Consider this, from social anthropologist Kate Fox’s 2004 book, Watching the English: Freshers’ Week Rules For the privileged university-goers, the eighteenth-birthday rites, A-level exams and possibly Gap-year ‘ordeal’ are followed by another important rite of passage known as Freshers’ Week. This initiation ritual follows the classic pattern identified by van Gennep1 – pre-liminal separation, liminal transition/marginalization and post-liminal incorporation. The initiates are first separated from their families, their familiar surroundings and their social status as schoolchildren. Most arrive at university accompanied by one or both parents, in cars crammed with objects from their old life (clothes, books, CDs, duvet, favourite pillow, posters, photos, teddy-bear) and specially purchased objects for their new life (shiny new kettle, mug, bowl, plate, spoon, towel and so on). Once they have helped to unload all this, parents become something of an embarrassing encumbrance, and are dismissed by the fresher with unceremonious haste and impatient reassurances ‘Yes, yes – I’ll be fine. No don’t help me unpack, I can manage. Don’t fuss, OK? Yes, I’ll ring you tomorrow. Yes, all right. Bye now, Bye . . .’ The fresher may in fact be feeling anxious and even tearful at the prospect of parting, but knows without being told that it is not done – indeed deeply uncool – to display these feelings in front of other freshers. The fresher initiates barely have time to Blu-tac a few posters to their walls before the ‘liminal’ phase begins and they are hurled into a disorienting, noisy, exhausting succession of parties and fairs and events, staged by a bewildering variety of student clubs and societies – sporting, social, theatrical, artistic, political – all competing to sign them up for an impossible number of extra-curricular activities. These ‘official’ events are interspersed with pub-crawls, late-night pizzas and blearyeyed, rambling coffee-sessions at three in the morning (as well as endless queuing to register for courses, obtain student identity cards and sign incomprehensible forms). This week-long ‘liminal’ phase is a period of cultural remission and inversion, in which the initiate’s senses are disturbed by alcohol and sleeplessness, social borders and categories are crossed and blurred, former identity is challenged and disrupted, and acceptance in the new social world is sought through pledges of affiliation to student clubs and societies. By the end of the week, the initiate has achieved a new social identity: he or she is incorporated as a student into the student ‘tribe’ – and finally allowed to rest a bit, calm down, and start attending lectures and participating in normal student life. Students like to describe Freshers’ Week as ‘mad’ and ‘anarchic’ but, like most episodes of cultural remission, it is in fact a rule-governed, predictable, conventionalized deviation from convention. Certain normal social rules are suspended or inverted for the duration of the festivities – talking to strangers, for example, is not only allowed but actively encouraged: one of the many guides to Freshers’ Week produced by student unions reminds initiates that this is ‘probably the only time in your life’ that you will be free to approach and strike up conversation with complete strangers, and urges you to make the most of the opportunity. The subtext is equally clear: after Freshers’ Week is over, the normal rules of Englishness apply, and talking to strangers without good cause is no longer acceptable. Freshers are encouraged to meet and make friends with as many fellow students as possible – a euphemism for ignoring class barriers – but also subtly reassured that friendships formed during the liminal period of Freshers’ Week are not ‘binding’, that they will not be obliged to
See Arnold van Gennep, Rites of Passage, 2004 (fp. 1909), Routledge.
continue to associate with people from incompatible social backgrounds. ‘You will meet countless new people (many of whom you will never see again after the first two weeks) and drink countless pints (many of which you will see again, the next morning)’ are the instructions in one typical ‘how to survive Freshers’ Week’ leaflet. Getting drunk during Freshers’ Week is more or less compulsory (‘you will drink countless pints’) and the English self-fulfilling belief in the magical disinhibiting powers of alcohol is essential – without it, the inversion of normal social rules about talking to strangers would be pointless, as most freshers would be too shy to approach anyone. Free social lubricant is provided at all of the parties and events during Freshers’ Week, and initiates are expected to over-indulge and shed their inhibitions. In the prescribed manner, that is: there is a fairly limited range of acceptable drunken behaviours – ‘mooning’ (exposing one’s bottom) is allowed, for example, but ‘flashing’ (exposing one’s genitals) would be frowned upon; arguing and even fighting are approved, but queue-jumping is still strictly prohibited; telling bawdy jokes is fine, but racist ones are inappropriate. Among the English, drunken disinhibition is an orderly, well-regulated state – and Freshers’ Week, despite the appearance of anarchy and debauchery, is actually a choreographed sequence of traditional, conventional rituals in which, every October, first-year students across the country shed exactly the same designated inhibitions in precisely the same time- honoured ways.
Excerpt from Watching the English by Kate Fox