Here are our top tips for how to make friends overseas on group projects. Based on 15 years of experience from being on projects, observing group dynamics and talking to returned volunteers.
1. Make Contact Before Travel
Although you might start out emailing – ask for their Facebook as this can be more informal on chat than email. You may also find you have mutual friends.
If you are in the same area, perhaps it will be worth meeting up.
2. Fly With Others
If you are not on a group volunteer trip all leaving from the same airport, ask to be given the flight codes of others so you can get the same flight and travel together.
If you are shy, why not let your volunteer organisation know before travel, they should be able to get a message to the team who will be looking after you, to make sure you don’t get left out, especially if you will be there during a busy volunteer period.
3. Greet Everyone ASAP
Give yourself a target of shaking hands and introducing yourself to everyone on your project in your first 24 hours. This is a precious opportunity before you settle in and you won’t get the chance later.
Too often people stick with the first group they befriend realising later there were some incredible other people but never quite got round to meeting properly. By the time they finally introduce themselves in the second week or later it might be too late because one of you is leaving that weekend.
It can also be a little embarrassing to introduce yourself in your second week to someone you have already sat next to at breakfast every morning and never spoken to. Get the introductions out of the way when you arrive, a large volunteer group can understand why a new arrival is making their way around the group in the first couple of days. Floating around weeks later asking ‘what’s your name?’ may appear a bit odd.
4. Put Yourself Forward
There are always one or two in a volunteer group who will be busy planning an event for the local community or your volunteer group, from sports days for children or leaving parties for long stay volunteers heading home.
Offer to help out and get involved. You might like to offer help with something which is mundane but needed and will be appreciated.
Not only will you probably learn something new but it is likely you will get to know the other busy volunteers quite a bit better too.
5. Stay Up Every Night
Try to stay up until the majority of the volunteer group (or your host family go to bed if you are with a family). You may be tired and feel the day is done but volunteering is more often a shared community experience where the lines between work and free time are not as separate as they are at home. Not only will you miss out on valuable insights and networking but you will also miss out on the gossip.
Another reason to hang around in the evening which is often overlooked is that it can make the group uneasy if one or two always depart to their beds every night before everyone else.
Group dynamics are often such that an early departure in the evening can some groups or families wondering why you don’t want to share their company.
“Was it something we said?”
This in turn can then make it harder for the group to connect with you during the day. It is no-one’s intention to come across perhaps a little distanced, it‘s just the way groups work.
If you are more independent or shy or you travelled with a close friend, you may want to put in the extra effort to be present with the group for longer in the evening to make it easier for the group to feel comfortable with you. With new groups, as for volunteering, the more you put in, the more you get out.
6. There’s Always One!
Make sure you are not labelled as the moaner. There’s always one in a group and the majority of the group will give the moaner a wide berth.
There is no topic category which is safe whether you moan the lack of dairy products in Africa, lack of stationary resources or the weather, avoid all moaning at all costs about anything related to where you are now.
If you are one of life’s natural pessimists and can’t help it and you feel the need for a moan coming on, stick to non-project related themes, such as the condition of the roads in your home town or a recent cinema trip you wasted money on.
If you are not the moaner. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking because everyone is listening to the grumbles that they agree. Just because everyone nods when the moaner announces that your group should have been formally warned about the sound of the Muezzin from the mosque at 5am every morning, it does not mean everyone agrees.
Be assured the main group will moan about the moaner the minute they safely and privately have the chance. It is only human nature when faced with a stranger who is heated up to nod along to keep the peace in public and berate them later in private.
7. Partners In Crime
Moaners will often work in partnership with someone or will create a sub-group of moaners. They will also often stop at nothing to keep hold of their members!
It might not matter on a short stay or if it is not affecting you but it is worth resolving if you are a longer stay volunteer. Over longer periods you may find a divide opens up between your sub-group and the main group. You may be left out of weekend trips, learning opportunities, activities and the project gossip. You don’t want to be trapped waiting for the moaner to fly home before you can re-join the main group and let your hair down.
If you find yourself trapped in a negative sub-group whilst the others are having the most incredible experience, reach out and get out!
This volunteering programme is supposed to be one of the highlights of your year, if not your life. You spent months, maybe years dreaming about it. Don’t let a moaner mess up your memories because they won’t allow themselves to relax, trust others or enjoy their stay.
If you swap over to spend time more with more positive members of your volunteer group everyone else will be happier and will welcome you over. Offering to help with chores, activities and staying up in the evening can be an easy way to reach out naturally.
If you have followed our advice spreading yourself around the group equally in the first 24 hours and helping with additional activities and chores you should be able to keep yourself safe and in a happy group.
But keep an eye out for moaners. They can catch you out easily in your weak moments!