What to Do When Group Dynamics Go Awry on a Trip

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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Small Game and Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideinc.com.

I recently went on my first outdoor group trip, run by an excellent European outfitter. I had a great time, although I went by myself and most of the rest of the party was comprised of couples who I did not know. There was one other single woman along, however, and she rubbed folks the wrong way; her intentions were good—she attempted to chat up both the faster and the slower hikers in their respective positions on the trail, for example—but she had a tendency to critique other hikers’ ability, ate lunch apart from the group, and showed up late to breakfast in the mornings, which put things slightly behind and irked the guides. By the end of our two weeks together, she was getting the cold shoulder from nearly everyone, or pointed remarks that I could tell hurt her feelings (she mentioned as much to me a few times). One afternoon, everyone in our group save this woman were enjoying a beer outside of our hotel, and the gathering turned into a total bash on her. I realize she was no peach, but this turned me off to the whole idea of group travel in the outdoors—this kind of dynamic of ganging up on someone. I’m afraid it may always be so and am now reluctant to look into any kind of similar outfitter adventure. Have you had these kinds of experiences in group travel? Is this sort of experience inevitable?

Or perhaps you’ve had the opposite experience. I’d like to believe that humans who don’t know each other can actually get along for an expedition in the mountains for two weeks—cordially at the very least. But my impression is that when you sign up for such a trip, it’s bound to be a mixed bag of folks and you have to head into it hoping for the best.

First off, it’s so cool that you went and did this by yourself! That’s really awesome. Welcome home, and I hope your adjustment back has been great.

I think you’re absolutely right that a group of strangers is always going to be a mixed bag. That’s just the nature of groups; we’re not all alike, and some people are bound to chafe against each other. If you head into a group environment hoping for the best—that is, hoping that you’ll somehow land in an extraordinary group of people who all mesh perfectly with each other, including with you—you’re almost certain to be disappointed. It can happen, but it’s something of a miracle; even groups of best friends can end up developing tensions when they travel together.

So it’s a better bet to go into group travel knowing that, sure, there may be tensions, but that’s part of the beauty of it all: working through something interesting and challenging with a group of others, and coming through the experience together with a different kind of bond. This isn’t just true for group travel, of course; it’s what happens any time a group of people are thrust together, whether for school or work or anything else. Part of the project itself is learning to get along.

I think that when you encounter groups like this in the future, you can try to go into things with certain expectations and commitments, especially if you know that you’re sensitive to other people’s negative energy. It’s interesting—and I admire you for this—that the thing that turned you off on this last trip wasn’t the fact that this woman was rude and annoying, but that everyone else joined in to say unkind things about her. So it was less about the fact that someone didn’t fit in, and more about the responsibility that a group has toward people who are on the outs (even by their own choice).

That’s good news, because while you can’t control whether someone will be annoying, you do have influence over how the group as a whole responds. Anyone has the power to really deflate group ganging-up energy simply by speaking up, especially if you’ve generally been getting along well with the others. If you notice the conversation steering toward negative things around one particular person, even a simple statement like, “Look, it makes me uncomfortable to be here saying bad things about her behind her back. I know she’s rubbed some of us the wrong way, but maybe we could try to stay positive and change the subject.” It takes a really determined gossip to keep talking badly about someone after they’ve just been called out about it, and while people are sure to keep venting in their private or smaller-group conversations (and in fact, they should be able to vent, particularly if this woman made comments about others’ abilities—that’s super rude!), at least it’ll protect the dynamic of the group as a whole.

Another option is to get group leaders involved earlier on. For instance, when this woman first started critiquing other members of the group, the people she critiqued could have gone to the leaders and had them bring it up to her privately, or else anonymously to the whole group. (“Hey everyone, new group rule! There’s no commenting allowed about other people’s hiking skills.”)

Finally, if none of the above work, you can simply stick with a likeminded friend or two and remove yourself a bit from the group dynamics. You can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can take a couple steps back and find ways to enjoy the vacation on your own. Let that drama slide off your back. It’s not your problem.

Some groups are always going to mesh better than others, and maybe you ended up in a particularly negative one this time. But I’d encourage you to give group travel at least a few more tries before throwing in the towel. Sure, there are challenges—but the rewards can be pretty fantastic. You can make lifelong friends in a short period of time, and see things you’d never see otherwise—even if the complexities of human behavior are, well, just another part of the adventure.

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