Hello? Is This Thing On?

Robert R. Livingston
These guys may have been great leaders, but they're not great for winning friends. (Image via Wikipedia)

I went to my second Toastmasters meeting tonight. It was the same club as last week, just my second time there.

During the first half of the meeting, one woman gave a speech about mentorship, which is something I’ve been reading a lot about in the Thomas Jefferson Education materials I’ve been into recently. This woman was sitting next to me, and when the break came I turned to her and smiled.

“You know, just last night I read an essay about mentoring,” I said, intending to initiate some level of conversation about the subject of mentors. She smiled at me briefly and then got up and walked across the room to speak with someone else.

This particular topic was one assigned by Toastmasters. The organization provides the speaking points and the slides, and the speaker needs to infuse it with her own style. So, perhaps she wasn’t really interested in the topic and so wasn’t really into having a conversation about it now that she’d gotten through her speech.

Or, said the little voice in the back of my mind, she thought I was weird and just wanted to get away from me.

The second half of the meeting is for Table Topics. These are the 1- to 2-minute mini-speeches that people give on the fly. You don’t know the topic until just before you go up to the front to speak. I did one last week that was enjoyable in a terrifying kind of way. I was sort of hoping to do one this week, but I figured that since the Topicmaster hadn’t spoken with me during the break, she wouldn’t be calling me up this week. I was a little disappointed, but I thought maybe it was for the better. I was feeling a little nervous about being at the meeting again tonight and thought maybe it would be better to lie low and enjoy the other viewpoints.

The topics were all about leadership, another subject about which I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I was enjoying listening to the different perspectives people had on the subject.

About the fifth topic in, the Topicmaster introduced a quote to the effect that, to be a good leader, attitude is more important than actions.

“CJ,” she said, looking at me, “Do you know someone who embodies this type of leadership? Would you like to come up and tell us about it?”

Up in the front of the room, I started talking before I realized how nervous I was.

“I don’t think I know any leaders who embody the idea that attitude is more important than actions, but I have been doing a lot of reading about leadership lately, and I’ve been thinking about a couple of things while listening to the other speakers tonight.”

I paused to catch my breath and take stock of what my hands were doing, as they seemed to be gesturing all on their own.

“I’m a homeschooler,” I announced. “I teach my children at home. As part of that process, I’ve been reading about Thomas Jefferson Education, which is also referred to as Leadership Education. There’s a series of books about the topic by Oliver DeMille and his wife Rachel DeMille that I’ve been reading. In one Oliver DeMille talks about something I found interesting. He points out that in 1764, the Founding Fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson…”

Here I paused to try and think of another Founder and realized that I couldn’t seem to take a breath. But there was a name in front of me, and I grabbed it (hoping I wouldn’t make another Jeffords/Jeffs mistake).

“…John Adams—I’m glad I didn’t blank on the names of every Founder,” I quipped as an aside. “In 1764, none of them was doing anything big. They were reading and studying and discussing. They didn’t know it, but they were preparing themselves during this period of time that Oliver DeMille referred to as The Gathering Storm.  When it came time to put their lives and their fortunes on the line for a very important cause, they were ready. They had the education and the historical context and the vision necessary to make these difficult choices and to take action as leaders when the time came.”

I walked back to my seat, still shaking, but smiling. The Topicmaster got up to give the transition comments between me and the next speaker.

“Well,” she said, “here I thought Thomas Jefferson was just a president and now I learn he was so much more.”

My smile faded. I was absolutely perplexed. Had she listened when I’d spoken? Did I make some point I hadn’t meant to make? Had my voice been too shaky or too fast or too quiet to understand?

I tried to assuage my feelings of confusion and uncertainty by focusing on the feedback I would surely get during the evaluation period just five speakers away. I love feedback, and I knew it would put everything right.

But when the evaluation period came, I was to be left unsatisfied.

The evaluator was giving great feedback. He was enthusiastic with his praise, gentle with criticism, and specific with both. He got to the point in his notes where he must have written about my speech.

“And CJ,” he said, peering at his notes, “She gave a complete speech…” he trailed off looking at his notes for another moment. “And I can’t read what I wrote here, so on to the next person.” He crumpled up the page of notes, tossed it behind him on the floor, and moved on to the next page and the next person.

I was stricken.

In the end, I was the only one who received no feedback or even anything that felt like an acknowledgement that I’d spoken at all.

I drove home despondent and for the first time really, really missing Utah. Not that being in Utah would have protected me from feeling shut out in a social setting; there’s no protection against that. But in Utah I would at least have been able to drive home on familiar, wide, straight, numbered roads and come home to my own home rather than a hotel room, curl up on my own comfy couch with a book (or my blog) and know that tomorrow I would get together with my Wednesday homeschool group and chat and eat food and watch our kids play, and I would be rejuvenated.

I don’t know what all this Massachusetts Wednesday holds for me, but I know it doesn’t involve heart-to-heart conversations with adults who care about me.

I know it will get better. I know I will find a way to fit in. It’s just hard right now. I feel like I’m putting myself out there, experiencing the discomforts and taking the risks and I’m, so far, not getting much in return except for this increasing sense of loneliness and alienation. And isolation and doubt and fear that I’ll never find someone to sit with at the lunch table (metaphorically speaking).

I’m not giving up on Toastmasters. I like the structure of the organization. It appeals to my sense of order and my affinity for progressive improvement and having a course mapped out for me. I think it’s quite possible there’s still a way that I can get the practice I want in order to feel more comfortable and confident speaking in front of a group along with the feedback I crave to help me become more effective doing so. It just didn’t happen tonight.

I recognize that this is largely an organization of people hoping to climb the corporate ladder by building their communication skills and that a homeschooling, green smoothie-drinking, extended nursing, stay-at-home mom who’s devoted herself to reading the classics probably can’t expect to find close personal connections there. If I can get the feedback and experience from Toastmasters and the interpersonal and intellectual connections elsewhere, I think I’ll be okay.

I’ll just try a different club in the area and see if there’s a better fit in a different group.

Back to the grindstone, I guess.

19 Replies to “Hello? Is This Thing On?”

  1. I’m sorry you had a less than enriching experience. This actually sounds like a nightmare to me. I think you’re incredibly brave to keep trying and to remember that it was them and not you.

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    1. I was going back over this post and the comments today after publishing my “It’s not Them, It’s Me” post. I saw your comment and realized that, 1) I’d not replied, and 2) I inadvertently reversed your last statement for the title of today’s post.

      And for the record, it was kind of nightmarish. I’ve not been to a meeting since.

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  2. Bostonians are a different breed of fish. In the 8 years I lived there, I had fewer *real* friends than in just 1 year living in SLC. The people I did connect with were outsiders like me. Some midwesterners, some international (Russians specifically – I lived in Brookline). Funny, because as a city in and of itself, I rank Boston heads and shoulders above SLC. Culturally, professionally, historically, environmentally. Plus better public transport, many options for higher education, closer proximity to other major cities, and more job opportunities (non-LDS folks in SLC can reach a glass ceiling early on; contrarily many Boston companies demonstrate rather progressive affirmative action). And, as you indicated in a prior post, more left-leaning and progressive politically. Oh, fresher seafood, too! But socially, SLC wins, hands down. That said, it seems that you’re on the right track with book clubs, home-schooling groups, and Toastmasters (perhaps another chapter would suit you better, if this one seems tough.) If you’re feeling up to it, maybe a neighborhood meet-n-greet once you’re settled into the new house. You’ve already involved yourself (and kids) in more social settings than most newcomers would probably attempt. Kudos, and keep it up!

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    1. Thanks, Jackie! We actually met some of our new neighbors yesterday and they were very, very friendly, so that was encouraging.

      SLC is definitely a different place. I remember that I had a lot more trouble making connections in California, but easing into the community in SLC was pretty smooth. I’m feeling a little more enthusiastic about the whole endeavor, but I definitely need to recalibrate my expectations for meeting and connecting with folks.

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  3. I’m so sorry about your experience with Toastmasters. I find socializing in Massachusetts difficult, myself, and I grew up here (though I moved around a lot after school). I hear about so many wonderful opportunities elsewhere in the country, especially as far as homeschooling is concerned, and here, I haven’t been able to find a group that is regular, that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (even an arm is a lot for me), or that has like-minded people. I start things, and they fizzle after a couple of weeks. People just seem to be so busy up here; too busy to gather, too busy to really listen. But I keep trying. The negative part of all this is that I feel like i have become shy and uncomfortable around people, when I haven’t been that way before, because I’m worried it’s *me*! More and more though, I am hearing that people who move here are confronted with the same problems, so I know it can’t be entirely me.

    We enjoyed the hikes for the past two weeks, and hope we can continue!

    Melanie

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    1. It’s somewhat of a relief that I’m not the only one having trouble connecting here. I generally do feel shy and uncomfortable around people; I wonder what Massachusetts will end up doing to me if it’s got you feeling shy…

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  4. I’m sorry your second experience with Toastmasters wasn’t as good as the first.

    Your story about the woman who basically ignored your comment on mentorship really hit home with me. I felt like that used to happen to me all the time. To the point that I just sort of gave up trying to start conversations. I’d avoid eye contact when going out on errands and generally ignore people who tried to start conversations with me.

    But I know that’s not the right thing to do and I’m trying to push myself to be more open and less inhibited. As you said, it’s not easy to be rejected like that — especially for introverts, who have to get up so much energy to start a conversation like that.

    I saw a sign yesterday that said, “It’s not a bad life, it’s just a bad day.” Good advice I’ll try to remember.

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    1. “I’d avoid eye contact when going out on errands and generally ignore people who tried to start conversations with me.”

      Living in the hotel, I have many more casual interactions than I’m used to. I’ve been catching myself and scolding myself when I don’t smile at people as I pass them in the hallways or on the elevator, but then it occurred to me that I think not smiling is something of a self-preservation technique. I’m around all of these people, including being at the mercy of the erratic housecleaning schedules, and I never get a break. If I smile, I’m inviting interaction, and I really don’t want more interaction at this point. I want quality interaction but less interaction overall.

      Last night felt something like a perfect storm for an introvert. I have to remind myself that I have no idea what was going on in that moment for that particular woman, and to remind myself that in her situation, I could very well have reacted the same way. Her reaction may well have had nothing to do with me.

      In the meantime, I’m holing up for today (I’ve got Gilead on my Kindle for Susan Cain’s Book Club, and I’ve been able to sneak in a few minutes of reading here and there when the kids’ needs don’t require my direct involvement), hopefully replenishing my energy so I’m ready to give interpersonal interaction another try in a day or two.

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  5. I was thinking about you a lot today out of the blue (ok, so not so out of the blue as your blog has become one of my daily favorite reads). Just wanted to throw it out there that you are missed here in Utah and that if you ever want to chat I’m around and would love to catch up voice to voice. *hugs!*

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    1. Thanks for the offer of a chat, Jess. The time difference has been messing me up when I go to call anyone. I’d forgotten how separate the West and the East are. I hear more about Europe out here than I do about anything west of Illinois. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog!

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  6. I can’t believe you are already doing so much in Massachusetts – take a deep breath, little lady. New England took some getting used to for me, especially the way folks talk – so much less open than in the south and west. Once you find people to connect with, they will be there for you for good – they just take a little longer to find.

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    1. Thanks, Katie. That’s comforting from someone who’s lived in many of the same/similar regions of the country I’ve lived in. Just the accent here is taking some getting used to. I feel almost like I did when I first moved to North Carolina. There are times I have to repeat back what I heard until it makes sense to my ear. Maybe this period of waiting is a good excuse to hang out with my kids. I thought about driving out to another Toastmasters group tonight (get back on the horse, so to speak), but I think I’m going to take a break and go for a run instead.

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  7. I read all of your posts, as usual, I’ve been horrible about commenting. I was in your part of town today and thought about how I missed you being here!!! We haven’t been getting together on Wednesdays, but . . .I miss you on Wednesdays all the same. You are doing a lot of BRAVE things! Even I, extrovert that I am, don’t know that I’d be as willing to put myself out there, to wholeheartedly make attempts to fine my “tribe”. . .it took me three years to even WANT to do that here! You go girl!

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  8. That’s a strange place to be in…not feeling like you fit in or get out what you are putting in. I felt very similar when I first moved to utah. I was in a very different place in my life than I an now but I was thrown into the mormon culture at 18, not knowing anything about how it worked. There were so many little clicks and girls that I thought I wanted to be friends with wanted nothing to do with me. I was for sure lost here. It made me grow as a person and persevere. I wish the same for you and some interpersonal connections as you so desire.

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    1. Thank you, Heidi. Oddly, I feel like I jumped into Utah a lot quicker than I have here. Patience would be in order, I suppose.

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  9. I’m sorry you had a discouraging experience. I think what the evaluator did to you was really rude. I hope you find your tribe sooner rather than later!

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    1. Thanks, Abigail. I’m trying to be optimistic. I suppose staying up late and eating corn chips while downloading free eBooks for my Kindle isn’t the best way to go about it, but here I am.

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