Last year, author Bruce Feller wrote in the New York Times, “The Art of the Wedding Toast.” Inspired by a cry for help from a desperate brother, Feller embarked on a literary and film survey, interviews and thoughtful ruminations about how best to compose what is arguably one of the most difficult types of public speaking any of us will every suffer through.
And the stakes are high. Most likely, you have extensive history from which to sift through and curate a small handful of moments worthy of a room. Even more difficult is to know what and how to share of your own emotional investment.
Before he gets to the actual recipe for successful toasting, streamlined yet fluffy with examples, he trots out a list of Thou Shalt Nots involving what you’d think should be common sense: Don’t mention anything to do with sex, skeletons in the closet, boring stories, self-aggrandizement and breaking-the-fourth-wall locutions that feel as violating (being dramatic here) as when a character in a movie looks directly at the camera. Feller refers to that one as, “Don’t make amends.” More than that, it’s beyond apologizes. The arena of speechmaking has to always be socially appropriate. In Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig stares into the eyes of her bff bride-to-be in an attempt to reenact the “you know what I’m thinking by just a look” phenomenon that many experience. Doubtful that this would ever happen in the wild, this filmic example illustrates how bad things can get when they steer off the reservation and start second-guessing what usually is intuited as just common sense.
And then there’s the ending. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist who’s been awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics, conducted what he calls, “The Cold Hand Situation,” in which participants actually chose what was technically worse for them because it made for a better ending. In an interview, he states,
“When we tell ourselves stories, how they end is extremely important. So you can take a bad story and make it better by adding suffering so long as the suffering you’re adding is diminishing, so that it ends as an improvement.”
It’s here that Feller’s advice falls short (although it’s still a great article, and the fall is slight).
Not all toasts are actually toasts. To think of the terrifying “Wedding Toast” as a toast is actually more harmful than we realize. In reality, we should think of what’s preceding the actual toast as more of a storytelling time, and not a toast at all.
This difference becomes much more clear if you take a look at toasts in their much more common variant.
Just thinking about that type of toast can make you drool and elevate your mood. Drinks in hand, loved ones nearby, it’s the easiest type of public speaking.
Those types of toasts are short and to the point. Feller evokes this in a handful of examples he gives that make up the ending. He offers the old chestnuts, including: “May you have a life filled with,” “May you always find joy in” and the British, “Ladies and Gentlemen, to the couple.”
Short, sweet and to the barest of points. But to end this way is to completely ignore the toast as a literary form. It rejects the art of wordplay, of wisdom and wit and the musicality of language itself. In short, the Irish are quite helpful here.
In yet another one of those, “Is it something in the water?” circumstances, the Irish are great at toasts. For instance, Wikipedia offers what it calls, “this Irish example” as illustrative of what a toast can be:
“May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.”
An informal alternate last 2 lines:
“And may ye be in heaven a half-hour
Afore the devil knows ye’re dead!”
Island Ireland highlights Irish toasts for all occasions including, “May your home always be too small to hold all your friends” and “We drink to your coffin. May it be built from the wood of a hundred year old oak tree that I shall plant tomorrow.”
It’s a subtle thing, the parsing apart of what is popularly considered “wedding toast” into storytelling and toast. Hopefully, it will be helpful to you if you are lucky enough to bear such burden.