Australia… Bahrain… Canada… China… Denmark… France…

If you’re anything like me and you’ve ever seen the opening ceremony of the Olympics, you get a lump in your throat as you watch the Parade of Nations. I love seeing the athletes parade into the stadium, dressed in their team colors, and proudly displaying the flag of their country as they wave enthusiastically to those who are watching – from the stadium and from around the world.

Germany… Guyana… Haiti… Hungary… India… Indonesia…

As far as I’m concerned, though, that doesn’t hold a candle to what I experienced last week at the Opening Ceremonies of the Toastmasters International Convention in Chicago. Maybe it’s because I was actually there, seeing it up close, feeling the energy, and taking part in the celebration. It was inspiring to watch representatives from around the world – many of them dressed in the colorful outfits of their native countries – marching down the center aisle of the Convention Center Ballroom, proudly carrying their country’s flag, as Toastmasters members from around the world cheered them on.

Ireland… Italy… Jamaica… Japan… Kenya… Malaysia…

When the procession was finished, more than 100 flags were displayed across the stage, as colorful and diverse as the people they represented.

Mexico… New Zealand… Nigeria… Panama… Philippines… Poland…

Over the next few days, I listened to, learned from, and laughed with people from many of these countries – during and in between our educational sessions, at the World Championship of Public Speaking, and even during the Business Meeting, which is an important – but sometimes boring – part of the Convention.

Portugal… Qatar… Romania… Saudi Arabia… Singapore… South Africa…

This year, during the extended waiting time in which votes were being counted and procedures were being reviewed, upbeat music from a variety of genres and generations was played, and everyone was encouraged to get up and dance. I joined in, of course, which is why there is now a photo of me doing the Macarena – which I wasn’t even aware I still remembered – on our District website. (It’s, if you want to check it out.) I have to say that I’ve never had so much fun during a business meeting before. Or burned so many calories.

South Korea… Suriname… Taiwan… Turkey… United Kingdom… Vietnam…

Since the flags were presented in alphabetical order by country, it caught me off guard momentarily when the announcer skipped the United States. But I quickly remembered that the host country’s flag is the second-to-last one to be carried in. The very last one is the flag of the home country of the current International President.

United States… Sri Lanka.

And then we sang the national anthems of both countries.

As we did, and throughout the Convention, I saw and heard nothing but respect and support among everyone in attendance – including those who were competing for individual and international honors and offices. And including those from countries whose political and economic battles with each other are in the news almost daily.

It felt as though we were in a different world at the Convention. One that’s built on trust and mutual respect. One that teaches effective communication, and that values leadership based on service. One that is strengthened, not weakened, by diversity, and that welcomes the wisdom of people from multiple countries and cultures.

That’s the kind of organization Toastmasters is. And it makes all the difference in the world.

August 31, 2018
©Betty Liedtke, 2018

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