Rituals and Routines Part 1: the Psychology of a Cup of Tea

This is the first in a series of short pieces about daily rituals and routines, reflecting on some of our habits and behaviours we probably don’t give much thought to.

Tea is a drink. Many people call many different things tea, basically any kind of plant with hot water on it can be called tea. However, tea is in fact a specific plant called Camellia Sinensis which originates from China. All of your ginger infusions and peppermint zingers may in fact have no tea in them at all. What the massive influx over the last 20 years or so of these different varieties of tea represents, reflects the desire for health and wellbeing drinks which teas are generally considered to be. There is something about a hot steamy drink full of flavours which has a healing quality to it even though a significant amount of what is on the market has no real proven health benefits, much like the marketing of hair products featuring ylang ylang or the extract of Kiwi Fruit and minerals from the black sea.

Many of them are good for you, ginger is well proven to have health benefits and who is to argue with thousands of years of wisdom from Asia? It is likely that many of these beverages (not tea, remember) is actually a placebo effect and it’s more the ritual and process of making and consuming that has a calming effect on a person.

The majority of tea is grown in China and India and spread around the world, largely due to Portuguese explorers taking it back to Europe. The ritual of social and cultural tea drinking takes many forms throughout the world in Arab cultures a strong tea with mint and sugar is common, in Japan lengthy rituals take place around preparation, serving and drinking Green Tea in particular.

The tea bag itself was created by accident by an American distributer as a means to give samples of his products and was eventually adapted by British company Tetley’s into the form we know now and is the most common way of consuming tea around the world.

A nice hot cup of tea can be consumed at any time of day, it is supposed to warm you in winter, cool you in summer, make you feel good if you’re not, wake you up, relax you. Something that can do all of that is verging on magical. It does of course naturally have caffeine in it which is a well know and very effective drug.

It’s a social tool, if someone visits you make them a tea, if someone is upset you make them a tea. If someone has done some hard work, they treat themselves with a tea, you have tea at break time, you have tea with scones in the afternoon on a leisurely Sunday. It’s the coverall drink for any occasion.

The words “Put the kettle on” are uttered in every British household almost every day. In offices all of the UK the politics of making tea can be complex, whose turn is it, who is bad at it?

“I think Rick makes bad tea on purpose, so he doesn’t have to do it”

Some people like it strong and milky, others sweet and mild. The finer points of making the perfect cup of tea can be complex:

Exactly how long do you leave the bag in?

How hot should the water be?

How much milk is just right?

You need the sugar on the spoon to be level, not heaped and I need 3 of those.

Do you sip it when very hot, or let it cool so you can gulp it down?

Cup or mug?

How many bags go in a pot?

The ritual of tea drinking changes for each country, household, workplace and individual but it holds a valuable place across the world, across cultures and people. Certainly most British people have been making cups of tea for their entire lives, and despite tastes changing naturally most people probably have exactly the same process every time.

Boil kettle, get green mug (it has a thin rim which is preferable) pour water and let steep for 2 minutes (no timer needed, you know how long it’s been through thousands of practices) pour in milk, enough to get it to the right colour then one tea spoon of sugar (give it a little shake before putting in to make sure it’s perfect then stir 15 times.

You won’t think about it, and likely don’t know how many times you stir or how many minutes but chances are your tea making ritual is almost the same every time.

Basically, everyone has a preference and these preferences are a part of normal conversation, it’s a point of pride if you can remember how everyone wants their tea made. The Chinese were onto something when they figured it out and as with most things what tea is has transformed over the years. It is one of those daily rituals that occur in millions of households and offices and construction sites every day.

Tea is a drink, but not just a drink. Tea is part of daily life for many reasons.


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