“Seven years bad sex!”
I’m not generally a superstitious person, but when I heard that my ears perked up.
I was traveling in Europe at the time, and the group of Spaniards I was with insisted that when you toast, you have to look each other in the eyes—otherwise it’s seven years bad sex.
7 years! Yikes, that’s a long time. Needless to say, I became a religious observer of this new custom. The Spaniards would all yell “ojos!” (“eyes!”) when we were cheersing, and everyone would take great care to look each person in the eye as they clanked glasses.
Is there any truth to the superstition? Who knows? But I wasn’t about to find out. If nothing else, it takes you off “autopilot” for half a second, and makes you connect with another person before you swig down your drink like a thirsty pirate.
Of course, it’s not always just you and your Spaniard friends drinking on a beach around a bonfire in your flip flops. Sometimes raising your glass requires a bit more pomp and circumstance. Real toasts aren’t just about a casual interaction or superstition. There are some established customs and expectations.
When You Might Give a Formal Toast
There are many occasions when you might give a formal toast. The obvious ones are weddings, anniversaries, wakes, etc. But there are plenty of other smaller occasions when you might need or want to do a proper toast, such as: a graduation dinner, a birthday party, a cocktail party, bachelor party, the launch party for a new venture, a retirement party. The list goes on.
The extended formal toasts at a wedding have so many nuances that I’ll have to cover that in a separate post. But they shares many of the classic components of a traditional toast.
Toasts are a succinct way to express emotion or a point of view during a special occasion. But the real benefit of toasts for the “toaster” or “toast-giver” is that it makes you a participant in the event and not just an observer—as well as making the other guests feel like they’re an active part of the occasion.
The History of Toasts
According to the book Toasts, there was a time “not that long ago, when one could not go to a luncheon—let alone a banquet or wedding—without hearing a series of carefully proposed and executed toasts.” But since the mid-20th century, the custom of creative and thoughtful toasts has bas begun to erode.
The tradition of drinking to another’s health has been around since before recorded history. But over time, it has been become intertwined with various other rituals. Along the way, a few embellishments have been added so that it has become custom that we know it as today.
As ridiculous as it sounds, the modern phrase “to toast” DOES have its origins in toasted bread. According to the book, Toasts for Every Occasion, the word “toast” comes from the Roman custom of placing a piece of burnt spiced bread in the communal wine goblet to help absorb impurities and improve flavor—a sort of primitive charcoal filter.
One story about the origin of clinking of glasses is that was a way drink with your enemy and prove you weren’t trying to kill him. By smashing glasses together you’d slosh your drinks together and prove that you weren’t poisoning each other. But a more credible story is that it replicates the Christian tradition of clanging the bells in order to banish the devil. It’s also said to be a way to emphasize the shared experience of the guests.
The Basic Components of a Toast
Many of the most widely known toasts in popular culture represent just a small part of the traditional structured toast. It’s inevitably the final “well-wishing” sentiment right before you drink, like Rick’s toast in Casablanca: “Here’s looking at you kid.” Or Tiny Tim’s toast in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “God bless us every one!”
But there’s a bit more to it than that. A toast is basically a compressed speech. The nice thing about understanding the essential components is that it allows you to be spontaneous, and if needed, whip together a toast on the fly. This is especially helpful for those nerve-racking times when a friend or family member shoves you up in front of the group and asks you to “say a few words.”
The basic structure of a toast is as follows:
1. The greeting or salutation (“Good evening everyone. I’d like to make a brief toast to…”)
The greeting is obviously the point where you say hello and let everyone know you want to make a toast. It’s also a good time to introduce yourself if you’re not known to everyone at the event.
2. The statement of purpose (“We’re here to celebrate…”)
This part is meant to remind those gathered about why you’re all there. This is key since the whole point of your toast is to honor a special person or a special milestone. Make sure and acknowledge it.
3. The sentiment or point of view
The sentiment is the most variable part of the toast, since it can be long if you’re telling a story, or it can be fairly short if you’re just skipping to the part where you bestow your good wishes. Here you could tell a brief anecdote, or talk about your thoughts or feelings for the guest of honor or the occasion. And you’d usually end it by bestowing your good wishes for the future. As I mentioned, many of the shorter and more widely known toasts just focus on the last part of the sentiment, such as these:
“May your love be like good wine, and grow stronger as it grows older.” -Old English toast
“May you live to be a hundred years with one extra year to repent.”-Irish Toast
Ideally, you should stand to give a toast if you are able. And as with any public speaking, make sure to project your voice and make eye contact with the audience; don’t look at your feet. If you’re using a mic, don’t be afraid of it. Your voice may sound too loud to you, but to the audience it’s probably just audible. And hopefully you have a sound guy or a DJ who will watch your levels.
If you’re using cue cards, make sure they’re well numbered and only have writing on one side. It’s better to use “prompt cards” with short phrases to remind you of major points in your speech rather than write every word.
At the end of your (short) speech, lift your glass in the air, extending your arm straight out from the shoulder (not above your head). Ask everyone to raise their glasses or say “cheers” or “here’s to…” and wait for everyone to stand and lift their glass.
Quick Tips for Success When Giving a Toast
- Keep it brief. 1-3 minutes or less.
- Know your audience.
- Introduce yourself if you’re not known by all the guests
- Stay away from controversial topics.
- It’s okay to quote someone else’s famous words. But make it clear how those words resonate with this occasion.
- Don’t be “the revealer.” No one needs to hear about the past exploits of the groom at a wedding.
- Be a storyteller if you’re writing a longer speech. Paint visual pictures for the audience.
- Make the toast about the occasion and guest(s) of honor, not about you.
- Don’t try too hard for a laugh. Sincerity usually trumps goofiness, especially if you don’t have a gift for comedy.
- If you’ve been asked to give a toast, understand why. It’s probably because you represent a particular dimension in the guest of honor’s life. Which means you should talk about that…
- Preparation is key. If you have the opportunity, practice your toast beforehand. Don’t wing it.
- Don’t memorize a speech word-for-word. Use prompt cards if needed. If the precise wording is important, it’s better to read the speech—there’s no shame in that.
- Don’t forget to raise your glass and say “cheers” or “to…”
…Oh, and one more thing: I suggest saying “Ojos!” and looking nearby guests in the eyes. Better safe than sorry!
In all seriousness, the whole looking each other in the eye thing has become somewhat of a tradition in my family. Even at my wedding, all the guests were chanting “ojos.”
I’m curious to know what other traditions you might have related to toasting—whether formal or informal. Share your thoughts in the comments below!