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Life on the Couch

Ethics, group psychology and Meteora – a tour group dilemma.

Everyday life is full of mini-ethical moments. Do you own up to being under charged? Do you push in when the traffic is heavy and you’re running late? Do you hassle your kid’s teacher to get little Jimmie or Jane an advantage?

Most of us do our best, but various emotions, motives, and practicalities act to push us to our limits. Sometimes our limits are breached – mine were on a recent tour in Greece.

I was in Athens and I had a few days spare, so on the spur of the moment decided on a tour to Meteora. Meteora is one of those travel hidden gems. You’ve probably seen it in a James Bond movie or Game of Thrones – but not quite realised it’s a real place. It’s those mysterious rocky outcrops in Central Greece with all sorts of amazing monasteries built on the peaks and half way up impossibly steep cliff faces.

Metoera. Panos Photographia/Flickr

They date back centuries. The history is rich, incorporating geology, wars, art, Christianity, 500-year-old Plato texts and more.

Anyway, to save too much laborious research, I took the advice of my hotel concierge and jumped on a two-day tour. About 7 hours of bus travel, with a stop at Delphi to see some ruins, an overnight stay in a cheap hotel, then a morning at Meteora.

Le tour de Greece

Our tour guide, Yanni, was over-talkative and slightly anxious but keen to please. Yanni repeated himself often. He appeared as unsure of himself as his various historical facts. It’s fair to say he was a reluctant leader.

The tour group consisted of about 30 people, various ages, various cultures, about 6 different language groups, but all getting by in English.

On the morning of the Meteora visit as we prepared to board the bus, Yanni announced that there were various monasteries we could visit – but given our time limits we had to choose two. He suggested the Grand Monastery (the oldest and biggest) and the Saint Stephen Monastery (I was particularly pleased to hear of this Saint).

At this point, the oldest of our group, an 82 year old French woman called Cecile asked about the number of steps as her mobility was limited. It turned out Saint Stephen had only a few, but the Grand Monastery had 400 and they were steep. Yanni immediately offered an alternative – the Holy Trinity monastery that had only 140 easy steps, and whilst beautiful from the outside, was closed so we couldn’t go inside.

Yanni declared: “This is Greece, it’s a democracy, the group can decide”

The dilemma

Faces dropped everywhere. Yanni had dumped us in it. Cecile immediately cried out “If we choose the Grand Monastery I can’t go.” She was rather forceful. She was authoritative.

We all sensed the Grand Monastery was probably the best. We had all paid a couple of hundred dollars and invested LOTS of bus travel time.

We all stared at each other. Perplexed. How could we negotiate this ethical dilemma? We’d been together all the previous day, and the night, and eaten two meals together. Group psychology existed. We’d all chatted to Cecile at some point.

A middle-aged woman bravely said: “We have come a long way, and the Grand Monastery is the main attraction.” Her husband said: “But we are getting to see inside Saint Stephen – and they are all pretty similar – it would be good to stick together as a group.”

More perplexed staring. I had previously chatted to Cecile on the bus. I liked her.

Heiko Kunath/Flickr

Oh what fun a tour group can be! The pushing and shoving to get to the best photo spot. The stilted meal conversations. The unfamiliar sharing of intimate circumstances (one member had gastro so we needed extra petrol station stops). The various personalities – the extrovert, the know-all, the young lovers constantly embracing, the super-friendly – it’s a microcosm of society.

Anyway, back to the ethical dilemma – how do we solve this? Yanni was as quiet as a monastery mouse. The group continued to stare, hoping for an easy resolution. Would Cecile fall on her sword and remove her objection? No!

What would you have done?

One woman offered – “I really came to see the Grand Monastery” This was followed by a chorus of statements along the lines of “I’m told it’s magnificent.” Cecile stared them down. The impasse built.

A non-negotiated solution

Finally, a gentleman on the outskirts of the group skilfully feigned ignorance of the debate and said: “Sorry. I missed the start of this discussion. What are we debating? Clearly we have to go the Grand Monastery – we all came for it. Why would be go elsewhere, it doesn’t make sense. Why are we questioning it?” Yanni meekly replied – “Cecile can’t walk that far,” The gentleman declared: “Well, you’re the guide Yanni, you decide”

There was no further comment. We all looked to Yanni. He decided, “I guess we have to go the Grand Monastery.” The group was clearly relieved. Cecile accepted her defeat with a curiously graceful grunt.

We avoided a decision through the gentleman feigning ignorance and forcing Yanni to decide what we all wanted. All but one. Democracy won, but did we do the right thing?

Lessons learned?

I think two things conspired to deprive Cecile.

First, the moment passed too quickly to adequately think about values and ethics. In the heat of the moment personal gain trumped ethical considerations. This is a common outcome – we often consider our ethics after the event. In retrospect I think we made the wrong decision.

Cecile had paid, and had a right to two monastery visits. No one warned her of the steps. We were a group and could/should have stuck together. In the over-all scheme of things, each monastery is worth a visit and it doesn’t really matter which two you choose.

It’s easy to justify one’s own actions in retrospect; it’s even easier to be critical of others. Hypocrisy is blurry in the mirror.

The second was group psychology. It takes time to function as a cohesive group, and the bigger the group the longer the time lag until cohesion develops. For 30 people, a day wasn’t quite enough – so we were thinking as individuals, not as a group.

If we were a smaller group or had been together longer, I think we would have made a different decision. We would all have felt a bond to Cecile, we would have been more likely to see the situation from her perspective, and more likely to sacrifice our own needs.

A lesson in group psychology and practical ethics were two of the few free additions to the tour.

As it turned out I enjoyed the morning so much that I jumped off the tour before it headed back to Athens and stayed an extra day to visit more of the monasteries and throw in a hike too. I said ‘au revoir’ to Cecile.

Meteora really is a magical place. If you go to Greece, take the tour. History, ethics and democracy – it’s a three for the price of one deal!

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