x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Toast of the town

Saloon Fellow toastmasters, madame toastmasters and esteemed guests, good evening.

Toastmasters International reports 11,500 clubs in 92 countries. Abu Dhabi alone is home to 17 chapters.
Toastmasters International reports 11,500 clubs in 92 countries. Abu Dhabi alone is home to 17 chapters.

Fellow toastmasters, madame toastmasters and esteemed guests, good evening. This Tuesday evening, a small dining room at Abu Dhabi's Foodlands Indian Restaurant - decorated with clusters of balloons, dusty peach-coloured walls and a few paintings of carnations - played host to the 151st meeting of Toastmasters International Club 4711 (Area 2, Division H, District 79), known to its friends as Al Jazira Toastmasters. As weeknight traffic congealed on Airport Road just outside, the room filled with 15 professional-looking South Asian men, one Indian woman, two Filipinas and a man from Mauritania. All of them were non-native speakers of English.

With a strike of the gavel, the meeting was called to order by the club's sergeant-at-arms, a tall, mustachioed Indian named Mony. In halting, heavily accented English, he advised everyone to bring their attention to the podium, switch off their phones and refrain from raising the topics of "politics, religion and sex". Then the door was latched shut, and two hours of relentless positivity, applause and tottering rhetoric got underway.

Founded in the basement of a Southern California YMCA in 1924, the Toastmasters - an organisation dedicated to helping its members master the fear of public speaking - sprang into existence during a great boom in American clubs and civic associations. The first quarter of the 20th Century witnessed the birth of the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis, the Teamsters, the Lions and the American Civil Liberties Union, to name a scant few. A reaction against the social erosion caused by the Industrial Revolution and the callousness of the Gilded Age, this tsunami of voluntary associations took several forms. Some groups were driven by radical politics and class solidarity. Others came to define the manners and values of the businessman's America - groups dedicated to self-improvement, amateurism and moral uplift.

Today, Toastmasters International reports 11,500 clubs in 92 countries. Abu Dhabi is home to 17 chapters, each with about 20 or 30 members. With the advent of information-age global capitalism - and of English as its lingua franca - Toastmasters groups like the ones here have come to serve a dual purpose: they socialise workers from all over the globe into the corporate culture of excellence and uplift, and they provide a safe harbour for navigating the perils of office English.

Despite the smallness of the room at Foodlands, no ceremony was spared in Tuesday's meeting. When five new members were inducted, the sergeant-at-arms was careful to escort each to the head of the room. Whenever someone addressed the group, they usually opened by saying, "Fellow toastmasters, madame toastmasters and esteemed guests, good evening." To this, the table would thunder back: "Good evening!"

Before the induction ceremony, one of the group's most senior members - a goateed Indian man named Anil Pinto - took to the podium. "Today we are going to learn a new word," he said. Toastmasters meetings always feature a "word of the day"; but this one was special. "This is the one millionth word which has just come into the English dictionary. Anyone know it?" Several people did, in fact, know exactly the word he was referring to. It had been all over the Indian press: a Texas-based group called the Global Language Monitor had recently announced that the English language was about to embrace its millionth word. Conveniently, the Texas group had also appointed itself arbiter of what word it would be. One of the strongest contenders (if not the eventual "winner") was a Hindi phrase made popular by the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

"Jai ho!" blurted a few of the Indians around the table. Others repeated it in a ripple of murmurs. The Mauritanian man, an Arabic speaker, looked puzzled. "That's right," said Pinto. "Jai ho. The meaning: 'Victory is ours'." (According to other definitions, the word means "It is accomplished".) Members were encouraged to use the word during the meeting. For good measure, they were also given a second word of the day, "satiety". Throughout the evening, there were several aptly deployed Jai hos. But no one quite got the hang of "satiety". Applause was regular and frequent.

"I am toastmaster Rachelle and I will be timekeeper for the evening," said one of the Filipino women, a banker, as she explained her role for the evening. Reading from a script, she explained how she would notify speakers of their remaining time using a system of lights. When she sat down, everyone clapped. "Perfect," said one of the club members said under his breath. "Very nice." Then the evening's grammarian - a rotating office at Toastmasters meetings - stood up and explained his function. "As grammarian, I'll be noting the wrong usage of English language," he said, "and the reputation of words." (At evening's end, he reported no major errors.)

The night's main event was a five-minute prepared speech by Venkat, a boyish-looking structural engineer from Chennai with a thick plume of black hair and a moustache. This was his first time taking the stage. His assignment was to deliver an "icebreaker" - a speech about himself. When one of the other members asked what his theme was, Venkat's accent was so thick that he had to repeat his answer three times.

"Failure", he said. "Failure. Failure." After moving to the head of the room, Venkat launched into the story of how he failed 8th grade, then couldn't gain admission to a government engineering college, then disappointedly settled for a specialisation in civil engineering rather than in computer engineering. The crowd listened politely. Then he started making a few jokes. "The proverb, 'Behind every successful man, there is a woman', stuck to me," he said, "since I always wanted to be successful." A few people laughed.

"I got married. My wife's name is Subha, and the first of my wedding day, I started to give her an icebreaker speech telling her my past failures. Listening to that, she told me she also had a failure: it seems she always wanted to marry a well-situated groom from abroad." More laughter. "I am fed up with all these failures, so I called my father," Venkat said. "He said, yes you've passed through a lot of failures, but each failure has taught you many lessons and given you courage to face other failures." The group was nodding happily.

"This is why I predicted this speech to be, maybe, a failed one. But this has encouraged me to give other speeches," he said. Then Venkat closed with the English word of the day. "Jai ho!" Applause.

* John Gravois