Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tea Snobbery: At Least I'm Not Like Those Snobby Tea People

This post is inspired by a discussion on the Tea Trade Forums, How Snobbish is the Tea Community. I started writing a reply but then I realized that I wanted to write more than just a forum post. My reply was also influenced by a post I read recently on the blog Ruqyo's Song: Tea and Poetry, titled: 'There is Nothing I Dislike', referencing a famous quote by Linji, a well-known Chinese buddhist who, ironically, was known as a bit of an abrasive figure, as Buddhists go. But I digress.

Disdain for the tea bag is often associated with tea snobbery. I think there are many compelling reasons to avoid tea bags and prefer loose-leaf tea, but I think that, like any preference, this opinion can be taken too far, and can become snobbery.

The notion of "snobbery" can be subjective:

I think "snobbery" is something that can be found in many communities, but it's something that is subjective, in the eyes of the beholder, and hard to pin down. The sorry state of Wikipedia's article on Snob seems to reflect the difficulty of talking or writing objectively about this topic. Yet, subjective as it is, snobbery is something that I tend to have strong feelings about: I dislike it rather strongly. I think that snobbery actually causes harm in two ways: it harms the tea industry and tea culture by alienating people from tea, and it also causes harm in general by introducing negativity into the world and imparting a sour or bitter note into human relationships. Directly, this harms business, and indirectly, it makes the world a worse place by pushing people away from the idea that all human beings have inherent worth and are deserving of the same respect.

What is snobbery?

I will say that I have encountered people in the tea world, both online and in person, who have personally struck me as snobby (thankfully, these people are in a small minority). But rather than getting sucked into subjective negativity, I want to start by actually defining tea snobbery. What is the difference between tea snobbery, and legitimate differences in opinion, as well as legitimate differences in level of experience with tea and education about tea? I want to quote Ruqyo Highsong here:

When it comes to tea, I often find myself coming to terms with people drinking tea the way I don't think they should. Tea bags. Mesh infusers. Tea blends. Etcetera and so on.

I think these remarks are getting at a key aspect of how snobbery operates. Note the word should, a word which I have stopped using for reasons I explained in an earlier blog post.

I think snobbery, at its essence, is the idea that people "should" behave a certain way, or, to word the definition without the word "should", the idea that people are somehow better than others, more worthy of our respect, because of their choices, preferences, or their level of education or understanding of a specific topic. Tea snobbery is not the same as acknowledging or identifying that some people know more about tea than others. Tea snobbery is when you think that you have "better" tastes in tea, or that your level of knowledge makes you somehow a better person than others with less discerning tastes. Tea snobbery is not when you want to share your knowledge of tea with others, it is when you want to talk at others and impose your knowledge on them, possibly without their consent. Yes, I've seen this happen in some tea businesses, sadly, and it's very bad business, alienating customers.

My confession:

I've been guilty of various sorts of snobbery in the past. I've always been someone who highly values learning and education. I have two advanced degrees from prestigious schools. It's easy for me to get sucked into the idea of thinking that these things make me better than others, and it's perhaps even easier for me to think I'm better than others for not thinking I'm better than others for these reasons, if that makes any sense. After all, we live in a society where we are rewarded, sometimes at least, for superior knowledge. People who are more highly educated often make more money, and even in areas where education does not pay off, people are given frequent praise, especially in school, when they exhibit superior knowledge, such as on exams and other assignments. We are taught, unfortunately, and wrongly, that knowing more makes us better people. And I've gotten sucked into this mentality on multiple occasions. And then our society also values humility, so when I get out of the status trap, I fall into thinking: "Wow, look at how great I am, I'm not like all those snobby people judging others based on their level of wealth or education." ...and snobbery sets in again. Staying of out snobbery's grasp can be tricky!

What I want, however, is to not be remotely snobby. I want to learn voraciously, and cultivate excellence in all aspects of my life, but I want to share my knowledge freely (not impose it on others forcefully or hoard it for my own personal gain), and I want to use whatever skills and abilities I develop to help others, rather than just using it to manipulate or control others. And I want to connect with all people, people of all levels of ability and education, so that I may learn from people who know things I do not know (which includes, no exaggeration, everyone), and may share my knowledge with others who do not know everything that I know (which, again, includes all people, no exceptions). And, perhaps most difficult of all, I want to be able to be modest and humble about whatever abilities I have without looking down on all the people who arrogantly flaunt their knowledge and abilities.

What do you think?

Do you get sucked into snobbery when thinking about tea? What helps you get out of it? Have you been alienated from a business by a snobbish owner or employee? Have you ever been the victim of someone trying to "educate" you about tea without your consent? And how do you deal with that really tough, meta-level problem of getting snobbish about the fact that you're not snobbish?


  1. I have used the term tea snob in my description of myself not because I look down on the choice of others. I use this term to describe my own choices. My personal choice of the unadulterated leaf over blends is one of the reasons. This term used loosly identifies my preferences which I do not project on others. Tea is to be experienced in it's many forms if for nothing else but pure enjoyment and pleasure.

  2. Haha...yes...I think that there's nothing wrong with using the word jokingly, I do that a lot too.


  3. My mom taught me that there is no greater sin than pride (all forms of pride - I think she even believed that confidence is dangerous, although she doesn't anymore.) But I still inappropriately enjoyed being better than other kids at certain things, even as I felt awful for doing so. So, this is something that I've thought a lot about, and I think I've come to a good place with it.

    I find that when I feel good about myself, there is no need to be overly celebratory about my good qualities. This is a pretty trite concept, but I think it's the root of the vast majority of pride/arrogance/chauvinism/snobbery etc. There have been long stretches of time when I feel good about myself and don't need to bolster my self-confidence with snobbery. When it gets to the point that I become blind to snobbery in other people unless someone points it out to me, I know I'm doing good with it. :) I've learned to distinguish between the relief I feel when I realize pride has left me again, and that moment when I'm comparing myself to others that struggle with pride, or those that don't view it as a sin.

    I hope this resonates! It's been a long time since I've written about something this hard to pin down.

  4. At least I'm not one of those people who brag about not getting snobby about the fact that they're too humble to point out their lack of snobbiness about not being snobs. I can't STAND those people.