British Culture

Social Life in England

As you will soon discover, there is a very active social life at Oxford. The 300 clubs and societies, the sports teams and the colleges host receptions, dinners and parties of all sorts all the time.

We hope you will enthusiastically join this extra-curricular life, since obviously it will greatly increase your understanding of British life and customs.

You will realize that much work in Oxford is done at social events. The dons constantly exchange information over meals, parties, etc. They are always on the look out for good tutors for students in their care. They rely upon personal contact and recommendations. If you are invited by your tutor (or a JCR officer) to meet other students and tutors for drinks at 6.30 (say), you should arrive around 6.30, or else you will miss part of a planned working event. That is, being “fashionably late” applies only to a purely social party lasting from 8pm to 4am (say), in which time is obviously of no importance.

We should that if you do not respond properly to a dinner invitation you will cause problems for other people. Some American students have told Oxford dons (who have gone to a lot of trouble to arrange just the right kind of social event for them — bringing in British students with shared interests, etc.) “Oh, I was busy for your Thursday dinner – I thought I would just come to the one on Tuesday (one of my flatmates is going to that one.)” This is done without either regretting the dinner the student was invited to or asking if it might be possible to come to another dinner.

If you are traditional, you may write on college letterhead “Miss Jones accepts with pleasure your kind invitation to Tea, etc.” with no signature. If you are modern you can write “I very much regret I cannot accept your kind invitation to the Boar hunt due to a previous engagement. Yours sincerely, John Smith.”

Some students don’t take the time to write thank you notes to people who have gone out of their way to be helpful to them….arrange dinners, etc.

We cannot stress too much that the British consider it discourteous not to send a thank you note, however brief. You may think this is an old fashioned idea, but the fact is that is what they believe.

You must remember that the United Kingdom is not an American state. Some American students assume that because the British speak the same language (with some minor variations) they are just like Americans; they are not. Certainly we share a common cultural heritage and we are much closer in all kinds of ways to Canadians, Australians, and Britons than we are to (say) the French. But there are definite differences.

In many U.S. colleges, a few men wear baseball caps indoors. The British consider this to be rude. We must warn you about this since every term a few students are excluded from the Bodleian, a dining hall, a lecture room, etc. for the above reason. Some tutors will refuse to teach a student who is badly dressed (including wearing such hats in his or her office). We include this information on different customs at the request of many previous students.

The most important difference is that the British tend to be more reserved than Americans. (It is difficult to generalize, since all individuals are different, but for the sake of brevity, we will have to make some rough generalizations). You should definitely not mistake reservedness for unfriendliness. The British are more reserved primarily because they have great respect for the privacy of others (living on a relatively crowded island). They will not wish to intrude on your privacy unless they are sure you welcome it.

Therefore, it is up to you to make the initial contact. You should not hesitate to speak to British students that you meet in the dining halls, bars etc. Simply introduce yourself and say, “I’m from New York. Where are you from?” And take it from there. Very often you will find you have interests in common and soon you will have new friends. Invite them to your college dining hall or bar, or to a small party in your flat. Then they will (usually) invite you back and before you know it, you will have ten British friends. As one American student put it, “In your first two weeks, Invite, Invite, Invite!”

The best way to meet people in Oxford with common interests (including Americans and other overseas students) is to join clubs and societies including sports teams. Almost every interest (photography, acting, journalism, politics, sports, literature, history, drinking, etc.) is represented among the 300 clubs. Nationality quickly becomes minor when you are discussing shared interests.

During the 12-day term-time orientation period you will be inducted into your college. Various officials and student leaders will explain how the library, dining hall, JCR , clubs, etc. work. This is usually done very informally, but every college is different. Most colleges have some security deposit required for keys, meal charges, etc. The amount usually ranges from £30 to £50. Be prepared to pay this in orientation week.

In their evaluations, a number of past students have urged us to offer some specific tips on College Life.

"My tutorial with the Chaplain of New College was GREAT!"

"The work was challenging and both my tutors were wonderful! Joining the crew team was one of the best things I did here; I would highly recommend getting involved in sports because you get to know so many people and meet lots of British students."