Toasting - A Memorable Art


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"Here's to us that are here, to you that are there, and the rest of us everywhere." - Rudyard Kipling

The ability to offer a toast is indeed an art, and one that is becoming rarer with infrequent usage. Too often, we only think of offering a toast at weddings. Otherwise, toasts are relegated to state functions or looked upon as a strange and disconcerting custom of foreigners. Mastering the ability to offer a toast can indeed turn even the simplest of occasions into a memorable event. Understanding the importance of toasting and including toasts in a program is essential for event planners.

The History of Toasting: Toasting, despite a somewhat ignoble origin, has a long history through many cultures. It started with the ancient Greeks who had an interesting habit of spiking the punch with poison. Offering a toast was deemed a gesture of good faith. The term toasting comes from the Roman practice of putting a piece of burnt bread into the goblet to mellow the flavor of the wine. In Olde England, a piece of toast bread was put into the bottom of the glass, and you drank until you got to it.

A number of theories exist about clinking glasses with a toast. One theory, possibly stemming from that Greek habit, is that by clinking glasses, you could slosh the poison someone may have put into your wine back into theirs. Another theory is that the sound of clinking glasses was thought to drive the evil spirits out of the spirits, making it safe to drink. Clinking could also be a way to make contact since we no longer all drink from the same bowl. My favorite theory is that a good glass of wine or champagne appeals to the senses of sight, touch, taste and smell and, by clinking, it also appeals to the sense of sound, making it an all-encompassing sensual experience.

A Guide for Gracious Toasting: Be prepared, even if you were never a scout. A good toast is a speech in miniature. As anyone who writes can tell you, it takes a great deal more effort to be succinct than long-winded, so prepare your words well in advance. Mark Twain felt that "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." Practice, practice, practice if you want to sound spontaneous.

Exercise eloquence and wit. A good toast is hard to find, probably because people seldom give thought to what will be said. And, when they do, too often they turn it into a roast. A good toast should be a gift, not an insult, so make it appropriate, flattering and,if possible, memorable.

Remember to KISS ... keep it short and simple. Brevity is the soul of wit and the heart of hospitality. As George Jessel said, "If you haven't struck oil in three minutes, stop boring." Better still, think three sentences. The simplest words are perceived as the most sincere. Be yourself. A toast is not an audition for Hamlet. The best words and witticisms are your own, so forget about being reminded of something you once heard or read. Originality is the essence of wit.

End on a positive note. A toast should always be upbeat. Lead your audience to a conclusion with a generally accepted gesture like "Raise your glass" or clinking.

Transcontinental Toasting Traditions: The strongest and most formal toasting traditions are found in the eastern European, Germanic and Scandinavian countries. Here a host may begin the meal with a toast of welcome in addition to the toasts offered toward the end of a meal.

Asian countries also have a strong tradition of toasting. In fact, China, Korea and Japan all have a similar toast, but with a different pronunciation. The Chinese say ganbei, pronounced 'gon-bay', which literally means dry glass or bottoms up. In Japan, the word is kampai, pronounced 'kahm-pie'. Drinking customs also differ. In Korea, the glass is emptied and the last few drops are shaken out, then it is passed to the guest and the host refills the glass. A glass is never refilled until it is completely empty in Korea, whereas in Japan the glass is constantly refilled so it is never empty. Every country has its different words and customs, so be sure to check before putting your foot in your mouth.Toasts don't necessarily translate well, especially if they are idiomatic or poetic. It's a good idea to stick to safe topics like friendship, the enjoyment of life and health.

At official diplomatic functions, a toast is not drunk to the guest of honor unless that person happens to be the Chief of State or Head of Government. The guest of honor, including an accompanying spouse, would first be welcomed. Then references to the ties between the two countries and hopes for continued good relations might be mentioned. The historical background of the guest's country may also be touched upon. Then, the other guests are asked to join in drinking to the Chief of State or the Head of Government of the guest's country even though that person is not present. The national language of the guest of honor should be used. If the toaster is not conversant in that language, make sure an interpreter is present. The toast should be recorded for the press. It is good form to send the guest of honor a copy of the toast before the event so that the guest may formulate an appropriate reply. For important meetings, the guest's reply may even be sent back in advance of the event.

Do's and Taboos of Toasting: Never drink when a toast is offered to you. It's like applauding yourself. Nor should you stand. As a youngster, Princess Margaret apparently asked her father what he sang while everyone else sang "God Save the King". He is said to have replied that one should look gratified and dignified, but under no circumstances did one ever join in. That's excellent advice to the recipient of a toast.

Always stand up and respond to the toast, even if it is only to thank the host for the generous gesture. Never, ever, should anyone toast the guest of honor before the host. In fact, no toasts should be made until after the host has had the opportunity. If half way through the dessert it becomes apparent that the host has no intention of offering any toasts, a guest may quietly request the host's indulgence to offer a toast.

Unless it is a small, informal group of eight or less, stand when offering a toast. Be sure to make eye contact with the guest. Never rap on a glass to get attention. Too often the results are shattering. By standing, you should have been able to command enough attention to quiet everyone down. Otherwise, ask for attention while honoring the guest. Never refuse to participate in a toast. While it is ideal to have saved some wine or champagne for the toast, it is perfectly acceptable to toast with a non-alcoholic beverage. Water is not suitable for a toast because it is bad luck according to superstition. It would be preferable to raise an empty glass.

While other superstitions hold that by continuing to drink out of a glass after the toast is to dilute that toast, don't get into the Russian habit of smashing a glass into the fireplace. Glass and crystal will melt and adhere to the brick. Smashing good crystal or even a restaurant's glasses can also be an expensive pastime.

A True Tale: Several years ago, a Texas firm had gone through a leveraged buyout that left the employee owners desperate for a major infusion of cash. At the eleventh hour, their investment banker in New York was able to interest a group of Japanese financiers. To celebrate, the investment banker, young and aggressive as was so typical of the eighties, hosted a banquet at a very expensive and exclusive New York restaurant.

The Japanese investors were seated in the center of the long table, according to Japanese protocol. But, instead of seating the most important Texans and himself across from the Japanese, the banker placed the Texans at one end of the table and himself at the other, surrounding the Japanese with underlings.

Towards the beginning of the meal, the banker host stood up and proposed a toast... to himself for having pulled off this coup. The Texans were merrily into their cups, not paying much attention to anyone other than themselves. At the appropriate time, the Japanese stood up to offer appropriate formal toasts. Neither the Texans nor the banking team bothered to pay attention to the Japanese, much less respond.

Several years later, the Texans needed another infusion of cash. Again the investment banker went to the Japanese financiers. But, the Japanese remembered the insults they had endured at the hands of the Americans and refused to do business with them. The company declared bankruptcy and no longer exists.

The moral of the story is obvious. If you're going to offer any toasts, do it properly or not at all. While a well-tendered toast is a gift that can cement relationships or turn an ordinary event into a memorable occasion, an improper or insulting toast can sever even the most promising relationships.

Allow me to raise a glass to your continued success! 

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