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Tea Culture Across the World: An Important Business Skill

Matthew MacLachlan

16 Sep 2016

Chances are that you drink tea on a daily basis. It is, after all, the most-consumed beverage in the world after water. Relaxing, healing, or a delicacy? Teabag or tea ceremony? How do you take your tea? And what are the different ways of preparing it?

Discover more about tea culture across the world, and learn about some deeper tea meanings and traditions – which will impact you on your social and business travels.

Chinese Tea Culture

A good place to start would be the country where it began – China. Here, tea is seen as one of the seven necessities to start the day, and is drunk to finish off even a simple meal. The traditional tea ceremonies or rituals are also seen as an essential component in social gatherings.

Here, tea is seen as one of the seven necessities to start the day, and is drunk to finish off even a simple meal

However, in the Chinese tea culture, tea drinking is not considered to be the same as tea tasting. Tea is drunk as a refreshment or as a medicinal potion, while tea is tasted to appreciate its delicate flavour and fragrance. The latter is also seen as an intricate part of Chinese culture, which is why the tea-making rituals so important to adhere to. One of the most well-known teas in Mainland China is pu-erh tea, which is characteristically brewed from a brick, such as shown in the video below.

Watch out if you are “forced to drink tea”. This is a very recent euphemism for being summoned by the state security police for an informal interrogation, where tea may or may not be drunk – that will be the least of your worries! However, this is very unlikely to occur.

On the other hand, receiving an invitation to tea at someone’s house is an honour, as you are welcomed and accepted into the family. When tea is served, there are a number of things to remember. For instance, despite the small size of the cups, they will always be offered with two hands, and should be accepted in the same way. This is a common way of showing respect in Far Eastern countries.

Despite the small size of the cups, they will always be offered with two hands, and should be accepted in the same way

You are also expected to smell the tea before drinking from the cup, allowing you to appreciate its fragrant aroma. It is also possible that you are offered two cups, a tasting and an aroma cup, though this is more likely in Taiwan than in Mainland China. As shown in the picture below, the aroma cups (in front) are taller and narrower than the round tasting cups (behind), to allow the scent to rise straight up and really hit you.

culture of tea

Source: Michael Lambe (guideadvisor.com)

Its sides are also thicker than the tasting cups, so it can be held while the tea is still hot. Finally, you are expected to drink the tea slowly in order to fully appreciate its natural flavour, and not add anything such as milk, lemon or sugar.

Tea as a Business Gift in the Far East

Viewing tea culture as an essential part of one’s cultural identity is a view that is shared by many people in the Far East. As there is a large amount of effort required to prepare these teas the traditional way, it is typically only drunk in social settings, and not in the office among colleagues.

However, it may be offered in a business meeting to clients. It is also not uncommon to offer prize-winning teas, which can be worth a lot of money, as a business gift. Due to the winning teas automatically increasing in price, farmers can earn back the cost of growing the tea, which in turn sustains the tea industry.

It is also not uncommon to offer prize-winning teas, which can be worth a lot of money, as a business gift

This is why tea contests are a common occurrence in Far Eastern countries, as they ultimately allow farmers to invest in more advanced ways of growing the tea and thus improve the quality of tea production over time.

Tea in the UK

Another serious tea drinking country is the UK, where the humble teabag is often seen as an unmissable companion in the workplace. Also in social settings, tea is frequently the favoured beverage, particularly when the need for a calming and de-stressing drink arises. Also seen as a problem-solver, you should remember to offer a cup of tea when someone has to be cheered up, as well as remember to enquire about how the person takes their tea.

Seen as a problem-solver, you should remember to offer a cup of tea when someone has to be cheered up

Though there are many tea-drinking countries where adding milk is unheard of, in the UK offering milk and sugar with black tea is the norm, as well as asking how strong the person likes their tea.

Also, you should bear in mind that traditionally milk is added to the cup before hot water, but sugar gets stirred in after the tea has already been brewed. Another thing to note is that the teabag should be in the teapot or mug before the water is added, contrary to several other countries in Continental Europe, where it is not uncommon to receive a cup of hot water before the teabag is added.

Though its history does not date as far back as in China, tea is still seen as traditional in the UK, particularly “afternoon tea”, a light meal between lunch and dinner. Even today, in Northern England and Scotland, “tea” may refer to an early evening meal, as well as to the drink.

culture of tea

Source: nathalieklett1 (citiesandspatialcultures.wordpress.com)

Having said that, even if you are just invited to drink tea, biscuits are likely to be offered too. If you are drinking tea with your elders, it is also more likely that the tea will be drunk from cups and served from a teapot, whereas the younger generation tend to favour mugs.

Other differences are that the older generation may heat the teapot first with clean, boiled water, before discarding it, adding tea leaves (as opposed to a teabag), and then pouring freshly boiled water into the pot to actually make the tea.

Moroccan Tea Culture

Though perhaps not the first country that springs to mind as a tea-drinker, the Moroccans certainly have a strong tea culture, being the second-biggest tea consumers (per capita) in the world. Tea is typically not drunk in the workplace but at home or in social settings, and receiving an invitation for tea in Morocco is a great sign of hospitality.

When entertaining guests, the tea – typically Chinese green gunpowder tea – is traditionally prepared and served by the man of the house. It is always served with some food. While the tea is still in the pot, after the water has been boiled, fresh mint and sugar are also added to the tea leaves. Unlike in the UK, this sugar must not be stirred.

As the teapot will have a long spout, and the tea is poured from some height, there should be a layer of foam at the top of your drink

When given the opportunity to experience Morocco’s tea drinking tradition in person, there are several things that will strike you. For instance, the hot tea is served in small glasses, but not completely full, so you can hold the rim.

As the teapot will have a long spout, and the tea is poured from some height, there should be a layer of foam at the top of your drink. If the foam is not there, the tea is considered not oxygenated enough.

culture of tea

Source: Cliff Williams (partaste.com)

Assuming that the tea does have a layer of foam, the tea maker will place the glass in front of you, and you should briefly lift the glass to indicate your thanks. As you taste the tea, while still hot, feel free to slurp as you drink.

Also, be prepared for non-stop refills, as a good host has to make sure that your cup is never empty

If you would like to make the tea sweeter, you can stir in some additional sugar, but no other additions like lemon, milk or honey. Also, be prepared for non-stop refills, as a good host has to make sure that your cup is never empty.

Turkish Tea Culture

A good place to finish is currently the biggest tea-consuming country (per capita) in the world: Turkey, a country where a tea house or garden can be found in any town, and where the tea culture is particularly strong.

Unlike Japanese tea houses, which are quiet areas, Turkish tea houses and gardens are a hub of social activity and a place where men frequently meet. It is unusual to see women in these tea houses, though foreigners are likely to be tolerated.

In Turkey, as in Morocco, any time is a good time for tea, and being offered some is a sign of hospitality

In Turkey, as in Morocco, any time is a good time for tea, and being offered some is a sign of hospitality, which should therefore be accepted, even though you have probably just had some. Another similarity is that some food is usually served with the tea, and the tea itself is served in small glasses, although these glasses are tulip-shaped.

culture of tea

Source: blog.startupistanbul.com

The teapot is also shaped differently, namely as a double teapot. As the tea leaves are kept in the upper pot, and the water is boiled in the lower one, it is possible to vary the strength of the concentrated tea in the top pot.

If you find your tea too dark or bitter, you may request a lighter one, which can be made by diluting the tea with the water from the lower pot

If you find your tea too dark or bitter, you may request a lighter one, which can be made by diluting the tea with the water from the lower pot. Other than varying the darkness, Turkish tea is also often made sweeter by stirring in two sugar cubes. In Eastern Turkey, the tea culture is slightly different, as it is also quite common to put a hard sugar cube in your mouth. As you keep it in place under your tongue or tucked into your cheek, it will dissolve naturally as you drink the hot tea.

You may also ask for lemon if you wish, even if it is unusual, but make sure that you do not consume your tea with milk.

In Eastern Turkey, it is also quite common to put a hard sugar cube in your mouth, keeping it in place under your tongue or tucked into your cheek

One occasion where it particularly matters how your drink is served, though this is the case for coffee rather than tea, is when a man wishes to propose to a woman. As the woman makes coffee for the man who wants to marry her, she will add sugar if she wishes to accept his proposal, but will add salt if she does not.

The man may then choose to not drink the coffee, thus accepting her decision, or continue to drink the coffee, and by doing so indicate that he is not willing to give up on her yet.

As Simple as a Cup of Tea?

By following the host’s traditions, you can avoid creating awkward situations and strengthen your relationships

As you can see, particularly as this blog does not exhaust all the tea-drinking regions, the notion of a tea culture is extensive. There are many cultures where tea forms an intricate part of social and business culture. Learn by watching, listening and asking questions.

By following the host’s traditions, you can avoid creating awkward situations and strengthen your relationships – be they social, business or both!

Author: Kyna Kosling, Chair of Tea Society – University of York, 2015-2017