Here's To The Vital Social Art Of Toastmaking

Get a few glasses of sparkling wine in me, and I become quite the sentimental drinker. I'm prone to telling my friends how much they mean to me, how great of people they are, and how I'm so glad we're friends. I've been teased for tipsily repeating the phrase "You guys, this is just so nice." So it comes as no surprise to my friends that I love proposing toasts, especially of the informal sort that befits a laid-back bar night or a backyard party.

My favorite all-purpose toast is one I've borrowed from Punch House, a Chicago bar I visited often when I lived there: "There are good ships, there are wood ships, there are ships that sail the seas. But the best ships are friendships, and may they always be." It compactly combines both my cheesy sentimentality and my love of silly wordplay, making it a classic Kate go-to. At Punch House, the staff asked for quiet every night at midnight, at which point the entire bar would collectively raise a glass and recite the toast. It coincided with the bar's feeding of the fish that lived in its massive, tropical fish tank, a nod to punch's maritime origins. The bar's opening general manager and a partner in the business, Will Duncan, tells me the bar now has plenty of regulars who heartily recite the toast along with the staff. It was a goofy little ritual, but it did create an air of camaraderie and good will, which has historically been the purpose of toasts.

So why, in modern times, do we tend to reserve toasts for weddings or retirement parties? Why not make any gathering an occasion to raise a glass to each other? Oh right, because a lot of people hate giving toasts. But they needn't be so nervous; in fact, public-speaking and etiquette experts agree Americans tend to be overly formal and long-winded in this respect. If we'd all just loosen up a bit, we could revive the art of the toast and maybe strength some social bonds in the process.

People have been toasting probably as long as they've been drinking alcohol. Many ancient cultures had some form of a pre-drinking ritual in which thanks were offered to gods or kings or those gathered around a table, and some form of "raising a glass" has persisted since medieval times. But it wasn't called a "toast" until the 17th century, when adding a bit of bread was added to alcoholic drinks both to improve flavor and as a sort of pre-meal snack. Thankfully, we don't do that anymore, and contemporary toasting is entirely a social ritual, one whose popularity has waxed and waned in America.

"There was a period in which toasting was almost obliterated from people's consciousness," says Paul Dickson, author of Toasts: Over 1,500 Of The Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, And Graces. "During the late '60s and '70s and that Vietnam War era of long hair, informality seemed to be a sacrament and formality seemed to be a sin."

At the turn of the 20th century, every fraternal organization, civic group, university, city, and professional group seemed to have its own toast, many of which were preserved in a proliferation of books on the subject. Dickson began collecting these books from yard sales, and eventually realized there was a resurgent contemporary interest in the ritual after the rebellious informality of the '70s had passed. First published in the early 1980s, Toasts' best-selling year didn't come until 2000.

But the ritual of toasting is perhaps an endangered species once more, as Americans eat fewer sit-down meals in favor of more on-the-go snacks. Where my parents might have hosted seated dinner parties, I'm much more likely to have friends over for pizza and beer on the deck or a backyard brat-grilling session. Which is why, experts say, if we're going to save the art of toasting, we need to free it from its stuffier confines.

"Certainly today our dining is so much less formal that you just don't see a big group gathered for a meal with wine so often," says Mary Mitchell, the author of nine etiquette books and founder of The Mitchell Organization professional development program. "We seem to associate toasting with formality, but I think a toast can warm up any occasion if it's done right and appropriately."

So how do you do a toast right? Perhaps the most iconic toast in history—"Here's looking at you, kid"—proves it doesn't have to be a long-winded oration. It's when people try to get too clever (see: Wedding Crashers) that they're more likely to bomb.

"One of the first principles is it doesn't have to be taken so seriously. So many people want to read books, have quotes, make it so grand. I think it's just got to be inclusive of people as opposed to something that wordsmith and ponder," says Anett Grant, the CEO of Executive Speaking and author of numerous articles on toasting.

The pressure to deliver something clever or earth-shattering actually works against people giving toasts, says Simon Bucknall, a public-speaking expert and second-place winner of Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. He says that nervous speakers especially should think more about why they're giving a toast, and articulate that feeling in their words.

"I've seen men at times struggle with being heartfelt for fear of being seen as a bit feeble. As a result, a toast can come across a bit lukewarm or dry," he says. "As soon as you slip into a transactional mindset—that you've just got to do this—it becomes a bit of a waste. If in your mind you're clear on why you're doing it, it takes the pressure off a bit and gives you a real reason to do a decent job and to be sincere."

Sincerity is the name of the game when it comes to giving toasts, experts agree. Toasts were described to me as "punctuation marks" and "souvenirs" of an evening. Essentially, a person giving a toast is summing up for the group why they're all together and what that camaraderie feels like. As long as a person enters into a toast with that in mind, there are only a few other tips and rules to nailing a modern toast:

  • Keep it short. Paul Dickson says a toast should be more like a haiku than an epic poem. After all, some people might be holding their glasses in the air—you don't want to leave them hanging. Mary Mitchell puts it another way: "There's an Irish adage that says: 'A toast should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting.'"
  • Give cues. Don't leave people wondering what to do: At the beginning, call for a toast so people know to quiet down and return to their seats. At the end of a toast, say "And now let's raise a glass" or "To Sam!" so it's clear that people should raise their glasses, too.
  • Don't toast yourself. If someone's raising a glass to you, just sit smiling and don't raise your own glass. When everyone's done, you can offer a return toast in thanks.
  • Don't embarrass anyone. The truly worst toasts I've ever heard of involve speakers who thought it would be hilarious to tease the bride on her wedding day. What you think of as good-natured could ruin the mood of an evening; save the funny anecdotes for another time and play it straight. "You can't toy with people at that point. You're there because you love the person and you're there to honor their day," Dickson says. "Don't try to be some wacko comedian."
  • It's not about you. The worst toasts mention the speaker 20 times before they get around to the person they're supposedly honoring. "This isn't an occasion where the audience is saying 'Oh is this a person who should be on a TED Talk?'" Grant says. "All they want you to do is raise the spirit of an event."
  • State the obvious. Experts say the most successful toasts don't reinvent the wheel, they just describe who's in the room and why. Say who's in attendance (old friends, family from far and wide, colleagues), why you're there (to celebrate a wedding, to mark the end of a successful project, to admire someone's achievement), and why the occasion is special.
  • Use repetition to build rhythm. Humans naturally use repetition when we speak informally, and repetition of key words makes for a highly effective and memorable toast. (Bonus: It will help you stay on track without reading off notecards, a big no-no.) Grant recommends starting a series of sentences the same way to create a rhythm and help the audience follow along: "When I met Sam as a teenager, I knew he was a great skateboarder. When I got to know Sam as an adult, I learned he was a great friend. Now that I know Sam as a brother-in-law, I've realized how wonderful he is as family."
  • Make eye contact. It's not required that you clink glasses with everyone around a table, and it can be awkward to do so in a large group. Instead, make eye contact and raise your glass in their general direction.

  • When done well, a toast can elevate common social bonds, enhance feelings of togetherness, and even gloss over rough patches from the past. All those are sorely needed in our divided, fragmented, and increasingly impersonal world.

    "The thing about raising a toast is you're raising a toast to people there in the room. It's a live event, not something you'd do over Skype or email," Bucknall says, adding that these events needn't be weddings or fancy parties. "So when you've got people together for a live event, it's a way of crystallizing the relationships between those people."

    One of the most charming instances of a modern, casual toast being used to its full purpose was relayed to me by etiquette expert Mary Mitchell. She'd been scheduled to take a business trip from New York to London, but her flight kept getting delayed and delayed. Once it took off, it was returned back to the gate because of mechanical troubles. She didn't make it to London until 5 a.m. the morning after she was supposed to arrive, and she was exhausted and worn out when she met her clients. They stopped at a roadside cafe—"a place like Denny's would look like formal dining compared to where we were"—and ordered orange juice. Her client raised a glass and said: "Mary, we want you to know how happy we are that you're here, and that you're worth waiting for." Mitchell says she would have "walked over hot coals for them" after that.

    And words, customs, and fancery aside, that's the whole point: A toast takes a small moment out of a day to state the sentiment behind a gathering. Perhaps as an antidote to the digital age, it seems everyone in 2018 is trying to live "intentionally" and "with purpose." In a social context, that means slowing down and articulating aloud the positive forces that still bring people together. It doesn't require a wedding or a retirement party or the birth of a baby; in 2018, it seems like just making it through another week is cause for celebration. So, Takeout readers, here's to you.