The Mug of Tea: A brief peek inside British emotions

A common response to witnessing an individual amidst the throes of emotional duress is not an offer to immediately talk about the problem at hand. Nor is it be to draw close the pained other in an arm-sweep of compassion that results in a hug. Rather, and in diametric opposition the more accepted methods of meeting emotional needs, the supportive will offer up a suggestion of warm mundanity that could only come from the stifled tongue of a classically British mentality, and then immediately vacate the immediate emotional danger zone by carrying out the foisted request: thus providing space for both parties to properly prepare the correct phrases and responses needed to deal with the oncoming storm. An average of 2–3 minutes is allotted for this acceptable separation ritual. Too long and the gesture takes on the guise of avoidance; too short and the task will have been carried out in a manner either rushed, eager, or careless — all equally treacherous attitudes.

This ritual of healing and support is always initialised by a magnanimous, yet emotionally glottalized, offer to ‘put the kettle on’. A teary nod is seen as the appropriate response, taking place a few centimetres above a sodden wad of tissues whose creases have now been set in place for all eternity.

A balm for an internal life lacking in external expression, the comforting cup of tea (never coffee, whose connotations of pep, abrasive essence, and momentum stand in opposition to the wallowing in damp miseries offered by a cuppa’ tea) soothes with its gentler flavours which unroll upon the tongue, pushing down the roughness of the mouth’s inner-linings.

Time is essential ingredient in tea. Many cosmopolitan and deconstructionist establishments arrange their tea offerings with a pot, a small bottle of milk, a diminutive mug, and a timer that notifies the consumer when the ideal time for pouring that vital first cup arrives. The minutes and seconds before the perfect brew stretch themselves out, much like the vapours which leak out from the teapot’s spout, and curl upwards into the nostrils, winding their aromas into your increasing awareness of the drink for which you are waiting. So too is time the essential ingredient in emotional equilibrium, seen as being capable of ‘healing all wounds’

What distinguishes the tone of the tea, ultimately, is the cup it which it served. The teacup is of a finer build, and often decorative. It speaks to the ritual of the drink, and is a holdover of tea being a ceremonial drink. When presented with the tea cup, there is a bestowing of honour at the drinker is being served by individual, but the lonely person in need of a cup of tea is much more likely to take the simplest path towards their thirst: the simple mug.

Few inanimate objects are as recognisable in the collective UK consciousness than the mug. Its smooth, cylindrical body and looped arm have grown into the iconography of the resilient Brit. Builders and housewives alike are traditionally imagined bearing the mug of tea in hand. To topologists, the shape of the mug is a form of continuous function between two shapes, placing it within the same, equally comforting grouping as the ring donut. The name of these continuously functioning shapes which flow into, and form, new shapes is that of Homeomorphism; no doubt an apt moniker for such items. Homeo-, a prefix more often associated with placebic practice of homeopathy, at its etymological roots reveals an impostorism: its Greek roots, meaning “like” and “resembling”. There is no measurable or physical treatment that comes from the Homeo- branch of treating ailments, but rather it is the sense of well-being. When we are offered a cup of tea in our darkest hours, we are not given the answers to our ills, but merely a moment of cathartic respite. For a few minutes we sip at our tea, feel warm inside, and are at ease. If only that feeling could last.

As with our civilised facades in the face of unarticulated emotions, the mug is also susceptible to cracks when encountering forces of shock or pressure. Despite exuding safety and comfort, the humble mug is as defenseless as we are to irreparable damage; its cracks matching like-for-like the scars that we carry, both bodily and emotional. Who can say that, when facing personal devastation, they didn’t feel shattered to pieces? Whenever we hold a mug, we enclose in our fingers an item which is as vulnerable as ourselves, yet still offers to us a small salvation. Its warmth radiates through our hands, keeping inside itself the dangerously hot liquid that could further our pain, should it not be contained.

[The idiom of the ‘storm in the teacup’ also fulfils a similar function, the containing of violence and chaos within a brittle exterior, but is often used to diminish the severity of the storm — at least, it is by those not in possession of the teacup in question. Any storm is bound to look smaller from a distance.]

Far away, in a culture whose temperament is both incredibly different and uncannily similar to that of the UK, the treatment for cracks and breaks in porcelain cups revolts against the feelings of devaluation that breaks rouse in the western sentiment. Founded in Japan, the practice of Kintsugi became a trend that encompassed the spirit of Wabi-Sabi (transience and imperfection) by repairing broken ceramics with a gold filigree. This not only revealed the new fault-lines of the damaged item in question, but wore them as a mark of triumph. The cup was viewed as stronger for having been broken. Soon, these breakages near-ceased to be mere happenings that occurred in the daily tumble of usage. The artistic sensibilities of the practice became a-la-mode in Japanese culture, with people intentionally breaking their own ceramics in order to have them made beautifully-whole again.

The surface image of this newly repaired crockery became its defining feature; the only trait would now ever be known by. The visual nature of a mug has also become a mode of expression. For some, they are advertising their preferred choice of corporate coffee shop, and for others their favourite Disney character. There are even services which offer an individual the option of plastering images of their loved ones, or meaningful experiences such as travel destinations, onto the surface of a plain, white mug. The humble picture frame — whose associations with the world of Art through the binding, and surrounding, of the image has now left the images at a remove, much like the distance one feels from the impressive items in a modern gallery, and the experiences one’s self has encountered through a life of tumults and elation — is no longer enough. We want to hold our emotional treasures in our hands, and feel the warmth of those periods when all was right in the world. Our mugs have become a new language with which we can express the unique path that contributes to the map of our identity.

This advertising of one’s inner self with a mug in not unnatural in the vocabulary of our deep, personal communication. Our very own faces, often referred in slang parlance as a mug, act as agents of revelation to those around us. Without perpetual mirrors in our presence, we are unable to see the tics, constrictions and changes that betray us amongst seeing company. By our (facial) mugs we are known to the outside world. It is said that you can see a person’s life in their expressions, in the lines of their face. Whether we choose to or not, our mugs are constantly expressing the current emotional state of the wearer, as well as the history of what has gone before.

But nobody has just one mug. My own cupboard at home (of which two shelves are dedicated to cup and mugs) holds about 40 different mugs. I have a mug for every season: a mug for guests, a mug for cereal, a mug for study, a mug for leisure time, a mug for reading. And, just as we are said to ‘wear’ an expression, we select the mug we deem appropriate for the occasion. Mugs have become an instinctive response to a situation, a go-to way of knowing the script from which we must read, so that when faced with an emotionally fraught individual, we know exactly which mug to choose.