The Culture of Toastmasters International

Two days ago I attended a meeting of Toastmasters International because I wanted to put myself in a situation where I could practice my speakings skills in a supportive environment, and where I could get actual feedback for my speeches. Do you also sometimes feel strange, because you are giving a speech and at the end of it you have no idea whether people actually liked it, or not? (despite the fact that you are receiving the quick evaluation form).

Now, the reason why I chose to write about this experience is that I found it fascinating to observe the organisational culture of Toastmasters International – or at least of the particular group that I attended. Everything was structured through to the smallest detail, and exactly on the minute. When someone starts speaking he or she needs to address the Toastmaster, and the same at the end of the speech. Almost every aspect of the meeting is evaluated by someone. And, and this is most important, it appears that everybody is welcomed, and accepted, no matter what his or her skill level in terms of speaking is, and no matter who he or she is.

What I want to do now is to to show you once more how certain behaviour can give us an indication for what a person’s values are. And consequently, how we can learn about a group’s values by observing them. I attended only one of their meetings, so I will now make a few guesses of what their values are based on the observations I made. Afterwards, I am going to read their official documents and compare their officially statements with my guesses.

One thing that amazed me was one of the members, who stuttered quite strongly. I found it very brave that he attended a group about public speaking, and I also was quite impressed by how accepting, welcoming and nonjudgmental the people were.  He was announced as a brilliant speaker, who has risen quickly in the organisations ranks, and holds many different roles at Toastmasters International. This also suggests that developing confidence is an important value for them. Secondly, by asking the people why they joined the group, they were mostly stating how they wanted to use their public speaking skills  improve their communication processes. Third, the fact that the meetings are structured through in every detail,  suggest to me that they value correctness and precision.

So, let’s now have a look at the website and see what values are stated on their front page.

  • communication and leadership skill
  • personal growth
  • friendly and supportive environment (accepting/welcoming)
  • no rush/pressure (nonjudgmental)
  • encouragement (growing confidence)
  • learning to formalize, organize and express your ideas (correctness and precision)
  • confident leaders (confidence)

As you can see, if you enter a new environment, it does make sense to try to observe what values the members might have. It helps you to adjust your behaviour according to the situation, and not to make any cross-cultural faux pas. Neither simply copying behaviour of the others, nor simply trying to understand it on a cognitive level is enough. You need to do both, be able to copy the behaviour, as well as understand what the underlying values behind it are. Otherwise you simply apply the behaviour in all types of situations – until you come across one where, in fact, its considered impolite.

Tim

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