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Straight-Laced and Spirited: Do Oxford Students Really Have Less Fun?

When I brought my childhood friend from London to a Christ Church black-tie dinner, I was stressed. It was Michaelmas term of my first year, and I feared that we would be sitting in silence whilst catching glimpses of the academic conversation circulating around us – not ideal when you’ve brought your friend up for a good time. In my early days at Oxford, it frustrated me that the go-to small talk consisted of intellectual discussions. ‘Is anyone capable of talking about nothing?’ I frequently asked myself. I found the atmosphere intense and, for a second, feared I would never make true friends. This was far from the case. With time, we all find our people and grow comfortable in this unusual institution. We have plenty of fun – more than enough to distract us from the impending essay crises. 

Yet as I write this article I have two essay deadlines in less than 48 hours. I’ve felt isolated sitting in the library pouring over books. I’ve felt my youth wasted, my life slipping away. Fearing I may be too dramatic, I decided to release an anonymous survey to see how others felt about how the Oxford workload might hinder social connection. And as it turns out, I’m not alone.

I was surprised to find that everyone responded similarly, the overwhelming theme being that Oxford life can be very insular. One person wrote, “days can be isolating if you don’t make an effort to plan stuff.” Within college, we’re all on our own schedules. Many reported that dinner is often the only time they get to socialise on a busy day. On the other hand, the biggest positive is that there is “always something to do”. We are constantly looking for the next big event, whether it be the next BOP or famous Union speakers. 

Lately, it has proved difficult for me to feel grounded in the present. The social calendar is filling up quickly with approaching balls and garden plays (Trinity, we love you). That being said, I don’t have exams this year. I remember the anxiety that plagued me last year as I remained shut inside stressing over my prelims portfolio, while the more organised sunbathed and floated around on punts in true Brideshead fashion. Many reported experiencing overwhelming FOMO due to the sheer amount of activities available at Oxford. We always feel like we should be doing something. Relaxation is a guilty pleasure.

The reactions to Oxford traditions were particularly divisive. Some responded that traditions like college families and weekly formals are unifying aspects of college life and can help you slot in easily. Others wrote that they can be isolating. Without the perfect college family or a friend to turn up to trash you, these traditions make you feel like you are missing out. To some, traditions are “cult-y and frivolous”. They provide sanctioned silly fun, and being silly with your friends is, in my experience, the best bonding experience out there. 

The academic structure of our degrees is another double-edged sword. If you’re lucky to have close friends within your college subject group then tutorials and lectures are opportunities for inside jokes and solidarity through stressful experiences. If your friends do different subjects, lectures might become solitary rituals that include having to strike up awkward conversation with people you barely know. One respondee shared that the Oxford academic structure on the whole strengthens your social skills, whether or not you are friends with those who do your subject. We are forced to engage in tutorial conversations on a weekly basis, we work closely with others, and we have to at least appear outgoing to be productive. I speak for everyone I know when I say that we are more comfortable (and keen) to strike up conversations with strangers now than we were before starting university. 

On the whole, the survey responses were relatable and refreshing. They affirmed that there is no single Oxford experience, despite the overwhelming subliminal messaging we receive as to what sort of friends we ought to have or what events we should be going to. Friends are friends, fun is fun. And there is plenty of fun to be had.

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