02 September, 2007

Pinky

Why does one, traditionally, raise one's pinky while drinking tea?

The question has been bothering me a little of late, one of those petty enquiries that keeps the faded clichés and rituals of quotidian existence from being utterly assimilated. I could think of two answers.

1. The raised little finger helps one to balance the tea-cup, like the funambulist extending his arms—

or more likely, 2. The little finger, unraised, would touch the lowest part of the cup, below the other three fingers; this lowest part is likely to be the hottest, and at first probably too hot to handle with ease. The raising of the finger thus avoids (either actually or symbolically) a burnt pinky. It is a gesture of cultured delicacy—the soft untough delicacy of social refinement.

Any other ideas?

29 comments:

Raminagrobis said...

It’s to demonstrate an openness to conversation. In the précieux salons of the seventeenth century, drinking tea whilst engaged in conversation was seen as the height of bad manners. One was expected to extend the pinky (in French, the ‘auriculaire’, or ear finger, from Lat. ‘auricula’, external ear) as a marker of attentiveness.

Did that sound convincing? I just made it up.

Gawain said...

The interesting thing about it is that people seem to do this not whenever they drink tea, but when drinking tea on social occasions, when they intend to appear dainty or cultured. Which is precisely why in some parts of Europe that gesture is frowned upon -- as a pretense to good manners, indicating that their owner doesn't actually have such.

John Cowan said...

"Your Honor, I want a divorce."

"And why is that, ma'am?"

"Whenever my husband drinks tea, he insists on sticking out his pinky finger, and it's just so vulgar, I can't stand it."

"But ma'am, in the best society people stick out their pinky fingers when drinking tea."

"That may be, Your Honor. But they don't hang the tea bag from it!"

Conrad H. Roth said...

R, I didn't know that word. TLF: "Le plus petit des cinq doigts de la main, celui qui peut s'introduire facilement dans le conduit de l'oreille".

G, I must confess that I extend my pinky--but involuntarily, as I have never been instructed to do so, have not grown up in a milieu of pinky-raising tea-drinkers, nor have I ever made a conscious effort to do so as an affectation. It is most perplexing.

John: So that's what I've been doing wrong!

Herr Ziffer said...

I'm not a tea drinker, but when I am put in a position where I must drink from those tiny little cups, I find that my wee-finger invariably becomes erect.

I think it may be a physiological response, rather than a psychological one. Trying to hold the small loopy part of the tea cup with all my fingers is uncomfortable.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Trying to hold the small loopy part of the tea cup with all my fingers is uncomfortable."

True, but why wouldn't you just rest your little finger (and/or ring finger) under the 'loopy part' (I assume you mean the handle)? Or else just next to it? Wouldn't that under normal circumstances be a more natural position for the fingers?

xensen said...

Extending the pinky does provide a counterweight to the fulcrum of the handle. Even without a cup in hand you can feel the advantage by tilting your hand in the holding-a-cup position with and without the rudder of the pinky.

The fact that many teacups had small handles is an added incentive. It would be rather awkward to curl the pinky underneath the handle of a small cup.

Winston said...

An observation from the real world of engineering and mathematics:

I drink coffee. From mugs, preferably. The pinky finger does not point to the angular position of the North Star during the vernal equinox. On occasion, I drink tea. From a mug. No change in vector of the pinky. However, in the extremely rare instance when I drink tea in the acceptable civilized fashion, from a dainty tea cup, the pinky develops an erection.

Careful study and precise measurements over several seconds has led to this most scientific of theories, with no proof in sight:

The downward slope of the exterior of the typical tea cup, away from the hand that holds it, in combination with the small size of the loopy holding thingy, leaves no place for the pinky unless the hand and wrist are bent into a painful plane vis-a-vis the horizontal plane containing the open mouth of the cup at level. Assuming that awkward position to allow the pinky to rest on the cup or loopy thingy for more than 17.3 seconds will cause such severe pain in the wrist and hand that the holder is likely to exclaim, "screw it" and ditch the tea cup for a bottle of beer.

Ergo, pinkies point skyward.

Mencius Moldbug said...

It's a homosexualist recognition code, like tapping your foot in a bathroom stall.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that all tea-drinkers - or even all Englishmen - are homosexualists. However, many historians believe that, in the past, this was the case. The pinky code survives as a kind of cultural spandrel, much as the secret Jews of New Mexico light candles on Friday nights without knowing why.

The root "pink," meaning, of course, homosexualist, proves this theory finally and completely. The "pinky finger" is the homosexualist finger. Apparently it is actually employed in some of their practices. A real man will often be missing this finger, it having been shot off or otherwise removed in some manly clash of arms.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Mencius, it's an intriguing approach, but the argument suffers from one fatal flaw. If, indeed, Englishmen were once all homophiles, why would they need a recognition code?

Winston and Xensen, I'm sorry, I cannot accept this theory that it is awkward or uncomfortable to rest one's lower fingers under the cup handle--unless the cup is hot. That said, Winston is onto something with his 'screw this' theory--though as a good Brit, I definitely prefer a pint to a bottle.

Raminagrobis said...

Perhaps it will be possible to synthesize the physiological and cultural hypotheses here advanced by means of a comparison with the practices of the espresso drinker. As far as I’m aware, the pinky is never extended when quaffing espresso, and this despite the fact that the handle on an espresso cup is significantly smaller than that of a teacup. My explanation runs like this: the espresso handle is usually too small even to accommodate the index finger, so must be gripped between index/middle finger and thumb, with all fingers held more or less straight and in alignment. In the case of the teacup, the handle will admit insertion of index and even middle finger, with the thumb held over the top for stability, rather than in a pincer formation. Because the first two fingers in this arrangement are held curved and not straight, the ring and pinky finger are necessarily also subject to a slight curvature. The claw-like configuration that results is uncomfortable, and therefore the pinky is held aloft as a sort of counterbalance. Note that the pinky is not held ‘erect’, as some correspondents have implied: it always describes a gentle curve.

Personally, I only ever drink tea out of a mug, as God intended.

Conrad H. Roth said...

So none of you likes my 'temperature' theory then?

I will admit that I find tea a terribly dull drink. If I have to drink hot it will be an espresso, but frankly I'd rather get pissed.

dd said...

simple physics. it helps balance the weight of a delicate tea cup... and remind one that they could be drinking coffee.

I once spent most of a summer iso a good cup of coffee. Tea has its place, but.... globalization has changed all that, plus there is now a bridge over the loch and no time to drink tea on the ferry... sigh...
I'd trade the coffee in for the time to drink tea on the ferry again.

Lily Roth said...

It is a relic of a little-known, but once ubiquitous religious rite of the inhabitants of the legendary (and some say fictional) island of Cytherea. The natives used to raise one pinky whilst drinking any beverage in a social, convivial settting. This gesture was a one-fingered salute to their favourite goddess, sometimes known as "Our Lady of Perpetual Leisure".
This worthy deity was alleged to be gratified by the leisure being displayed by her adherents as they took the time to sip their hot drinks and chat, preferably with biscuits and little sandwiches with the crusts cut-off.
Yummers!

Herr Ziffer said...

It is a relic of a little-known, but once ubiquitous religious rite of the inhabitants of the legendary (and some say fictional) island of Cytherea.

Lady, I salute you.

John Emerson said...

I have read that populist American propaganda accused Brits, homosexualists, and high society of drinking tea this way, and with the ascendancy of the common man these effete groups obediently began to follow the practice.

Petroskoi said...

Hmm.. I've been told it's a relic of a tradition of wearing a ring with your noble family's coat of arms on it, and the pinky is held up so that other people can see your status.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. Keep 'em coming!

Spencer G said...

Compared to the rest of people that develop erections in their little fingers whilst drinking, I developed my own personal reason for doing so.

I was born with a hereditary physical deformity that skips a generation or two at a time. Nothing frightening to be behold, just two crooked pinkies, each currently bent almost 45 degrees and progressively bending more each year.

So, when I drink my beverages out of a mug I often tuck my pinky underneath the cup while the others all grasp the handle, as I've found this gives me much more control over moving the cup about and its also much more comfortable for my weird little fingers. Now, if the liquid is hot though I can only do this for so long and so I stick the pinky out in the air to reach a normal temperature before replacing it in the same spot once again.

thomas2 said...

Extending any single finger has an effect on all the muscles and tendons in the hand and wrist. The reason the pinky is extended during beverage consumption is to increase the rigidity of the muscles and tendons in the hand. just try turning your hand with and without the pinky extended. you'll find that with an extended pinky there is more strength in your wrist's rotational force.
therefore, pinky extension is a physiological response to the biomechanical maneuvers required to drink a cup of tea. the reason it is culturally significant is that pinky extension is generally not required in people with muscular and well-developed hands/wrists (ie. farmers) while people with less developed hands/wrists (dainty women and aristocrats) need to extend their pinky.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ingenious!

Ivan said...

Fie, dilentanti! The answer to your inquiry if most obvious; or perhaps you have never picked your nose whilst drinking tea? Nothing homosexualist about it.

hoshimori said...

I don't have a particular theory as to why people stick their pinkies up while drinking tea (though I identify as one of those people), but I do have to say that even if the beverage is cold, I still stick my pinky up, so I find the latter theory (burnt pinky) a bit unlikely. I'm not sure if this is relevant, but, even when I am holding other objects other than teacups, my pinky involuntarily goes up. Hmm. This may be far-fetched, but, is there a gene/trait for upraised pinkies? Hahaha. I've always wondered about the mystery of why people raise their pinky while drinking/holding a cup/glass in general.

Anonymous said...

thomas2's theory is the most plausible in my opinion...I've also noticed that many people of high intelligence do it all the time

Weeraphot said...

I raise my pinkie without thinking or commanding it 2.
I do this all the time, drinking out of regular cups, pop cans, bottles, etc. I dont get it, why do I do it?

trancient said...

Don't know about when drinking tea, but it is a sign of homosexuality. Especially, when someone is in the bar and trying to pick other gay men. I have a colleague (who is gay) and he told me that.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading many etiquette documents and have also found online links to the contrary of the "pinky out". The Tea Laden (http://www.tealaden.com/teaweb/etiquette.htm) gives an etiquette explanation for tea parties.
Under the heading of "how to proporly drink your tea", the first sentence is: "First and foremost never hold your cup with your pinkie finger extended."
Here as well, from 'Eteaket' we find the same rule stated; "do not stick your pinky out when drinking tea."
(http://www.eteaket.co.uk/teaboutique/eteakets_etiquette.html)

Finally it's also a great clue to observe the people in ambassadorial positions who mandatorily get trained in formal matters of etiquette in order to avoid offending. They do not hold the pinky out: Presidents House, the Royal Family et all...

Anonymous said...

i have the same situation with hoshimori and weeraphot..not only when drinking but even if my hands are at rest on a book or even now when typing.

RetroRebecca said...

I didn't realise that i hold my little finger out when i drink from cups, until someone pointed it out today, but i wouldn't consider myself to be posh e_e