Toast with Strangers

Course: Toastmasters Drop-in Meeting

Institution: San Francisco Toastmasters

Location: Schwab building, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes before 6pm and took a seat in one of the chairs pushed up against the perimeter of a large conference room. Members were already seated around the table, some with name placards in front of them.

At the front of the room was a podium and a sign announcing the word of the day: Bailiwick (BAY-luh-wik, n). I would learn later that the word originates from the section of the courtroom that a sheriff (the bailiff) controlled.

We started on time. That alone made me sit up and take notice. I do love an event that respects my time. And it was a clue. This was going to be a structured experience.

The welcome was done by a gentleman referred to as the Sgt. at Arms in the one sheet program. I hadn’t heard that term since junior high. He introduced the Toastmaster, an Asian man with a deep voice and warm smile. He detailed the agenda. We would hear from a number of players: the Timer, the Distractions Keeper, the Word Master/Grammarian (about whom I was most excited) and evaluators. Then he outlined the speeches scheduled for the evening. He also introduced the theme of the evening: "Open heart. Open Mind. Open Door."

I didn’t quite catch the motivation behind the theme, but I felt it fit the purpose of my visit. I was there to open myself up to a new experience and specifically, new people. What some may find difficult to believe is that I’m incredibly shy when it comes to groups of people. I do okay one on one, but when I find myself faced with a group, I struggle with how to enter and then how to relate. But, meeting new people is on my list of priorities this year so I’ve decided to try activities that force me to meet folks and get me out of my social comfort zone.

First up were four speakers, all of whom were working through the Toastmasters’ book and focused on a particular skill in their speech like use of visual aids or inspiring an audience. There are apparently 10 speeches one has to complete to reach the first level in Toastmasters.

I listened and chewed gum to ease the onset of hunger. I find the 6 to 7pm hour tough for all activities. I’m always hungry then. I was stuffing a third piece into my mouth when a young woman next to me asked me for a piece. I have to admit this was surprising. It would just never occur to me to ask a total stranger for gum. Unsure how to respond, I handed her a piece. I told myself, if she asks for another one, I’m going to tell her to pound sand.

This would be an example of my anti-social behavior. While I couldn’t strike up conversation with her because a speech was going on, her request didn’t make me interested in speaking to her after. I looked around the room and wondered who I was interested in speaking with. I was holding myself back for some reason – holding back from engaging – going against the very reason I was there in the first place. Clearly, I had more work to do.

After the first four prepared speeches, guests were encouraged to introduce ourselves by saying our names and then telling the group about the “most commendable person I know.”

When the introductions wound their way around the periphery of the room to me, my heart started to beat faster and louder. I could feel the blood leaving my limbs. I moved the backpack that was on my lap to the ground, being sure to tuck away the straps so I wouldn’t trip on them when I stood to introduce myself.

The area clear of any possible road bumps, I jumped to my feet. The whole time I spoke my hands were covering my uterus like soccer players cover their genitals during a penalty kick. What did I think the attendees were going to do to me? Steal my eggs? Though it makes sense why my hands did that. Unconsciously, I was trying to protect myself and therefore my most vulnerable body part – my lady parts, received the attention.

When I sat back down I immediately started analyzing what I had said. Was it too trite? Did my volume peter out at the end, self-consciously? I didn’t even hear what anybody else said. I was too busy criticizing myself.

When the Toastmaster announced a bio break, I immediately moved to exit the room. When I stood I was woozy. My heart was still pumping wildly and the blood had not returned to my appendages. I somehow morphed my way to the restroom.

What is this?, I thought.   Being alive or a terrible affliction? Does public speaking get any easier? Does entering a room of strangers ever get comfortable?

Then it hit me, I was scared because the room was full of strangers. I had distanced myself from them mentally. The only way to feel comfortable with strangers is to see them as humans with whom you have something in common. I needed to recognize my interconnectedness in order to find them less threatening. Which, I’ve discovered, is only possible when I connect to my own humanity or said another way stop judging myself so harshly.

Does that mean I have to talk to that woman who asked me for the gum?, I asked myself.  No, I decided. I only have to admit that if I’d seen another woman with gum I probably would’ve wanted a piece, too.