Eight Meanings of Tea
Updated: Aug 7
A while ago, I was in a post-blog conversation about rituals in interactive theatre and especially the idea of making a cup of tea as being quite revealing about a world.
I recently had someone mention this Tweet to me, and realised I’d never really unpacked it.
So: here’s eight (an arbitrarily chosen number) meanings of your tea-drinking in-show.
1. What does the vessel being used look and feel like? What does it tell me about the aesthetics of your show-world and the vessel’s owner(s)?
Why it’s interesting: cups vary hugely across cultures, and are often patterned or made according to strict expectations. You’d be shocked if, on a building site, someone offered you tea in a shallow Japanese cup rather than a big practical mug. These variants on different cups come with certain assumptions about the aesthetics of drinking tea - whether it’s to hydrate/caffeinate, or to engage with as a ritual.
2. What does the vessel being used tell me about the social status of the vessel’s owner(s) and recipient(s)?
Why it’s interesting: you have seen posh cups, and you’ve seen not-posh cups. You area also probably aware that some guests get the posh cups, and some get the not-posh cups. Equally, some people are so posh that they just use not-posh cups, because they don’t need posh cups to signify their poshness. And that’s before we get into the realms of who gets to use ‘foreign’ cups without being considered an outsider.
3. What do you put with your tea? Which ingredients are prized, and which are not?
Why it’s interesting: some people put locally-available ingredients in their tea. That might be seen as a dirty, peasant cheap thing to do, or an environmentally conscious, leftie-liberal thing to do. Others put sugar in their tea, which might be seen as unhealthy, luxurious, or childish. All foods have associations, and what people put in the tea gives intriguing options.
4. How is the tea brewed?
Why it’s interesting: many cultures have different traditions of how to brew tea - from the pragmatic and rapid office-friendly teabag, to the time-honoured grandma teapot, to the hot metal Japanese teapot and its particular rules of presentation. The goal - from getting tea rapidly to showing restraint and good taste - can vary.
5. Who makes and pours the tea?
Why it’s interesting: is it the host, demonstrating generosity to a guest? A servant, because decent people don’t prepare their own drinks? The guest, to show that the host isn’t poisoning them? A machine, because we want to believe we lack the time to prepare drinks ourselves? There are many options, each signifying a different cultural assumption.
6. How far has the tea come?
Why it’s interesting: tea is grown in hot countries. In cold countries, its presence implies the existence of long trade routes, which implies a great many relationships necessary to secure the tea. In combination with point 7, it may well imply the existence of imperial structures that facilitate those trade routes in ways that advantage of the cold country, and harm the hot one. Alternatively, it might be that the host is offering tea that they themselves grew and prepared, which makes an entirely different set of arrangements. If it’s grown locally, that might imply the existence of magic or extensive industrial farming.
7. How expensive was the tea?
Why it’s interesting: tea is a right pain in the arse to pick and prepare. It is generally possible to have tea cheaply by exploiting labourers, and empire (see above) is a great way to achieve that. Equally, it is theoretically possible to acquire tea equitably by paying workers well and trading on fair and equal terms. However, this means that the tea is likely more expensive, harder to get hold of, and likely a higher-status drink. If the tea was grown by the host, it might be that their labour is seen as low-status, or revered as a natural way to exist.
8. Can you say no to tea?
Why it’s interesting: tied to many of the above is an idea of hospitality; of giver and recipient, host and guest. In a context where tea is ubiquitous, it might be strange or even taboo to refuse tea; if it is a luxury, it may be seen as rude or proper guest-conduct to decline the gift. There might be particular forms to refusing the cup, or it might be an understandable variation on personal taste.
For reference: I don’t generally like tea. It’s a bit bitter. I once worked in a house where refusing tea was not an option available politely, and drank more tea than I ever wished to.
But I have found this to be a useful exercise, and hope you have too.