The Art of Small Talk

In a week of intense introductions, remember everyone is in the same boat.

At the beginning of October a hormonal mass of teens, infused with adrenalin and trepidation, will descend on Oxford for a week of clumsy revelry. Fresher’s Week returns, and with it the familiar conversational wormhole of repetition: Where are you from? What school did you go to? What A levels did you do?

While you ask fellow Fresher’s what their degree is, you are liable to feel a dull twinge of repulsion at this lack of originality. You’re at Oxford; you’re meant to be smarter than this drivel.

However, you can come to embrace these stale exchanges as a necessary evil. They not only aid you in determining who you will be seeing in lectures, but importantly fill the dreaded chasm of silence that could open up if you don’t fill it with such inanity.

This mindless charade, featuring facts both parties will instantly forget, will finally come to a close and then the struggle begins in earnest. Once name, course and college have all been categorised what is there left to talk about?

There is an unspoken fear that lurks beneath all Fresher’s Week conversations, prompting people to avoid disclosing any concrete feelings or opinions beyond the bland. The fear is one of a conversational slip up that will provoke widespread repulsion and hilarity at your expense. In this alternate universe, one wrong world will lead to a lifetime of woe and isolation.

The reality is that most will neither notice nor care if you’re a pinhead or a prick during Fresher’s Week. Everyone is equally trying to muddle along unscathed. If you truly make a fool of yourself in a particular situation, you could always become an amnesiac and reintroduce yourself days later on. If this do-over is just as fraught, repeat the reintroduction until it works. At least they won’t knock you for trying.

At this juncture, there are two options. Alcohol’s capacity to loosen the tongue is only rivalled by the more grisly methods of interrogation. Most reach for the bottle, take a swig and start to yell ‘Down it Fresher’ at each other. You could then break into a rousing chorus of ‘We like to drink with (name)’, however proceed with caution lest you have forgotten the target’s name and are forced to mumble some incoherence instead.

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However, don’t feel pressured to drink if you don’t want to. The popular conversational starter during my Fresher’s Week was gossip, and as a gossipmonger, I have no qualms in promoting the fun that can be had in exchanging sensational tidbits. Given that it’s Fresher’s Week, you certainly won’t be deprived of content and salacious blather could be the oil that turns the conversational wheel. If you happen to find yourself the subject of the chatter then, fear not, the rumour mill is always turning, and someone else’s fiasco will soon replace yours.

Last year, it was of note how Fresher’s Week heavily featured conversations surrounding the superstar of their intake, Malala Yousafzai. The same may be apparent this year, but it seems it would be much more fruitful for your conversation and imagination to speculate on who in college will be famous in the future. Then, most importantly, plot out how you can piggyback on their success or disrupt them before it happens. There’s nothing like a sabotage operation to cement lasting friendships.

You will know the week is rolling to an end once talk becomes punctured with coughs and snivelling whimpers. When fresher’s flu rears its ugly head, and you inevitably contract it, celebrate the fact by telling everyone how ill you are. It becomes a perverse game of one-upmanship, where all ailing freshers compete for the reigning title of most plague-ridden.

When the weekend finally arrives, you are likely to feel a rather dim shadow of yourself, but Fresher’s week is no normal week at university and you will come to look back on it and the conversational quirks with wistful merriment.