Black is the New Clear

Like Sally, I just want my tea the way I want it – oh, and the rest of society, too, while we’re at it.


Clear, please.

There is a short pause and then a disarmingly frank admission.

I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.

I’m in an aisle seat at the back of the plane and the flight attendant is, perforce, standing well within the comfortable limits of my personal space.

She has just asked how I want my tea; I have answered without looking up. Now I tilt my head sideways and up so I can see her face, all without touching the stranger in the middle seat. It’s a bit awkward but I do my best. Sometimes conversation demands eye contact.

When I explain that ‘clear’ tea is tea without creamer or sugar, she happily corrects me, Oh, you mean ‘black.’

For a nanosecond I consider whether to engage. There are, after all, many points that I could make. That ‘black’ is for coffee, not tea. That ‘black’ in tea is determined during processing of the leaves, not during serving of the liquid. That in the wee styrofoam cup favoured by airlines these days, ‘black’ tea would be so tannin-laden as to be undrinkable. I consider engaging, but decide against. Wisely, I feel.

But as she hands off a cup of ‘black’ tea which becomes ‘clear’ in my hands, it appears that my use of incorrect jargon has, contrarily, elevated me in her mind to the status of Tea Adept.

Why do the English ask for what they don’t want?

Regrettably, it has not simultaneously improved my mind-reading skills.

What do you mean?

It’s clear this has been a puzzler for a while: she’s ready to go, with no fumbling for words.

Well, they say, ‘Tea, no sugar,’ or ‘Tea, no milk.’ Why do they ask for what they don’t want?

And just like that, I am transported back forty-some years to a roadside truck stop somewhere in Great Britain. It is all fluorescent glare, scuffed chrome, faded melamine, and table spacing that brings my fellow patrons well within the comfortable limits of my personal space. In apparent response to my tea order, a small metal teapot emerges from the kitchen, unadorned.

Odd, I think, where’s the teabag?

I check the small saucer on which said teapot sits: maybe the teabag is tucked under the teapot as it sometimes is at home. Nope.

I check the table: in this tea-driven nation, maybe teabags are already on the table with the sugar and creamer. A staple, like Tabasco® in the US of A. Nope.

I sit, flummoxed, for just a minute, and then a horrible thought occurs. Maybe the teabag was put into the teapot back in the kitchen. Yikes. How strong will the tea be by now?

Frantic to minimize the damage but anxious to avoid a burn, I gingerly flip open the teapot’s lid to find the teabag already inside, happily steeping away in something less than eight ounces of hot water. Oh, no.

But not ‘oh no’ so much as ‘Oh No,’ because it’s not ‘a teabag,’ it’s three teabags. Yikes indeed.

Back in the present, safe from anything that looks remotely like English roadside-stop tea, I smile through the crick forming in my neck and try to explain.

About how standard English tea is so strong that both sugar and some form of creamer are assumed. About how, in that environment, the clearest way to shortcut the back-and-forth of ordering is to specify what — if anything — of the default configuration you don’t want.

Tea, no sugar. It both assumes and betrays the existence of shared experience, of common expectations.

As the flight attendant passes into the galley, I think about my own digressions from common expectations. I routinely specify that the toasted English muffin be dry, and that the salad dressing be on the side. But beyond food, are there other default configurations that I’d rather override?

Hey, I know! How about, Political discourse, no posturing. Ooh, ooh! And how about, Abortion debate, no vitriol. What the heck, reach for the stars.

Of course, if I think I’ll have a better chance with less-violent sports, I could always ask for Hockey, no concussions. And as the World Cup winds up, would anyone care to join me in Soccer, no diving?

Or if I want to limit my sights and opt for something a little more relevant to my day-to-day — something more like that cup of tea — I might simply ask for, Conversations overheard in passing on the street, no effing swearing.

OK, I’m ready to order. Now, where’s a really good flight attendant when you need one?

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12 Responses to Black is the New Clear

  1. Ralph Gibson says:


  2. Give us the Grace, who have lived life and known our language at a refined level of analysis, not to engage too sincerely with those who have not! I may have lost a friend of very longstanding this week who observed my slight impact with a vehicle on her street and who thinks she knows more than I do about how my vehicle “engaged” with another although she was on the far side of the street and, of course, could neither see through my van to its far side nor sense the impact as I had from inside my vehicle while in brief contact with the other vehicle or during the slight recoil. Rushing to inspect what I had already assessed from my vantage point, she assumed one bit of damage she observed as a precondition and the other as my fault, whereas I have a stack of evidence including that of my own eyes as I measured the relation of my vehicle to the one I had just hit, to prove that the reverse is true. It is a physical impossibility that my van could have dented the top side of the other vehicle’s fender; I absolutely did scrape its hubcap, the evidence for which is clearly visible on my bumper. The difference in those assessments is about $1000 in repair bills. In my absence, she proceeded with missionary zeal (her actual profession) to give her version of the event to a neighbour, who conveyed it to the vehicle owner (non-English-speaking) when he showed up, initiating a cascade of events to describe which would produce a novella. In a peculiar, not to say Providential, revelation, a couple of days later I watched the owner walk by his vehicle with a load of boards, stepping forwards and backwards while looking over his shoulder to see how the far ends of the boards aligned with the damage to his fender. In fact, the dent and trailing scratch would be precisely consonant with such a load slipping and impacting the vehicle. He could not have known he was being observed from the basement apartment across the street. A few emails into my efforts to enlighten my friend, I realized her path of thought, belief, and action was strewn with further assumptions, about my behaviour and character, about the word of strangers, and perhaps about any topic we have ever discussed over 45 years. Today, as often, you exemplify with delicacy and humour through reasoning about trivial matters that such care and insight could and should be brought to the grave issues that trouble our societies. I wonder who can listen?

    Currently editing A History of Psychology (3rd edn), I was struck by research done by Sir R.A. Fisher, one of the most important among methodologists, who tested the contention of “‘a lady [who] declares that by tasting a cup of tea she can discriminate whether the milk or the tea . . . was first added to the cup’ (Fisher [1925] 1991: 11)” (J.G. Benjafield, OUP, forthcoming). Perhaps among such, Isabel, we will find our audience!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – You raise an interesting point. Signs of common (and often unspoken) expectations are sort of fun, although they can be disconcerting when their realization is sudden. But how much more disconcerting and how much less fun to suddenly realize that we’ve been operating on different assumptions and expectations, especially from friends of long standing.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Oh, my, wouldn’t it be nice to order up an intelligent conversation (no effing) the way one can order up a coffee (double double)…. Far too often I enter into a conversation thinking we might seriously probe our human nature(s), only to find it degenerates into, well, the relative merits of #3 woods in golf. Of course, sometimes a discussion about golf morphs into an analysis of nihilism in travel planning, so perhaps I should just be grateful for the small mercies that come unexpectedly.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – There can’t be more than two people in the entire country who would characterize a conversation about “nihilism in travel planning” as a mercy of any sort. But, hey! “Celebrate different,” as the TV ads say these days, and I guess I’m not surprised one of those two is you. But I am surprised that you seem to discount the insights into human nature that can derive from a discussion about #3 woods . . .

      • Celebrate different [sic] …. ? no “ly”?
        The barbarians are not only on this side of the wall, but are US.
        Present company excepted, of course…

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Ah, yes, without the context of the ad, you might well think the usage should be adverbial. I seemed to remember a computer campaign: Think Different. And Google, bless it, confirmed. There were many discussions about whether this was grammatical. This new TV ad takes what I guess is the same tack. Me, I’d likely have said, “Celebrate differences.” Or, maybe, “Celebrate diversity.” But “Celebrate different” is what we got, and I can’t argue that after enumerating some ways people are different from each other, to change it to “diversity” would be a tad pedantic.

  4. John Whitman says:

    I just couldn’t resist commenting on this one.
    Maybe clear/black tea is a western thing just like snickelfritz. Being a true easterner like me, I’d never heard the term clear tea until this blog. Tea without cream or sugar was always black when I was growing up. That’s because it was nearly always King Cole which is really black or Red Rose orange pekoe. And back then the options for green tea and God help us herbal tea were non-existent in most small town stores, assuming that people had even heard of them. So I’ve learned something new.
    By the way, did your stewardess/flight attendant who might have been an easterner proceed by foot back to the galley to get your clear tea?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Well, there, maybe she was an Easterner. We’ve noted differences in usage and spelling across this wide country afore now. It was clear tea where I grew up – I never heard of black tea in this context until moving to (or working in) Ottawa. As for “snicklefritz,” I think the way I use it (as a replacement for “what’s his/her name”) is not regional but idiosyncratic. I picked it up (I think in Saskatchewan) and may have missed the speaker’s connotation – apparently the Pennsylvania Dutch used it to mean a talkative child. As for how the flight attendant moved out of personal space, she did indeed proceed by foot. While proceeding by plane.

  5. M.McQuillan says:

    The horror of seeing 3 teabags in a small pot reminded me of a trip to India where they placed between 12 to 14 teabags into a pot sized about 16 to 20 oz. Wow, that was strong tea! I loved that India hotels always had a kettle and not a coffee maker. I also loved that they served Twinning’s Darjeeling and had a milk powder that beats the American Coffeemate product. I tend to avoid tea on planes as for years they would use the same carafes for both tea and coffee, which would mean tea tainted with coffee flavour – revolting. Although they may have stopped this practice I’m not a fan of the cheap stale teabags offered. I would not say clear unless I wanted them to bring me just hot water so I can use my own teabag.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      M. McQuillan – Oh, yes, the folks who mix carafes of coffee and hot water for tea! What were they thinking? Maybe that they never drink tea so they don’t know what that does to the taste. I didn’t know that Indians also drink strong tea. Parallel cultural evolution, I wonder, or did one of them influence the other across the colonial divide? As for usage, “clear” is beginning to look a lot like “bunnyhug” – a Saskatchewanism for hoodie that I picked up from my kids who picked it up from their friends. Maybe it’s a Westernerism.

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