When the Day Turns to Night: The Use of Alcohol in Friendship Formation among International Students in the ISN Introduction Week


By Serge Savin

The International Student Organization Amsterdam, an organization financed by the  University of Amsterdam and Hogeschool van Amsterdam, arranges the Introduction Week which is an offer for international students when arriving in Amsterdam. On their website the week is described as follows: “Four intensive days will lay the foundation for your entire stay. You will make friends, visit exciting parties and you’ll get to know Amsterdam and its universities.” (ISN)

It seems to be a sought-after offer by the exchange students as about 1000 international students join the ISN week every semester.The ISN clearly advertises as a facilitator of parties and friendships. I think that is an interesting case to study as it captures the dynamics of friendship formation in relation to the use of alcohol in a youthful international setting.

As an exchange student studying in Amsterdam the topic is very relatable to me. To my regret I forgot to sign up for the introduction week in time due to being overwhelmed with exams. I have had a previous experience with an introduction week when I started studying sociology in Denmark, where alcohol was very present in the programme, and my experience was that alcohol consumption really helped me in bonding with my fellow students. Next year I was an instructor for the introduction week. As instructors we had to be more aware of the non-drinkers than when we were participants and our focus was making sure they felt included in the community that formed rather than the focus of alcohol I had had the year before. This opened my eyes to inclusion of non-drinkers.

When I landed in Amsterdam I only knew one friend from Denmark and I really regretted not signing up since I had a great experience as a participant of the introduction week back home. But I was calmed by at least knowing a friend and having the assumption that a lot of people are new here and interested in forming friendships. If I would not meet them in the introduction week I would meet them elsewhere. And so I did. I met the first couple of people in the airport waiting for a shuttle bus. Everyone was new and so it was natural to small talk but the conversation turned more interesting when we met over cold beers when in a bar in the evening. The next weeks we bonded over beers in bars; we would never meet up and just be sober. It was not even discussed, it seemed natural; it was fun and it made things easier. It was okay to be quiet for some time when you did not have a topic of conversation because ‘you were drunk and just a bit slow’ but the subject matter in our conversation also grew more intimate when we were intoxicated.

This led me to being interested in the introduction week and how international students, like  myself, would use alcohol to foster friendship.With my experiences I expected alcohol to help fostering bonds, not only during intoxication but also discussing the experiences of intoxication thereafter. With my experiences as an instructor on a, in some ways similar, introduction week I expected to find an exclusionary aspect of consumption. In many ways it is a subject matter that I have experienced on my own body and thereby I have had a lot of common sense assumptions that I have been conscious of challenging throughout the research process. My research question ended up being: How do exchange students that partake in the ISN introduction week use alcohol in the formation and shaping of relationships? Is there a communal expectation to have fun at play that affects the consumption of alcohol? Does consumption of alcohol separate social groups, and if so, is there an exclusionary aspect? In which ways do the social symbolisms and use of alcohol differ from one another? How does the wide arrange of cultural backgrounds affect consumption? And how do the ISN-coaches affect the consumption of alcohol?

The interviews

I used qualitative semi-structured interviews as I wanted to hear the inside-experiences of participants in the introduction week. The interview guide was written with specific questions such as, ‘Tell me about some of the friends you made. How did you meet, and at what times did your friendship get formed the most?’, under broader thematic headings such as ‘Activities, consumption and friendships’, but I found myself mostly guided by the broader themes during the interviews and would rarely stick to the chronological order. I would often ask questions based on my respondents’ replies, and often refer to the replies when asking. My experience was that this made the conversation more natural and would emphasize my interest in their replies. Even though I relied more on the broader themes I am glad that I made the specific questions as it was a process that led to reflection on what I was interested in asking, which surely made me better prepared for the interviews.

All respondents were found through my personal network. I spread the message that I was looking for respondents among all my exchange student friends and managed to find four respondents whom I had limited relationships with. My first respondent was Leo (age 23, German). I got in touch with him through my roommate after he told him about the topic for the project which Leo described an interest in. We conducted an interview of almost one hour long in my apartment over a cup of coffee and he seemed very relaxed and would not hold himself back from taking long breaks to reflect from time to time. Leo attended the whole introduction week.

The second respondent was Adam (19, Romanian), whom I had a course with and had bumped into once or twice when reading at the university library. It was upon such a bump-in that he was asked for an interview and we found an empty classroom at the campus. Adam would, as I experienced he usually would in class, often answer with quite short replies which would mean I asked more elaborate questions in this interview than others.  The interview ended up being 25 minutes. Adam seemed very fond of alcohol, cannabis, parties and girls and described how his large attendance in the nightlife have affected his exams in a negative manner. Adam attended the whole introduction week.

I met my third and second respondent, Emily and Amanda (both 20 and from the U.S.A.), at a thanksgiving dinner arranged by American friends where alcohol was limited to a glass of wine or two and everyone went home early. I mentioned my research project at our end of the table and they expressed interest in the topic so I arranged interviews with them. From that point on I was aware of not discussing the topic with them and conversations were limited to the like of discussing the difference between our nationalities. They were in the same circle of friends but did not know each other prior to Amsterdam where they met in the American program for international students. They were also both originally from, and studying in, different parts of the U.S.A.

Emily was interviewed in her dormitory where we drank a cup of tea together and had a very natural conversation where I would rarely consider my interview guide. The interview ended up being about 45 minutes. Emily attended the whole introduction week. I interviewed Amanda at the university campus in a empty room. There was a very relaxed atmosphere, jokes were made and she seemed very honest and direct in the interview, even when the stories she told did not portray her in a flattering manner. The interview ended up being 35 minutes long. Amanda attended the day-activities with her group on the first day of the introduction week, but mostly stuck to a friend, whom she had met on the plane ride who also participated in the ISN, for the rest of the week.

Going on exchange and self-finding

It is important to bear in mind that the participants of ISN are not a representative group of students for neither the Dutch nor a general European or even student population. A number of different processes have led to them to end up in the ISN introweek and it is imaginable that a certain type of individual is inclined, first of all, to go on exchange, second, to do so in Amsterdam, and third, to participate in the introduction week. Therefore I set out to research the process leading up to my participants ending up in the ISN introweek. Not only can that process shed light on their personality but also on their intentions with this particular exchange; both of which are central factors for their experience of consumption during the week.

My respondents gave similar descriptions of what attracted them to go on exchange as well as what attracted them to Amsterdam. In general, a ‘spirit’, ‘vibe’ or ‘atmosphere’ in the city was described to attract the students to the city. Upon asking the respondents to describe that ‘atmosphere’, they mentioned everything from the history of the city, the old architecture, the vast amount of cultural institutions, the biking, etc. What they all agreed upon is the liberal attitude in the city which is not only manifested in legislature about narcotics and sexwork but in the general atmosphere of the city.

Adam describes how the liberal atmosphere of Amsterdam is linked with a young and lively atmosphere which materializes in quality nightlife which he says was important in his choice for Amsterdam:

A: I chose Amsterdam because.. Well I love the city and I’ve visited five times so I kind of know what the vibe is and how it looks like. The thing that struck me the most is liberty.

I: In what terms have you experienced Amsterdam to provide that liberty?

A: I think Amsterdam is very permissive with everything. From race to sex to drugs to anything. And that whole liberal tradition makes a lot of cool young people in the city which give life to the city. I mean, there is a great nightlife in Amsterdam!

I: Was that an important part of choosing to go to Amsterdam, the nightlife?

A: For sure. Got to have fun and experience stuff. Would never want to live in a small village without any clubs.

The respondents’ emphasis on a ‘vibe’ or atmosphere that is a product of liberal values that is attracting them to the city suggests that values of freedom and experience have attracted them. Furthermore, Adam’s connection of the liberal values to the nightlife suggests a positive attitude towards intoxication.

When asked about the motivation for going on exchange, all respondents articulated it as an adventure of experiences as well as a journey of self-finding or self-development. Leo mentions how he went on exchange wishing for a challenge in terms of an unfamiliar environment where he had to stand on his own feet and could get to experience a new culture. He sees his exchange as a replacement for the international adventures he would have liked to have during a gap year:

L: Of course it’s about the experience. I didn’t do a gap year after school so this is the first I live abroad for a longer time. And that was something I wanted to experience

I: Do you see the exchange having a similar function to that of the gap year?

L: Yeah, definitely. I was thinking of going on a gap year but I skipped it ‘cause I thought it wasn’t the right time. I made a deal with myself to go on exchange with the university and I think this is what I looked after.

I: In what ways are they similar?

L: You meet people in a situation where you are completely on your own, you meet new friends, you have to organize everything on your own. So it is kind of a self-finding process.

The exchange experience can be interpreted through Van Gennep’s concept of the rite of passage as a liminal phase. Van Gennep defines rites of passage as “rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age” (Turner 1969: 94), and he divides this into three parts: A phase of separation where symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual from an earlier fixed point and/or a state, a phase of liminality where the ritual subject passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state, and a third phase of reincorporation where the ritual passage is officially credited (Turner 1969: 94f). From this perspective the exchange students are in a liminal phase when on exchange as they have detached themselves from the fixed point of their hometowns and are currently in a cultural realm that has very different attributes than the previous cultural realm. Finally it is expressed that the goal of the exchange is not only experiencing a different cultural realm but also changing one’s state in terms of ‘finding oneself’ or ‘self-developing’.

Adam has a large focus on experiencing ‘what life has to offer’, which for him naturally includes fun, drugs and meeting people. While saying self-development as a goal, he stresses the social rather than the academic parts of student life:

A: I think meeting new people and having fun is one of the most important things about university. I’m not talking about like research; I’m like talking about life

I: And the experience…

A: And the experience! Exactly

I: Is it all about having fun or is it also about growing as a person?

A: Yeah of course self development is the whole goal

I: And are the drugs also a part of the experience?

A: Well of course. I wanna try like everything that life can offer

Overall the respondents connect their exchange with an attitude of openness to new experiences and having fun.This is to be seen in the context of the expressed goal of the exchange of being about self-development or self-finding.

This focus on self-development and openness to new experiences can be seen through the theoretical perspective of Bauman who argues that ambitions of developing identity and consuming experiences are not easily settled in present-day society. He argues that uncertainty has become a central part of our society as nothing is stable. Today’s society is not solid anymore and changes occur all the time in a liquid manner. One of the major changes from solid modernity to liquid modernity is that society engages its members by consumption rather than production. The life of a producer tends to be regulated by realistic clear bottom lines as well as limits to ambition that peers make sure are kept within. Thereby the major concern of the producer is conforming, settling somewhere between the lower and upper limit (Bauman, 2000: 76).

The consumer on the other hand is without norms, rather he is guided by seduction leading to limitless desires and wishes. Unlike the producer, the consumer does not have specific reference points in peers; therefore the comparison is universal and there is no upper limit of ambitions. The main concern of the consumer is therefore the adequacy of being ready, having the ability to get the most out of an opportunity when it arises as well as not limiting one’s desires to the already established needs (Bauman, 2000: 76f). Thereby domination consists of the individual’s capacity to escape or disengage which maximizes one’s flexibility; being ready for constant new opportunities of consumption in a liquid, ever-changing environment.

The exchange students partly prepare themselves for this liquidity through openness to consuming new experiences and having an ambition of self-development or self-finding that was not as present in the life of the producer. Self-development or self-finding is a very individualistic notion, however it is not a development that the exchange students want to undergo in isolation. All my respondents expressed the desire to form a network of friends upon arrival in Amsterdam.

A desire to meet new people

When asked about their motivation for signing up for the ISN introduction week all respondents articulated a need to form new friendships or even just to spend time with someone to combat loneliness or homesickness. Emily expresses a need to be somewhere when not having other friends than her ISN group in the beginning. She does not focus on the quality of their companionship but rather how it kept her busy so she wasn’t homesick. Thereby the ISN company is presented as a necessity as well as a desire:

I would go to everything because i had no friends except them in the beginning so I needed somewhere to be. And I really liked hanging out with them in the beginning because it just made me feel like I was busy or something so I wasn’t homesick or whatever.

Amanda expresses a similar appreciation of avoiding sitting alone in the room but also expresses an open attitude towards new experiences. A sense of openness is felt as she expresses an excitement over “just doing anything”:

I was new here and didn’t know anyone so I was down to do anything that wasn’t like just sitting in my room. So I was definitely excited to meet new people and walking around and just doing anything.

The anxiety of loneliness expressed here suggests the importance of forming new relationships to my respondents. Therefore awareness of how one presents oneself is very present among my respondents upon meeting other participants of the ISN introweek.

Goffman proposes a theoretical perspective on our presentation of the self in everyday life. He uses the metaphor of a theater to explain how we present and perceive ourselves and each other. In this metaphor we are to think of our behaviour as a role that is played out by an actor on stage. His role depends on how the audience might react to the performance and the dialogue is ritualized conversation which can be everything from hi’s, how are you’s and have you been to Amsterdam before’s to goodbyes and high fives (Goffman 1959: 135).

Goffman proposes that we at all times are interested in learning certain information about one another such as socioeconomic status, conception of self, competence, trustworthiness, etc. This information helps us to define the situation by having a conception of expectations for one another. When in possession of this information individuals can best asses in what ways to act to call forth the desired responses from one another This can explain that all respondents describe their first experiences in ISN as ‘awkward’ and exhausting, exemplified in this quote by Emily:

In the beginning I had no idea of what was going to happen at all. Like, when we went to meet our groups and everything i was like “ohh, this is so weird. Everyone is so quiet and everything. No-one knew each other, people were really shy.

An explanation for the awkward atmosphere through Goffman’s theoretical perspective could be that the actor possesses little information about the audience and therefore has a difficult time assessing in what ways to behave to get the desired response from the audience. That is not to say that the actor has no information. Appearance and conduct can be applied to previous experiences of similar individuals or applied to untested stereotypes. The setting also supplies information in terms of what experiences you have of what types of people come to a given setting. Nonetheless, in the moment of presence of audiences little conclusive information can be gathered that will help knowing in which ways to behave to call forth a desired response (Goffman 1959: 136). This leads to a feeling of uncertainty in how people will react to one’s behaviour and naturally limits the risks one is willing to take in a performance which could materialize in people staying quiet as seen in the quote by Emily or simply stick to safe topics of discussion. All respondents describe unrisky, homogeneous, superficial, or simply ‘basic’ conversation as is described here by Leo:

It was a lot of small talk. Basically there are a couple of questions: Where are you from, what do you study, have you been to Amsterdam before, how do you like it so far. Yeah, you just try making conversation. Keeping up the connection with everyone. It’s very exhausting I think. Might have to do with me not being good at small talk.

Leo describes it as ‘making conversation’ and ‘keeping up the connection’ rather than ‘talking’. Adding the active verbs of ‘making’ and ‘keeping’ could suggest his experience of it as something that one has to be consciously working on rather than it being natural. His description of it as ‘exhausting’ corresponds with that interpretation. This relates to the liquid nature of relationships in liquid modernity according to Bauman. Bauman argues that we treat our relationships as consumption. We treat our relationships like we do consumer goods; we would rather throw out and buy new ones than repairing and maintaining the ones we have. Our stance on relationships becomes an ambivalent one: On the one hand we yearn for relationships to relieve loneliness, insecurity and uncertainty which creates a wish for the stability in long-term committed relationships. On the other hand the long-term relationships themselves create an insecurity in that they threaten our sense of autonomy, it limits our ability to be ready for consumption options such as other relationships and thereby also identities (Branaman 2007: 20f).

This ambiguity towards relationships and the instability of our connections require a constant effort in keeping up those connection; they are not justified on their own, but rather through active consumption of relationships and the experiences that follow along. This liquidity limits the intimacy of relationships and puts us in a constant state of being on stage, having to consider our audience. For Leo that means having to read the situation at all times to get a sense of how his audience will react to his behaviour and an uncertainty that follows along which he experiences as exhausting.

For exchange students, there is an added dimension of temporality or liquidity in these relationships as there is an expectation of going back home within a semester or two. This is expressed by Amanda when asked about how the relationships in Amsterdam differ from those at home:

I think that just the fact that they just don’t know my history here makes be able to like be free of being in a certain box, if you know what I mean. Not that I am not in a box down here, I am sure I am, but I can like get a new box [Laughs]. I mean when I go home that won’t affect any of that since the people don’t like come with me.

Amanda describes how the given temporality of relationships in Amsterdam gives her an opportunity to change the perception of her identity. This can be seen as a sign of liminality as she is able to try performing roles that she cannot perform back home as she would be limited by the expectations which the audience, that knows her, would have of how she would perform. This temporality could in the perspective of Bauman be seen as amplifying the liquidity of relationships, making connections less intimate and more based on common consumption of for example experiences.

However, the awkward atmosphere and constrained social interaction is described to change drastically when day turns to night and a communal consumption of experiences is described to be intensified.

When the day turns to night

The program of the ISN introduction week has activities during the day, such as city tours, welcomes from university officials, museum tours, Dutch crafting courses and similar culturally, practically or academically relevant activities. After the official day program is done, there will be some hours off for the participants. The official night program consists of parties in different club venues in Amsterdam. Before the night programs, ISN groups consisting of about 20-30 international students and two Dutch coaches would be invited to so-called ‘pre-games’ organized by coaches. This is when my respondents describe that consumption of alcohol began. Leo describes how the coaches created an atmosphere that encourages drinking:

The coaches definitely drank. I remember one of the nights when we got to a club the coaches were ready with bottles liquor that they would pour directly into people’s mouths so they definitely motivated drinking. But they weren’t pushing people. It was more suggesting drinking games, asking if someone wanted a beer and positive stuff like that. More to engage people in the group.

Leo describes an atmosphere full of expectations of having fun with ISN coaches that do not per se directly pressure anyone to consume but create an environment where this is encouraged as they offer beverages, leading by example, and suggest drinking games.

The drinking games are described as being numerous with variations that are based on different balances of skill and luck but are defined as drinking games by the results of the games being consuming certain amounts of alcohol, in some versions as a prize for winning, in other versions as a punishment for losing. Adam describes them to encourage drinking but emphasizes that there is no one who is forced to participate and that consumption as a result of the games was not enforced:

At one point I was feeling sick, not because I was too wasted but I had just downed a beer so my stomach was a feeling bad and then I lost again and just go “No way” and that was cool. People moved on with the games instead of like pressuring people.

As alcohol is consumed the environment and mechanisms are described as different during the night from during the day. All respondents describe how the consumption of alcohol during the evening and night reduces the awkwardness. When asked if alcohol changed anything Leo replies:

It made conversation easier for sure and people let loose. It’s not just that you are making small talk and basic topics. You see that people get more extroverted and started telling more.. funny stories so it definitely had an impact.

Leo describes easier and more varied conservation and people letting loose. In the perspective of Goffman this can be seen as respondents having knowledge from past experiences of how audiences in situations of nightlife react to a given performance. Amanda describes how she experienced others and herself behave differently at night. When asked if participants behaved differently when intoxicated she replies:

Definitely, there was like a shy Asian girl in my group who would go crazy dancing on tables at night. But I feel like everyone behaves differently when drunk. I myself would also be much extroverted and just not being afraid of doing stupid stuff really. The great thing about being drunk is that you can always blame your fails on the booze.

Amanda describes how performing other roles is not only accepted but also expected. She also describes how failed performances can be blamed on the alcohol which can partly explain why people care less of how others think of them when intoxicated. Thereby new performances can be tested without consideration for the judgement of the audience. In this way these situations have some resemblance to Goffman’s concepts of backstage. Relative to the performance of the front stage, the backstage is a place where that performance can be contradicted. The backstage is a more intimate setting. Here one’s costumes, props and lines can be tested in a safe environment without an audience that can be insulted. In general the backstage is a place where the performer can expect the audience not to intrude: “Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman 1990: 53).

I argue that it is not a backstage that the students experience during intoxication as the very expectations of behaving differently and in a way that seems not to take the audience into account suggests that the audience remains to have an effect on the performance. Thereby it can be argued that an expectation of acting as if one is backstage is present, but that very expectation makes the situation resemble more of the one experienced on the front stage. A performance of one seeming not to perform.

When Leo mentions people letting loose, moving beyond safe topics of conversation and being more extroverted when intoxicated it suggests that alcohol has an effect on individuals behaving as if they are less conscious of their performance and thereby being able to foster other impressions of themselves than those of the performance during the day.

The intoxication of the night can also be seen in the perspective of Van Gennep’s rites of passage. When drinking alcohol, with organized mechanisms such as drinking games, that can be seen as a symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment from the earlier fixed standard state of soberness and the identities, roles, behaviours or performances that are associated with that state of being. During the intoxication the individual goes through a cultural realm that is different from the one of soberness. As described by my respondents communication, expectations, the amount of consideration for an audience that is expected to have and what is considered deviant behaviour all changes during intoxication. The ISN coaches can be seen as having the role of a guide or instructor of this cultural realm as they create the environment that encourages drinking and are assumed to be seen partly as authoritative figures that lead the participants into the phase of liminality.

The final phase of reincorporation where the ritual of passage ends and the change in status is achieved can also be seen as being present the following morning after a night of drinking. I will get back to this phase later under the section Non-drinkers and exclusion.

The seeming lack of consideration for an audience in one’s behaviour that goes along with the liminal phase when drinking is seen here when Adam responds to the question of what differences he experienced in how friendship formed during the day and night:

A: Well, maybe during the day. I’m not like a shy person but alcohol gets all the shy out of you so.. during the night I just talked with people. Not even introducing myself, just having conversations about all sort of things. During the day I was more aware of how I was perceived and presented myself and everything.

I: Did you experience alcohol as something that broke down barriers?

A: Yea, I was a bit tipsy so I just opened up conversation, and in those conversations I would just bring up my name.

I: Oh, it was more…

A: Natural, it was just easier.

Adam describes how he would have conversation without introducing himself first, that he just talked with people and that the alcohol got all of the shy out him. Adam jumping into conversations without introducing himself first and describing the conversations as more natural suggests the limitation of the ritualized conversation that was described during the day-activities in the beginning in terms of repeated safe conversation such as introducing yourself and discussing basic topics with everyone.

This suggests a willingness to risk more during the night by trying out untested conversation topics which stands in contrast to how aware of his perception and presentation he was during the day and the lack of risk in performance that follows along with that.  Adam’s use of ‘just’ before ‘talking’ and ‘having conversation’ in this quote suggests his view of it as being simple which is confirmed by him mentioning that it was “just easier”.

Emily describes how alcohol would help non-native English-speakers be more comfortable expressing themselves:

Back home at my university everyone speaks American. Where here there were a few people in my group who felt uncomfortable speaking english. It is also much harder, like they had to think so much harder about what they were saying in the group because it’s not their native language. Alcohol also helped a lot for them to open up. Because they don’t think as much and people would just be like “I don’t know how to express myself” which I have not experienced speaking the language that everyone speaks but it really seemed that it held some back.

This can again be explained with the willingness for more risky performances when intoxicated because of an environment where it is expected and failures are blamed on the alcohol rather than the actor. This is a central perspective since a large part of exchange students are not used to speaking English and this is part of the explanation for it being easier to converse when intoxicated. The consumption of alcohol did however not make friendship formation easier for all.

Non-drinkers and exclusion

Respondents initially describe that everyone drank but upon further reflection think of examples of the opposite in terms of individuals not participating during the nightly activities. This suggests non-drinking participants were less noticed by the respondents which could also be explained by their described lack of presence during nightly activities. My respondents experienced the non-drinkers as having had a harder time making friends. This might be part of the explanation for why the non-drinkers or non-attenders of nightly activities are described to have dropped out of the program more often than their drinking counterparts. When asked if any were excluded on the basis of their consumption all respondents reflect and tell stories of them not being as much part of the group, but that it was an unconscious process. When asked whether he would have small-talk during the day with non-drinkers Leo responds:

Yea, but these people. It was really hard to make conversation with them, it was more like. How do you call when you just talk to yourself? They don’t respond in questions, only in single-word answers. It was also assumed that they did not participate during the night because it corresponds with their attitude during the day. It was hard to socialize with them and did not seem interested in making conversation and getting to know people. They seemed closed off. (..) I think there is no-one who didn’t come during the night who stayed in the group the whole week.

He talks about the non-drinkers of his group as ‘these people’, suggesting he thinks of them as a separate social group, describes them as ‘closed off’ and says people thought their lack of participation during the night corresponded with their attitude during the day. The fact that he says that he does not think anyone who did not come during the nights lasted the whole week suggests the importance of the alcohol-related activities during the night in determining one’s feeling of belonging and the related formation of friendships. This ties in with the descriptions of unconscious exclusion of non-drinkers other respondents give. Earlier in the interview Leo mentions how the successful experience of the night becomes a trending topic of conversation over breakfast:

I: When did you feel that the level of conversation went beyond small talk?

L: The first evening because we went to that bar, Coco’s, everyone was really drunk and we had a good time. The next morning it was a trending topic at the breakfast. It seems pretty logical since it is the first thing we experienced together and it was very easy to talk about because everyone could participate. But there were also periods where you would go back to small talk.

Again the lack of presence of non-drinkers in his mind is evident in his phrasing when noting that it was an easy topic of conversation because ‘everyone could participate’. This can be seen as an element of exclusion through two mechanisms; the topic of conversation appealing easily to large part of the group which helps them bond, based on common consumption of experience and alcohol, while a small part of the group is hindered from participation and thereby excluded from the strengthened bond. In this way the breakfast the next day can be seen as the last phase of a rites of passage: reincorporation. During this phase individuals who have gone through the rites of passage return to their earlier fixed state of soberness and are awarded their new status. This new status can in this case be linked to being included in the group and their conversations.

Emily tells a similar story of a group that especially bonded during liminal, backstage-like night-activities and how those that did not partake were ‘less connected’ to the group:

In the beginning we were all a big group. Everyone got along well and people became friends but the night activities are definitely.. Like the first time we drank together that was definitely a type of bonding experience because people were more open and less shy. Because during the day it would be very weird. People would like have their arms up when meeting new people and it was like a strange situation to be in. But obviously when you are like drinking it so much easier to bond with people because you like let your wall down or whatever. So when we went to the park and drank that was definitely when people starting being more open to each other and less shy. And like the next day people were closer. That really seemed to solidify. And the people that did not go out or drink or party or whatever. There were a few who were just less connected to the group. Not on purpose but it was like that the people in my group wanted to go out and party and the few that just didn’t kind of just fell off.

This is confirmed by Amanda who herself experienced an exclusion at breakfast after not attending the zoo and nightly activities with her group:

A: I mean I did not pre-game with my group. They did pre-game with each other a lot so they became friends and I was not really in that which is fine because I chose to. But uhmm, I think they were all happy to make friends with each other.

I: I’m interested in you not pre-gaming with your group. What led up to that?

A: I was sort of clinging on to the fact that I had made a friend that I liked and started hanging out with her. Like, so I went to the Dutch craft course and then it was the arts and crafts activity which i didn’t like so I left. And then my group went to the zoo or something after so they were spending the full day together and they hung out after for the nightly programme which involved drinking. But I was with my other friend so I didn’t really experience that. But yea, I was definitely just trying to stick with the person who I already sort of knew.

I: When did you see your group again?

A: The next day at breakfast. I don’t even think I spent that whole full day either. By the time I had breakfast with them it was becoming evident that they were like getting to be friends and I wasn’t really part of that.

Her description of it being evident they were becoming a more closed group over breakfast corresponds with Leo’s description of the night activities being the main topic of conversation in the morning and sheds a light on the perspective of those who could not partake in that conversation. Amanda kept participating in the ISN week for the rest of the week but it was with the company of her American friend who also participated in the ISN rather than with her group that she did not keep in contact with.

From  the perspective of liquid modernity it can be argued that relationships are based on common consumption of experiences and alcohol and as Amanda did not take part in this communal consumption there is no grounds for the relationship.


My findings show that the consumption of alcohol was used to combat the ambiguous feelings when having to form new friendships in a state of amplified liquid modernity. I found that the exchange students were eager to form new friendships upon arrival but experienced the first time in the introduction week as challenging due to repetition of conversation topics as well as silence. I explain this from the perspective of Goffman’s theory about the presentation of the self in everyday life where actors always consider the reactions of their audience when performing. I suggest that having little information on their audience and fearing an undesired response, the actors limit their performances to safe topics of conversation or the even safer silence.The nightly activities with alcohol present are described as a contrast to this. The conversations were described as more varied and natural and behavior as less constraint. I suggest that in the perspective of Goffman this can be seen as respondents having knowledge from past experiences of how audiences in situations of nightlife react to a given performance; expectations of behaving differently when intoxicated as well as a lack of responsibility for one’s performance as it can be blamed on the alcohol. I suggest that this creates an environment where students are expected to behave as if they do not account for their audience in a backstage-like manner, but that this very expectation is a regard for an audience making it remain front stage.

The process of intoxication can be seen as a rites of passage in the sense that the students get detached from an earlier state of soberness at pre-games and enter a cultural realm that is described as radically different where there a certain freedoms to behave differently and finally reincorporate at the breakfast table the next morning where the status of inclusion in the group is awarded to those who participated. This corresponds with my findings of respondents not being aware of non-drinkers and of a non-participant of the night who felt exclusion the following day as a result.

The students went on exchange with a desire of self-development or self-finding through new experiences. The exchange trip can also be seen a rites of passage where the exchange students detach from their prior state of their hometowns to enter into a cultural realm of Amsterdam which is different from the one back home and affects their behaviour during this liminal phase as it does not have permanent consequences for their life because of the temporality of their stay in this realm. The behaviour is largely affected in a way where their seeking for sensations and experiences is intensified as this is seen as a way of self-finding or self-development. This hunt for experiences and sensations I would argue can be linked with the large consumption of alcohol as the sought-after sensations and experiences are described to be found during intoxication.

The hunt for self-development, sensations and experiences can be interpreted using Bauman’s theory as an expected mindset of the individual consumers we have become in liquid modernity. Furthermore, our mindset to be ready for consumption when it presents itself results in temporality of relationships as permanence is a constraint for the flexible consumer. The temporality of the exchange trip intensifies the liquidity of relationships making connections less intimate and based on consumption of experiences and sensations helped along by consumption of alcohol.

What the participants experienced is not unique to the youth of the introduction week. Feelings of ambiguity with regard to relationships are prevalent in liquid modernity due to the detachment of human bond that adds to the readiness for consuming. In Goffman’s terms it can be said that in liquid modernity our backstage experiences are limited as we fear the obligations related to relationships with intimacy. The temporality of the cultural realm in which the social relations are formed for the students intensifies the fear of human bonds in these liquid times.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Baumann, Zygmunt (1995). Life in fragments. Blackwell Publishers

Baumann, Zygmunt (1998). On Postmodern Uses of Sex.  Theory, Culture & Society, 15,

Becarria, Franca et al. (2003). Drinking games and rite of life projects. Young, 11, 99-119.

Branaman, Ann (2007). Gender and sexualities in liquid modernity. In Anthony Elliott (ed.), The Contemporary Bauman, pp. 117-136. Routledge.

Goffman, Erving (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor Books.

Turner, Victor 1995: The ritual process. Structure and anti-structure. Transaction

ISN: http://isn-amsterdam.nl/introduction-week-0 – Retrieved 15/11-2015