a meeting in Sierra Leone, the man in charge for the African concern not only shook my hand; he held it for 20 minutes during my presentation. It might seem strange, but this is what they do, and it can take longer to build trust if you try to fight customs.”

Then there’s the wardrobe. “One senior executive of a large Japanese manufacturing company was frequently being parachuted into various parts of the world for meetings. He didn’t have much exposure to European culture and had to be told to stop wearing his Mickey Mouse ties with button-down shirts and baggy suits.” Wesson draws on his depth of sartorial history to tell me that it was the Americans who created the button-down shirt. “To keep the collars from flapping around while playing sport,” he says. “and for that reason, they are seen as sports or leisure clothing and so you would not wear a tie with a button-down collar. Never.”

Speaking of ties, “White tie formal wear is just about gone. Black tie is the most formal attire most people own these days,” he says.

Asia and the rise of China have created a new client base for Debtrett’s. “The Chinese are very culturally aware,” Wesson points out. “They want to learn Western ways, they want to give their children an international education.” He says Chinese businesswomen make up a significant portion of the client base. Then in Japan, where women traditionally have a more subservient role, there are other challenges. “My boss is a woman…when we are in Japan together I make it very clear that she is the boss.”

Etiquette Advice

Wesson offers this advice for the world business executive:

1. Be aware of hierarchy. The world isn’t flat.
2. Be culturally sensitive; be interested in the cultures of other countries. Learn where your company sits within the country.
3. Be light on your feet. Understand that one size doesn’t fit all and adapt your approach to meet you, clients, at least halfway.
4. History and language are important – a little knowledge goes a long way.
5. If you’re feeling lost in a situation such as a business meeting or dinner, look around and see what everyone else is doing and reflect those behaviors back to them.
6. If you project self-confidence, people will treat you as though you are that way. Fake it until you make it.
Should you find yourself taking tea, here’s a short primer on the food and the order in which it is eaten:
• Typically there should be two choices of tea. Chinese and Indian. Pour the tea into the cup before the milk so people can add milk to suit their own tastes
• Tiny, delicate sandwiches – salmon, watercress, egg, etc.;
• Warm scones are served next. These should be broken by hand into small pieces and spread with clotted cream and jam. Spread the cream first (it is easier and neater)
• Tiny pastries such as éclairs and fruit tarts;
• Bite-sized cakes – chocolate, lady fingers, etc.;

Why is the afternoon tea served in this order? “I am afraid that this seems to have been lost in the mists of time, ” says Wesson, “but what I do know is that British people love creating rules, etiquette and protocols but only because we love adapting, changing and breaking them even more.”

Even more reason to stay current on how the world changes.

Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author Permission.