Secret Squirrels

I’ve recently been on a group hike organised by a company that boasts nearly 9,000 members. About 40 people came along, which appears to be the maximum group size for a hike, and as you might expect, the group split off into subsets of two, three or more people, most of whom didn’t know each other before the walk.

I became fascinated by the group dynamics. I had started talking to a lovely French Caribbean woman on the train and we became hiking buddies throughout the day, observing those around us as well as the lovely Sussex scenery. What became very apparent to both of us was the rise of the largest ‘popular’ group.

There is always one in these situations. It’s usually made up of those people who are desperate to befriend the ‘leader’, this time a very affable, funny, charming guy called Graham. He was moving among all the groups, cleverly making sure he spoke to everyone, making them feel included. There was an ebb and flow of people joining him at the front of the ‘peloton’, including me and my new buddy, but at the start there were people making a beeline for him, clearly intent on become part of the ‘leading pack’. Thankfully, that wasn’t Graham’s schtick, but the ‘popular group’ formed behind him anyway.

The group had a self-appointed ‘leader’, a guy who was a regular hiker with the company, who delighted in telling everyone over and over again, in a loud nasal London accent, about his travelling exploits. Of course, the pretty girls with tanned legs in shorts were in the group (they always are) as were other men and women with a penchant for talking about themselves. Often this sort of person can’t bear NOT to be in a group. The thought of being alone or with just one other person while the action is going on ‘over there’ is just too much for them.

Happily, that’s not me.

Me and my friend admitted to each other that we’re never part of the Popular Group. There is always that moment when a huge group of people goes to the pub – maybe it’s a work do – and there is an inevitable jostling for space as the ‘popular table’ is identified. If you don’t get in it in the first five seconds, game over. The worst is at sit-down office Christmas meals – there is always that moment when the popular-table kids grin at you smugly as they take their place comfortably away from the ‘unwashed’.

This sort of thing, a throwback to my lack-of-confidence days, used to drive me mad. I always really wanted to be on the Popular Table but could never quite get there. I’d sit on the end of a table which invariably had a few no shows and grunt at the people next to me. Shocking behaviour.

Then I realised something. If I stayed put, put some effort into the situation I was in and created some fun, I could create my own Popular Table to which people would eventually migrate if I just gave it some time. It has become a point of principle to hold back from this sort of situation and stand my ground. I don’t need to go over there to the bigger group, because when you get there, you often find it’s a fake kind of fun, filled with smiles and jokes and tanned legs, but not much else. I’ve always felt that people in these situations somehow cede their identity to that of the group – definitely not my style.

My least favourite thing is when there is an organised group event to which I have committed, and someone comes up to me at the party and whispers that there is a splinter group meeting up at a secret venue down the road. Shh, don’t tell anyone, they say. Sometimes this notification comes by text when I’m in the group event, happily socialising with everyone. Why do Popular Table people feel they have to create another, secret event near to the one that is actually going on? I’ve witnessed it time and time again, and it actually makes me angry. I want to be at the event I’m at – I don’t want to sneer back at it from a pub down the road because I’m part of the new Even-More Popular Group.

So I was quite surprised the morning after the hike to receive an email from the organisers asking if I wanted to sign up to a ‘special’ mailing list that would give me secret previews of hikes coming up and details of ‘secret socials’ that might be held, presumably at secret locations. Oh give me strength. Just invite everyone, tell everyone the details and deal with it. How will the other 8,950 people feel if they find out something has been arranged secretly behind their backs? (Although I don’t doubt for a minute that the organisers send this to everyone – it’s just a ploy to make you feel you’re getting something more than someone else. Ugh).

It’s just happened again. I’ve joined another meet-up group and last week about 100 people turned up at the latest event. Yet again, the Popular People wanted to cluster around the charismatic leader but I strode off on my own. Later on, I found a great ‘splinter’ group who were all friends and walked round with them for the rest of the morning. About halfway through, I was told about two secret groups that meet without involving the bigger group, and would I like to join? Well yes, I said, and I was flattered, but I do wonder what exactly we will gain? The whole point for me is meeting new people and you can’t do that if you continually. and secretly, go out with the same people. I get the fact that it can be cumbersome to manage big groups of people but this stuff makes me feel really uncomfortable because I naturally want to communicate the new event to the whole group.

Those that work/have worked with me will know that I’m not a fan of ‘secret squirrel’ behaviour. ‘Nowhere to hide’ is my mantra and I enjoy ferreting out those little pockets of secrecy that every group situation gives rise to. It’s maybe part of why I write this blog – I feel like I’m saying those things out loud that other people prefer to keep hidden away.

Well, sorry.

But actually I’m not sorry.

Just stop being so secretive and we’ll get on fine.



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Fifty-five-year-old woman flying solo since 2010. Freelance writer, editor, hiker, traveller, yoga teacher. Alcohol-, child-, and hair-dye-free.

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