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Toast of the Town 

The many variations of tradition in toasting

Wednesday, Dec 27 2000
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Dear Social Grace,
As I prepare to run the holiday cocktail-party gauntlet, I could use a little clarification with regard to toasting. I was raised to toast fellow participants at dinners, or when friends or family get together for a cocktail, with a style that leans toward restraint. As a young person, I learned that the appropriate way to toast was to gently raise one's glass, propose a toast or acknowledge one made (depending on initiative), make direct eye contact with each person in turn, and slightly incline one's glass. We were told that clinking glasses was gauche, not to mention awkward at larger tables. Whatever people's personal style, I always urge fellow partiers to make eye contact with the toaster -- there is nothing ruder than raising one's glass only to find a table partner looking to see who forgot to toast him or sloshing her beverage of choice.

Further, people who urge "a toast, a toast" and then have nothing to volunteer would seem to be better off offering their own toasts rather than bringing conversation to a halt and then sitting in silence with expectant grins on their faces.

I know that European and American traditions range widely here, but I look forward to your edifying comments.

Best,
Dash of Decorum

Dear Decorous Madam or Sir,
Thank you for your timely letter. Toasting is an extremely old tradition, and therefore it does have many variations across national and cultural lines. Just as a traveler is wise (if not obligated) to learn the simple, polite phrases of the countries he visits, so he might consider learning how to toast his hosts or new friends should the need arise. For example, toasting is a much stronger tradition in Germanic and Scandinavian cultures than in many Mediterranean ones; indeed, the French word for the verb "to toast" is trinquer, a derivative of the German trinken ("to drink"). In other words, if you're going to propose a toast, be sure you know what you're doing.

During recent weeks we've given more than enough space to gift etiquette (to sum up, we will paraphrase the visionary Mae West: It's not what you share but the way that you share it). Therefore, this week we are free to explore the complex, deeply symbolic, and ever-popular act of communal libation. Decorous fun is our goal.

Gently clinking glasses is not gauche at all -- nor is it a necessary part of toasting, although it is a bit more intimate than simply raising glasses. It's a symbolic, unifying gesture, a natural evolution from the older practice of sharing one cup when drinking a toast (or when saying a prayer). It may also be a remnant of another older custom: the sloshing together of a group's drinks, perhaps to demonstrate that no one had poisoned another guest's beverage. Depending on one's circle of friends, poisoned merlot is no longer a significant concern; however, people like to clink -- it has a festive sound, and it's a nicely intimate act, reminiscent of a kiss on the cheek. If clinking glasses is awkward or difficult, though, or if there is a danger of breaking or sloshing (those old-time wine sloshers weren't working with crystal glasses or Aunt Vivian's favorite damask tablecloth), smacking glasses should be eschewed. During a toast, everyone should focus on the honoree (or toastee), or, if it is a more general toast -- "Happy New Year!" comes to mind -- on the other members of the group.

To answer your final concern: A good reason for asking that a toast be made (without making it oneself) is that to propose a toast to someone presumes a certain familiarity or bond. A guest may feel that a toast is in order but that he is not the best person to do it. For example, if a guest at Ms. CEO's retirement party thinks her longtime assistant, Mr. Kinda Shy, should be invited to make a toast, encouraging him is well within the bounds of proper behavior.

But we're not ready to drink yet, folks. There are some other toasting concerns we should keep in mind if we want to be considered decorous:
At a dinner party or other hosted event, the first toast is the host's privilege, and a guest should be careful not to usurp it. If no toast is offered or after the host has made a toast (the rhyming is becoming unbearable, isn't it?), a guest may propose one. Often it will be a toast to the hosts (with the mosts). (OK, I'm getting punchy.) At ceremonial occasions, there is often a toastmaster -- someone designated to lead the toasting -- but at an informal party, any (and as many) guests who wish to propose a toast may do so.

Before proposing a toast, make sure that everyone is paying attention. If one guest is busy explaining to a relative what, exactly, happened to her Internet start-up, you may need to tap your glass a couple of times with silverware. A toast needn't be long; in fact, shorter is usually better -- if this column were a toast, you'd be ready to throw your glass at me by now. If you're called upon to make a toast and are unprepared or tongue-tied, say something simple, such as, "To Etienne, our wonderful friend." If you know in advance that you will need to make a toast, you should prepare. Keep in mind that brevity is at the heart of a good toast; that certain things are rarely appropriate, such as private jokes not understood by all present, vulgarity, or embarrassing the toastee; and that context is important. Match the toast to the occasion -- sweet sentiment works at a wedding, as solemn respect works at a ritual piercing ceremony. And since the history of civilization is at our fingertips with the Internet, it couldn't hurt (and would probably impress many) to incorporate an appropriate quotation. When proposing a toast to a person at a formal occasion, you should stand, as should the other guests. If not everyone stands, you might incorporate the request into your toast ("Let's stand and raise a glass to Lee and Chris ..."). At informal occasions, you can stand alone -- or not at all.

Toasting is generally done after wine or champagne (or another beverage) has been poured, before eating, or directly after everyone has finished. Before proposing a toast, be sure everyone has some liquid with which to participate. If you are caught without liquid in your glass during a toast, stand up and raise your empty glass. To do otherwise would be impolite.

The most common etiquette infraction I witness during toasting is the toastee who drinks to himself. Drinking to one's own health is akin to applauding oneself. When you are being individually toasted, you should remain seated (if others are standing). When the toast is over, you can respond by standing (or not), saying thank you (or something more personal), and raising your own glass.

With that, I raise my teacup to you, dear madams and sirs, and with fond memories of the passing year and glad hope for the coming one, I wish you all a healthy, prosperous, and well-mannered 2001.

About The Author

Social Grace

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