The Psychology of Tea

The Psychology of Tea
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Touring a standard British kitchen, I open a cabinet and find rows of mugs, like ceramic soldiers ready for the next guest invasion. There’s a kettle on the counter, a teapot, strainers, tea cosies, and an airtight box of teabags. The cutlery tray’s design tells me much about this culture: the teaspoons sit front and centre, within easy reach. I’ve already made myself quite at home, so I open the fridge, and I find its milk stock as I suspected: plentiful. I doubt a British household has ever experienced the no-milk panic because a new jug is always secured before the old one is empty.

These classic kitchen set-ups were novelties to me during my first months in the UK. We didn’t have an electric kettle in the home that I grew up in. We had a Hotshot, which heats water for one cup of something, usually a powdered hot chocolate mix. There was a stovetop kettle for special occasions. The teaspoon section was in the back of the drawer and overrun by dessert forks.

I grew up in a culture that places tea in the fridge, sweetened to death and often mixed with American-style lemonade. My lineage is one in which an obsession with iced tea runs deep – a generation of women with the cold brew flooding their veins. My grandma passed down this fussiness to my mother and my aunt who judge the quality of a restaurant solely on the freshness of its iced tea. The tea must have lots of ice and be recently brewed, not any sort of pre-packaged tea-like imposter. These ladies doctor their beverages with artificial sweeteners and order boxfuls of extra-long straws to fit their extra-tall glasses.

At the risk of heresy, I admit this generational snobbery has skipped me. I’ve never much liked iced tea, so when I came to London I wasn’t prepared to get my feet wet either in the English tea tradition, hot or cold. How naïve.

Tea cornered me. I’d come in from the 1°C rain and find my friends huddled around the kettle and hear the clink of spoons on ceramic, and the drink would taunt me from their clasped mugs, a steamy summons. I’d surrender if only to soften the climate’s assault on my hands. This raised white flag – many times – hasn’t made me a tea connoisseur, but each mugful has offered me more insight about the place a cup of tea holds in British hands and hearts.

For much of 2011, I worked in a Bermondsey youth centre. Of the two British staff, one drank instant coffee (another novelty, perhaps that’s worth another blog post) and the other was a staunch tea die-hard. Each morning I walked into the centre to the sound of heating water. An hour later we’d visit a school, come back, and “I’ll put the kettle on” would echo through the hall. We’d set up for the afternoon kids club, open the doors, sell sugar in its many forms to the children, run the club, then hand the children back to their parents. As soon as the doors closed behind the last child, someone would ask, “Tea?”

It confused me, this drink and its hold on the British. Was it the taste? I do like the flavour of tea, but it’s hardly comparable to the sugar fizz-bomb of Appletiser (now that is a lovely drink). And if thirst were the issue, wouldn’t one want cold water?

Taste and thirst considered, I came then to comfort, and familiarity. The weather stepped in, and I thought of my own perpetually cold hands, how the damp and chill gets inside you no matter how thick your coat. I thought of the flu and the way a mug of steam makes you briefly forget your miseries. I thought of novels and quilts, a fireplace. Tea belongs in such scenes.

It’s also the drink of friends. You don’t say, “Come over to talk.” You say, “Come over for a cup of tea,” and talking is a given, as I learned that milk is a given when asking someone how they take their tea. (For months I had asked if people took it with milk and sugar until I realised that everyone took milk and I should just ask about the sugar.) Women gather around a kettle like men gather around a televised sports match.

Then I thought about tea in the context of stress. The phrase “I really need a cup of tea” is a type of pause button, a polite way to say, “Don’t talk to me right now.” Perhaps it’s easier to face life’s unexpected train wrecks gripping a mug; we slice up life’s lemons and put them in a cuppa. The drink may have calming qualities, or the link between tea and peace is all in our heads. Either way, we continue to boil the kettle.

Tea, you won. I don’t know if it was the weather, the stress of carving a life in a new country or simply your presence in every social setting, but I’m a convert. You’ve messed with my head and made your mark on my kitchen, where an army of mugs waits in the cabinet.

Shannon Evans

Shannon Evans

Shannon Evans, originally from Florida, moved to London in December 2011. A lover of culture and language, she blogs at Litro about her observations of British culture in her column 'English Lessons from an American' and interviews various people in publishing and the media for 'Litro Meets'. She has been published in The Bradenton Herald and in Changing London magazine. Her favourite book is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

Shannon Evans, originally from Florida, moved to London in December 2011. A lover of culture and language, she blogs at Litro about her observations of British culture in her column 'English Lessons from an American' and interviews various people in publishing and the media for 'Litro Meets'. She has been published in The Bradenton Herald and in Changing London magazine. Her favourite book is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

9 comments

  1. Jeanann Miller says:

    Great blog Shannon!!! I am so glad that you enjoy a nice cup of tea. Everything is better with a cup of tea and the Brits
    do it best!!!

  2. Leslie Rowe says:

    So THAT’S what the tea thing is all about!!

    Your tea-treatise is a wonderful glimpse into the kitchens and hearts of your new neighbors. I loved your descriptions and insights.

    What I might add is that iced tea has deeply southern US roots, a.k.a. sweet tea, and that sweet tea isn’t typically found in the northern US.

    And that long straws go perfectly with our tall, TALL glasses of iced tea.

    And that McDonalds makes a good cup, despite their other fat-food frenzy.

    And that my sister’s tea-freak-ness is FAR worse than mine, your mom.

    And a question: are you telling me that the tiny compartment is NOT for dessert forks, but for tea spoons? Really? :)

  3. Cathy Bridwell says:

    Really enjoyed your blog on tea. To be quite truthful, I’ve always been fearful to ask your Aunt Sharon what she thinks of my iced tea & I’m an iced tea lover. However, I would never NEVER willingly sweeten it with anything so as your mom indicated that makes me a Yankee, albeit a transplanted one. Throw a slice of fresh lemon in it & I’m one happy camper. Keep writing! It’s fun to read your commentary on life on the other side of the pond. :)

  4. gloria dickison says:

    Shannon,
    You are grown up! I love the blog, what talent. You need to work on a book of short stories.
    Gloria (your mom’s friend from WAY BACK.)

  5. Stephanie Rowe says:

    Shan, awesome blog!

    I grew up drinking tea. I suppose the northern weather was to blame. Moving to Florida, I must have grown out of it. Loved reading this!

    We miss you.

  6. Angie Pike says:

    Shannon – I love this. Its sooo true! I remember having milky warm tea in my toddler cup ! Lol. Tea is amazing. :)

    In fact … Im going to go and put the kettle on right now…

  7. Gerri George says:

    I want to love tea, but can’t seem to find one to love. Earl Grey comes close. Any tips on the strongest tea on the market?

    • Shannon Evans Shannon Evans says:

      Hi Gerri,
      I feel too new to tea to give that kind of opinion… Red Bush is quite good though. If I don’t have “Builder’s Tea”, then I usually have a strong green tea with honey.

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