ELISE HU, HOST:
Hey, let's go on a trip together. Let's get a bunch of friends or a few couples and all do a getaway. It sounds like an awesome idea at first. But say you're abroad in Africa, and someone gets left out.
ARIEL SEABRIGHT WU: I can remember being so angry (laughter).
HU: Or you're the lone introvert among a group of raging extroverts in the Balkans.
AMY KATO: It turned out to be one of the worst journeys I've ever been on in my life.
HU: Or people start hooking up on a semester abroad.
JANET WEBSTER: Couples started really quickly in the beginning and by the end had completely ruined the group dynamic.
HU: Frayed nerves add to tension on getaways.
AKIN BRUCE: I had a time. Obviously not the way that you want the trips to go (laughter).
HU: And if you're not careful, that big camping trip you agree to, the one that's supposed to be a fun time, is the last time for your friend group.
HEATHER STEVENS: And we haven't done any group traveling since then.
HU: It's vacation season. Getting together your favorite people for a getaway can make for great memories, but none of us want to make the kind of memories that we'll have to block out.
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HU: This is your NPR LIFE KIT on navigating group travel. We've talked with conflict coaches, therapists, group tour guides and globetrotters of all sorts to prepare you with the emotional goods for group travel. I'm Elise Hu, a correspondent based at NPR West in Culver City. And those were the voices of Ariel Seabright Wu, Amy Kato, Janet Webster, Akin Bruce and Heather Stevens. They are listeners whose relationships were put to the test, or worse, destroyed by traveling together. The goal sounds simple in theory but can be tough in practice - to have a good time while avoiding the pitfalls and personality clashes that can come with traveling as a group, surviving - no, thriving when you travel with other people. That's after the break.
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HU: Travel and together can be a tricky combo because going away itself is already a lot on your senses.
LISA KAYS: The nature of travel is that you don't know what's coming, and there are often glitches.
HU: This is Lisa Kays, Peace Corps volunteer-turned-therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. She provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples and groups.
KAYS: When we're at home and we have glitches, we know how to handle them. We know kind of what the routes are. If we need to make a detour, we know where the detour goes. We can get reoriented. But when you're traveling, there's this unknown piece about it that I think adds layers of stress that then, when you're also trying to manage social dynamics - so you're also trying to be nice and be friendly and have your best face forward - it's almost like it's too much.
HU: So if you decide to go somewhere with a group of your friends or co-workers, takeaway No. 1 is the most important one. Align your expectations in advance and agree on the ground rules for how to make decisions.
KAYS: For instance, if you are traveling and somebody has the intention of sitting on the beach, reading books and just vegging out and doing nothing, and someone else thinks that they're going on a sightseeing tour, you're going to have instant conflict. And so you want to really talk about, you know, what are we looking for in this trip?
HU: You can call it what you want - pre-trip counselling or setting up a social contract. But when you do it, ask yourselves, why are we going on this trip? To relax or to work? To learn about history, to reunite a family, to conquer a physical challenge? Talk about the goal and intentions beforehand. And after the why is set, then you can move on to expectations for other potential problem areas. Priya Parker knows this.
PRIYA PARKER: I am a conflict resolution facilitator. And one of the core elements of conflict resolution is you imagine future problematic scenarios, and you ask people about them ahead of time.
HU: She also wrote a book on gathering called "The Art Of Gathering." She calls the most problematic scenarios the structural ones when the norms and expected behavior on a trip don't match up. She says those structural issues can be confronted before you go.
PARKER: One example from marriage counseling that I love is before a couple gets married, they come together, and they answer a series of questions. And one of the questions they answer is, at what price does an item need to be before you check with the other person of whether you're going to spend that much? And people will write down - like, one couple - one person will say $20 and look over at, you know, their partner, and their partner has, like, $2,000.
And in the same sense, when you're traveling with friends, to think about - and it's not to take the joy out of all of it - but to think about some of the structure elements. How are we going to deal with money? What are our norms around phone or not phone?
HU: You can decide how specific you want to get, but it's helpful to have a pre-trip call or to make a shared document where expectations can be agreed upon in advance. One issue to include is how you will make decisions as a group. Will it be majority rules? Parker says there are a lot more group decision-making avenues besides that one. I'll let her walk us through.
PARKER: You're deciding what to do with dinner - for dinner, and there's four of you or six of you. So the first decision is do we go out, or do we cook at home? It's like a decision tree. OK. How do you decide? You can decide based on consensus. You can - for the group to say, we'll go with however the most tired person is feeling, right? Or you could say, we'll go with whoever is willing to foot the bill for everybody else, right? Like - but you can be playful around these decisions. We'll go based on however many people are willing to cook. You know, if everybody says let's go home, but no one's willing to cook, then you could say, OK, let's go out.
HU: We could spend a lot more time on this tip because this tip for aligning expectations, including how you'll make decisions, often gets overlooked. So don't forget takeaway one - make key decisions before you go.
Now, even if the goals are clear, personalities can still clash. Introverts need time off to recharge and often don't claim it. How much time are you supposed to be together? So takeaway two is for the introverts among us - set boundaries for how you spend your time. Carve out enough time for yourself. Our therapist Lisa Kays describes herself as an introvert.
KAYS: I'm going to a conference this weekend, and people will be, you know, hanging out, partying, doing all this fun stuff late into the night. And at 9 o'clock, I'm like, peace, you guys, I'm going to my room. I just can't do it.
HU: So she figures out how to carve time for herself at the start of an adventure.
KAYS: I always do this - look at, like, how much group time, where do I get my alone time, figuring out what are the things I'd want to do alone. And then if I am traveling with somebody, letting them know that and just making sure that that works in terms of what they're wanting and that it's not personal at all, that this is something I'd be doing even if I was hanging out with, like, my favorite celebrity that I thought was super cool. I might still be like, I have to go to bed at 9 o'clock. OK?
KAYS: I'm tired. Like, got to read.
HU: But Tom Hanks is out there.
KAYS: Yeah, I know, or George Clooney. I know, George. I just - I have to go recharge, you know? That's just how it is.
HU: When you know ahead of time you're planning to stay in, set those boundaries out loud.
KAYS: It really does take, I think, a certain sense of self-worth and confidence to be able to feel like you can say, this is what I need to do for me. I think when we get caught up in people-pleasing and being too polite, that's when things can really go south. And so the more direct and just clear, then everybody has a good time.
HU: There's a point to this and it makes everything better for everyone. When you are recharged and feel good, you're the best you.
OK. Another personality difference that can come into play - problems between planners, people who like to plan every moment, and the more spontaneous folks who want to see where their moods take them. To avoid this kind of clash, therapist Lisa Kays suggests tip No. 3 - in any trip, have a mix of scheduled days and unscheduled days.
KAYS: I don't want to be on a clock. Like, I - for me, the meaning of vacation is not being on a clock. But I've learned that for other people, it's seeing what they want to see and getting to do - and you know, to do that in a short period of time, you sometimes have to be scheduled. But again, it's, like, just balancing that so that the whole thing is not on a clock. But I think if I know, like, OK, two days of this are going to be scheduled, but then I get my reward, like, sit-around day, it's usually, like, a really fun mix.
HU: Now that we've addressed introvert-extrovert divides and planner, non-planner types, what if the person you thought you had pegged, the friend you always knew to be one way, takes on an alter ego while on holiday, or if that person is you? What if the tension during a trip is between you and you - your usual regular personality that everyone knows and loves versus your stressed-out road personality?
Akin Bruce had it happen to him when he was showing his friends around Philly, a city he had visited the previous summer and wanted his friends to enjoy as much as he did.
BRUCE: One of the things that was on my list that was actually at the top of my list was the hot wings.
HU: Perfect, because one of his friends had a high tolerance for spicy food.
BRUCE: So (laughter) just wanted to put him in his place, basically. I'm like, OK, I'm going to show you what's really spicy. We're going to try this stuff. It's like nothing that I'd ever tasted before. It was absolutely insane.
HU: He's trying to create an experience for his friend, show him what's what. Let him feel the burn.
BRUCE: He bites into it first. And he looks at me and says, it's not that spicy. And I was like, excuse me? (Laughter) And I really wanted it to work, so I grabbed the wing, went and sat in front of the sink, like, ready to spray water into my mouth...
BRUCE: ...But it was like a regular hot wing.
HU: His alter ego took over. Excited Akin became exhausted Akin.
BRUCE: After that happened, for whatever reason - so sad - I just lost it, like, basically (laughter). My energy was, like, zapped from that, and I just wasn't as enthusiastic, and I was sad. It's just that (laughter) I had been so excited about these stupid wings, and I had the audacity to be upset about it afterwards.
HU: Here's therapist Lisa Kays.
KAYS: I think that we can underestimate sometimes the stress that goes on when we're traveling and then sort of have - it comes out in these mini nervous breakdowns that you have. When you're traveling, every single thing is a new decision, and it's exhausting. Even if it's fun and even if you're having a great time, it is a bit of an assault on your body and your mind. And so I think the way that we discharge some of that is by going a little crazy over chicken wings. And, you know, it happens to the best of us.
HU: Coping with this is takeaway No. 4 - to avoid losing your cool, bring some aspects of your regular routine on the road. You know how young children travel with transitional objects, like a little lovey, a bear, a blanket, some sort of item that feels like home? You can do that, too, so that you don't lose touch with yourself.
KAYS: When we travel, we tend to let go of all of our self-care, but asking yourself, like, you know, could I get up and do, like, three yoga poses and maybe that would help me kind of reset? Can I take this one practice that I do at home with me on the road so that I have some sort of touchstone and some grounding to my old self and to my comfortable self, you know? Or can I listen to, like, you know, my three songs that I always listen to on the radio? Or can I read whatever book? Like, what can you take with you so that you're not completely abandoning yourself and your life?
HU: When you do run into conflict, how it's handled is often what makes the difference between lasting connection and lasting conflict. Rebecca Sorenson has seen it go both ways.
REBECCA SORENSON: I was a tour guide for close to eight years for a luxury adventure travel company. And so I took people on biking and hiking vacations all over the world.
HU: The goals in this case were clear - explore new terrain on wheels. But even with a clear objective, the claws can come out.
SORENSON: I still feel a tiny bit of rage.
HU: All these years later, she's haunted by one particularly difficult traveler - a woman who made everything about herself. Sorenson took a tongue-lashing when the already-demanding lady expected the whole group to help her on a day when the group had independent free time.
SORENSON: I have fingernail marks in my palm because I'm squeezing it so hard to just not be, you know, to not react or not do anything or even like physically touch her because I wanted to move her away from me. And I just let her lay into me. And it's one of my biggest regrets (laughter) - in the whole time was just that I never stood up for myself. And I was - I think it was in protection of the group, you know, of, like, it wasn't just me that it was going to affect if I did something or said something back or whatever. And we're stuck in this valley that really we were her only way out of it.
HU: The lesson from this is takeaway No. 5 - confront social issues head on with honesty. Don't avoid conflict in order to be polite.
SORENSON: Addressing issues immediately is definitely the best way to go. And a lot of times as a tour guide, you have to find creative ways to do that without it being too direct. If there is misbehavior that is aggressive, it needs to be dealt with immediately to save the rest of the folks and the people on trip because it's not fair to them.
HU: Since we're getting into a relationship-threatening conflicts, let's bring Priya Parker back in. Parker calls conflict avoidance unhealthy peace.
PARKER: So unhealthy peace is peace that's not really peace. It's where the observable behavior - if a stranger was looking at you, the stranger would think, oh, everything's fine here. They seem to be enjoying themselves. Everybody's kind and polite, and this looks like a really great group. But underneath, everybody's simmering and seething.
PARKER: I mean, I'm half Indian and half white American, so on my half white American side, I could say it's WASP culture.
HU: The only way to break past this kind of unhealthy peace is to have some healthy confrontation. If you are in angry silence, typically everyone knows that situation exists, but they're avoiding it to avoid escalating things, or they think they are. Here's Lisa Kays.
KAYS: I know that groups recover better and can deal when somebody says, like, guys, is something weird? You know, this seems weird. Because usually everybody's like, oh, thank God, somebody said it. But I realize, you know, people at different ages, different groups, different relationships, maturity levels, that's not always going to be possible. But I think the closer you can get to it, usually the quicker you can recover potentially.
HU: We're not all taught the skills to have these honest conversations, but the therapists say honing the art of talking through issues honestly can save friendships from derailing. Being unafraid to get into the nitty-gritty is the key to getting along. She suggests finding a humorous way to acknowledge the tension. But if that's not the right vibe, bringing it up at all is better than avoidance.
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HU: On the flip side of this, what if a group gets along a little too well or certain members of the group start getting along real well?
WEBSTER: What's better than traveling with somebody that you're romantically interested in? It gives a little more magic to everything.
HU: Janet Webster was the seventh wheel on a group study abroad semester in sub-Saharan Africa.
WEBSTER: We would all be playing cards and then someone would be like, hey, do you want to go on a walk and not invite anyone ever except for the person that they ended up being in a relationship with?
HU: I mean, these people just met.
WEBSTER: It was my good friend who was part of this. And I snapped at her, and I was like, you should not do this this early because you don't know anything about him. All you know is that he also speaks English.
HU: This is a common one in group travel if you're not already paired up - the everyone's hooking up scenario.
WEBSTER: And they got together and then broke up and then got back together. And so for the rest of the trip, we were all forced to sit at tables with several pairs of exes and exes who knew each other and people who were dating your ex. Like, that was all happening in this seven-person group while we were already dealing with the stress of traveling.
HU: If you broaden this problem, dyads and triads of cliques also break out in the group, so you could run into similar issues there. Therapist Lisa Kays says having an inclusive group means making one another feel included.
KAYS: I think couples do change the dynamic of groups.
HU: Kays says while we can't stop people from falling in love or lust. If they do, takeaway No. 6 is this - if your travel group starts pairing off, couple drama doesn't get to dominate the group dynamic.
KAYS: They don't get to talk about it with anybody. Like, we're not becoming you're, like, you know, love life. I'm not spending my vacation doing love life counselling for you. You need to have, like, a phone a friend or somebody not on the trip to call and deal with this because I think that's where the dynamic gets weird is when it's like, oh, he said this, do you think it meant this? And what's going on? And why is he not - and that's not fun for anyone.
HU: We love love. We just don't have to hear about it all the time. Ultimately, we want to enhance our relationships when we travel together and not diminish them. So our final takeaway is this - be friends enough to forgive.
KAYS: I think generally conflict tends to get more awkward the longer it goes on. And then you get caucuses of people talking about each other. And then you get - I mean, it just gets, like, worse and worse. And that's where I think cracking a joke calling attention to it - like, people think it's going to make it worse, but it actually diffuses it.
HU: Listen, listen, listen, and talk out your feelings.
KAYS: But that's why I say it's a brave thing to do. It's a hard thing to do.
HU: If you can, let it go and forgive.
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HU: To rewind, remember these top tips for group travel. One - align those expectations ahead of time.
PARKER: Have a fun conversation over a meal about what you want this trip to be.
HU: Takeaway two for the introverts - carve out time for yourself. Set boundaries for how much time you'll spend being social.
KAYS: I will, you know, kind of plan blocks of time where it's I am going to be by myself and it's quiet and nobody is talking to me.
HU: Three - in any trip, have a mix of scheduled days and unscheduled day.
KAYS: If you're going on a five-day trip, saying, look, we're going to have two days of downtime or two days where it's unscheduled but then let the planners do their thing.
HU: Four is your grown-up lovey - bring something from your home routine on the road.
KAYS: I think we think we're grown-up and we don't need those kinds of things, but I'm not totally sure it's true, so kind of thinking, like, what's my transitional object that I could take with me to make myself feel better? Like, what is that for you? And how can you bring it with you so that you don't lose touch with your at-home self?
HU: Takeaway five - if you do get into it, diffuse tension by talking out tough issues. Don't let that unhealthy peace fester.
PARKER: The deepest element of conflict resolution is an invitation to make the implicit explicit.
HU: Takeaway six is about coupling up. Couple drama doesn't get to dominate the group dynamic.
KAYS: I think it's one of those things you can't stop, but you can certainly encourage some norms and behaviors and expectations around how it gets dealt with in the group because it can be annoying.
HU: And finally - be friends enough to forgive. You want the kind of memories you'll look back on fondly. That works for vacations or staycation.
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HU: And that's it for this episode of LIFE KIT for travel. Thank you so much for listening. Big thanks to Lisa Kays, Priya Parker, Rebecca Sorenson and all our listeners who called in to generously share your stories.
Want more LIFE KIT? Subscribe to our newsletter for more on everything from meditation to compassion to happiness to recycling to kids and reading. Go to npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And whether you're going away or planning a staycation, we'll leave you with the most life-sustaining tip of all.
KAYS: Breathe and breathe. Yes, always breathe.
HU: And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from LIFE KIT listener Nikki Budnick (ph).
NIKKI BUDNICK: Try drinking a couple glasses of water in the morning as soon as you wake up, even before you have your coffee. You'll feel super refreshed, and your gut will definitely thank you later.
HU: I'm Elise Hu. Thanks for listening.
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