Toasting has been part of almost every culture since the beginning of time. In the range of formal to casual events, toasts provide a festive touch, an added air of class and, most importantly, demonstrate thanks and appreciation. Toasting is a fairly straightforward gesture but there are certain points to keep in mind and specific protocol to follow the next time you raise your glass.
At an event, whether it is casual cocktails or a formal banquet reception, the host or hostess should make the first toast. This is certainly the expected standard at large functions. Before making a toast, always make sure your guests have filled glasses. Champagne is the traditional choice but other beverages are fine. If you are toasting with champagne or sparkling wine, make sure you have ginger ale or orange juice on hand as the best substitutes for those who do not drink alcohol. If a toast is spontaneously proposed and you only have water in front of you, raise the water glass. If you only have an empty glass in front of you, raise the empty glass – while not ideal, it’s better than raising no glass at all.
Traditionally, the host is the first person to make a toast, at the start of the meal or reception of the event, to welcome their guests. Later in the event, such as during the dessert course, guests are welcome to contribute toasts as well. At a wedding reception, the best man is expected to make the first toast.
In a small group, remain seated during the toast, but in a group of twelve or more, the “toaster” should rise so everyone can see them clearly. The rest of the group remains seated unless the “toaster” indicates ‘for all to rise and drink’. When trying to get a group’s attention, do not tap your glass with a utensil, but rather politely ask, “May I have your attention”. This may need to be repeated several times but should be done so politely, patiently, and with a smile.
When toasting, one must make eye contact, but avoid clinking glasses. In medieval times, people were so distrustful of one another, sometimes (rightfully) suspecting friends as potential enemies, so all would pour a bit of wine into each other’s glasses to ensure drinks were not poisoned. This then evolved from pouring contents to brashly ‘clinking’ goblets. Today it is highly unlikely your drink has been poisoned so pouring contents or clinking are not necessary. It is most important to make eye contact and smile to acknowledge your host and other guests. If someone is set on ‘clinking’ glasses, do not retract your glass away from them, just do not initiate the ‘clinking’ yourself. Proper etiquette is to take a sip from your glass, not drain it. One should always leave at least a little in case a subsequent toast is proposed.
If the toast is honoring you, remain seated and smile appreciatively. Say thank you at the end. Do not drink to yourself, as this is similar to applauding yourself. If there is table space, put your drink down and avoid holding it. If your host has toasted you as the guest of honour, you can return the toast to your host.
Toasts are made to wealth, happiness, love, and friendship but the most common toast worldwide is to health. If you are toasting in the presence of people from other cultures, it is a nice gesture to learn how to toast in their language (gan bei, kampai, santé, skoal, prohst and so on). The proper etiquette is to say “health”, not “cheers”, but if the rest of your party is saying “cheers” then go with the flow and say it as well. A simple toast should mention the person or group being honoured, tying in something to do with the occasion or event. Birthday toasts usually provide room for humour.
If you are expected to toast at a formal occasion, please prepare your toast before hand and practice reciting it. It should be no longer than three to four minutes and the spotlight should be on the “toastee”, not on the “toaster”. It is acceptable to prepare notes, but only glance at them occasionally, do not read them, as the toast should seem fairly natural. Be sincere, eloquent and avoid long-winded toasts.
Toasting is really quite straightforward; it just takes a few tips, some preparation and of course, practice. Hong Kong is an energetic and vibrant city where you can always find a cause to celebrate, and a reason to toast. Santé!
Kristine Stewart is the director of Society West (The Hong Kong Institute of Etiquette)