We’ve all been there: a cork pops, glasses are filled and passed around, and before anyone takes a sip, those glasses get clinked together. Or you’re at a bar where friends wait thirstily with cold beers in their hands for the rest of the table’s drinks to arrive so that they can clink glasses and continue with their conversation. Whatever the context or toast, the clink of the glass is essential before drinking can begin.
There are numerous stories and theories about the ritual. Some suggest it has roots in days when people were concerned about being poisoned; the clink was a bond of trust. Others think it’s to connect each drinking vessel to the others, in a nod to a time when a communal jug or bottle was passed around for everyone to sip from. But my favourite explanation is that it’s a way to engage the ears, and thus all five senses in a toast. From the lyrical chime of fine crystal to the muted tap of plastic cups, the sound is a signal, like the taste and smell of our drinks, the gesture of touching, the intentional looking (another ritual: in several cultures you're supposed to look directly into one another's eyes when you toast), that drinking (or eating) has begun.
What is so special about eating and drinking that it requires a moment before it starts? And what does everyone involved seem to silently be agreeing to with all that clinking and eye contact?
My Hindu roots provide many examples of sound being used to invoke a sacred moment or space. Words are chanted and bells are rung to signal the start of a communal experience and I think the clink of the glass — whatever its historical origins — is in this same spirit. It is a ritual that has lasted through the years, and spans so many cultures. Whether articulated with a verbal toast or not, that gesture opens a moment of conviviality or celebration, and even at sad occasions, of community. (We toast at funeral meals as well — perhaps, especially.) There is a shared experience in the clink, and an implied kind wish for all who participate.
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Sharing this ritual, in particular, holds so much power that even when it comes to legal matters, while contracts may be signed, many personal and professional deals are finalized over a drink, and a clink of glasses.
It is charming, this unspoken pact between those who clink glasses — participation binding people to one another, even if for just a moment at a bar. The magic of that moment is the connection, and in this alienated, digital world, the fact that something as analog as clinking glasses has endured is actually quite extraordinary. Somehow, we’ve managed to preserve this ritual, and I like the idea that nobody seems to want to live in a world of drinking before clinking.
This may, admittedly, be a reflection of our love of drinking as much anything else, but it’s a curiosity regardless. I’ve witnessed this commitment over and over, watching tablefuls of people at bar. Each person is fully consumed by their phones, waiting for drinks to arrive. And even if they never look up completely, with one eye on their phone and the other on their glass, when those drinks arrive they connect to one another with a clink.
Joshna Maharaj is a chef and a food activist. She appears regularly as part of the food panel on The Agenda With Steve Paikin.
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