Taming Tensions with Tea
Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford established the tradition of afternoon tea sometime around 1840, according to the British Museum. The Duchess ordered tea, bread and butter, and cake to be served in her room every afternoon to stave off that “sinking feeling” she experienced between lunch and dinner. Eventually, the Duchess began inviting friends for “tea and walking the fields” and before long afternoon tea was all the rage among the British elite.
One of the enduring characteristics of afternoon tea is the relational aspect of it. Afternoon tea included women and their closest friends enjoying intimate conversation away from public scrutiny. While no longer as frequent as in the Victorian Era, afternoon tea still evokes images of steaming, aromatic tea served in dainty floral cups, petite fours and cucumber sandwiches on silver trays, and copious amounts of casual conversation. There is an unspoken rule that everyone in attendance must be on their best behavior – something we need more of today.
At the House, we regularly host meetings. Sometimes the management staff gathers or our Board of Directors. Other times we meet with community partners, prospective donors, or vendors. Our meetings are important, but rarely ever high stakes. Unsurprisingly, before any meeting starts, we offer participants a cup of tea. At that moment, the mood in the room improves. The parties may be friendly and the subject matter of the meeting encouraging, but the offer of tea and eventually sipping it together, takes the camaraderie to new heights. Business is addressed, but there is a premium placed on knowing one another better, asking about family, or discussing the unseasonable weather. No one ever leaves unhappy after drinking a fine cup of tea.
But why? Perhaps, it’s like aroma therapy when the scent of warm spices or calming herbs waft through the air. Or could it be the sensation of a tasty, steamy beverage soothing the body and mind as it gently flows from the lips over the tongue saturating the empty places inside? Or maybe it really is the subconscious saying, “We’re having tea, so be especially pleasant.” Whatever “it” is, offering someone a cup of tea just hits different, as the kids say, than asking, “Can I get you some coffee or water?”
Who among us hasn’t lamented the fact that our world has become relationally disconnected, disrespectful, and divisive? We cancel those whose opinion differs from ours, or we offer opinions from an unbridled tongue and devoid of grace. One-upmanship is the objective of most discussions rather than discovering common ground. In fact, compromise is viewed as a weakness and a lack of moral fortitude. Perhaps most concerning is that for many of us the most significant, heartfelt “conversation” we’ve had in a while happened via text message.
What if the Constitution required Congress and the President to craft policy over freshly steeped Earl Grey, biscuits, jam, and clotted cream? Imagine if Twitter and Facebook were replaced by subject-driven tea parties where people sipped tea, ate shortbread, and discussed the issues of the day – Social TEA-dia.
What if we ventured outside of our neighborhoods to a place where the people look different than us and have far fewer material resources. And what if we invited them to learn about tea, enjoy tea together, make a living sharing tea with others, and commune together in a place free of judgement. Too farfetched, right?
There is a desperate need for person-to-person conversations, mutual understanding, and civility in our culture. April is National Afternoon Tea Month. What a perfect time to invite a friend, colleague, or that neighbor you haven’t met for tea.