I have just finished reading the most fascinating (to me) book by Kate Fox called Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. The author is a British anthropologist who examines and then attempts to explain the "complex sets of unspoken rules and bizarre codes of behavior" of the English. As one who has lived in England and is married to an Englishman, this was a timely, entertaining, and helpful read.
Fox covered every aspect of English life imaginable: the class system (still alive and well), the weather (and why it is so important), humor, pub-talk, food rules, etc., etc., etc. In the Food Rules chapter I found the "British Tea Beliefs" segment most interesting - and hope you will too.
"Tea is still believed, by English people of all classes, to have miraculous properties. A cup of tea can cure, or at least significantly alleviate, almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions, from a headache to a scraped knee. Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement. This magical drink can be used equally effectively as a sedative or stimulant, to calm and soothe or to revive and invigorate. Whatever your mental or physical state, what you need is a 'nice cup of tea.'
Perhaps most importantly, tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all of the time), they make tea. It's a universal rule: when in doubt, put the kettle on. Visitors arrive; we have our usual difficulties over greeting protocol. We say, 'I'll just put the kettle on.' There is one of those uneasy lulls in the conversation, and we've run out of weather-speak. We say, 'Now, who'd like more tea? I'll just go and put the kettle on.' A business meeting might involve having to talk about money. We postpone the uncomfortable bit by making sure everyone has tea. A bad accident - people are injured and in shock: tea is needed. 'I'll put the kettle on.' World War Three breaks out - a nuclear attack is imminent. 'I'll put the kettle on.'
You get the idea. We are rather fond of tea."
The chapter concludes with a discussion about TOAST.
(Watching the English can be purchased here)