My Turn: Overcoming a Different Kind of Fear
Appreciating diversity in Toastmasters.
By Mahtab Narsimhan, CTM
“We all live with the objective of being happy;
our lives are all different and yet the same.” – Anne Frank
Diversity and multiculturism are powerful buzz words in the 21st century. We all like to think that we are open-minded about people who are different from us. But are we really? Deep down, are we as accepting of “them” as we are one of “us”?
The honest answer is No. We tend to distrust strangers and fear those who are different from us. Suspicion – where does it end? For me it ended at Toastmasters.
I joined Grosvenor Toastmasters in 2003 because of a New Year’s resolution I was determined to keep. My immediate goals were:
- To stop feeling nauseous every time I had to speak before an audience.
- To eat at least one meal on presentation day.
- To stop popping Tylenol like candy.
Three years later, I rarely feel more than a flutter in my stomach (the butterflies are flying in formation). I can eat before a speech (and no one ever finds out what it is), and my local pharmacist no longer greets me by name. Over the years I became comfortable with public speaking, but to my great relief, I also became comfortable with something else – people from diverse cultures. I learned to respect and encourage them on their journey, the way my mentors and peers had encouraged me. A person’s appearance, religion, language or nationality no longer carried much weight. All that mattered was that I paid attention to everyone’s speeches and gave suggestions for improvements while lauding them for their efforts.
When I listened to speeches, especially the Ice Breakers, I did not see a person from a different country or religion. I saw myself from three years ago: The quavering voice, the wringing hands, the darting eyes and the shiny forehead were all too familiar. I felt their anguish! I was moved to tears by some speeches and shared laughter at the wit and humor in others.
Everyone, from beginning to experienced Toastmasters, shared their fears, hopes and dreams with each other. We became members of a family that met twice a month and looked to each other for support toward achieving our similar goals.
Some of the key things I learned at Toastmasters relate clearly to living a full life:
• I learned that each person is different and yet the same. We struggle with the same problems in life, regardless of our background.
• To gain respect, we have to give respect. This is evident in every meeting where many roles are filled by new members who tend to make mistakes. These errors are gently pointed out and the member is praised for his or her participation.
• I have been constantly inspired and challenged by my fellow members. Some have struggled hard to overcome personal problems and others have labored hard simply to immigrate to Canada for a better life. Listening to them has alternately helped me appreciate how far I still have to go or how lucky I am.
• When we meet guests at the club, our first thought is to welcome them and find out more about them. How different that is from meeting a stranger on a train and being wary of disclosing even our name. It is liberating to speak naturally, letting friendship rather than suspicion guide a conversation.
Toastmasters encourages us to leave negativity at the door and work on our common goal of becoming better public speakers. Certainly, I’ve improved my communication and leadership skills, but more important, I’ve learned to appreciate and value diversity. We are all one family in Toastmasters.
We Toastmasters live by the words of John F. Kennedy….
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
Mahtab Narsimhan, CTM, is a member of Grosvenor Toastmasters Club 1651 in Toronto, Canada.