Lad culture: only a British norm?

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‘Lad culture’ is widely acknowledged, but often accepted as the norm by those of us who have spent most of our lives in the UK. Students who are new to Britain and are experiencing the phenomena for the first time have helped to shed light on why lad culture prevails. We asked six international students to share their views, and the responses were varied, with students citing a number of different reasons for the persistence of this sub-culture in our universities.

“It’s okay for the ‘lads’ to drool all over the girls, but not vice versa”

According to the NUS heavy drinking at UK universities fuels lad culture. So, how does British binge drinking compare with drinking cultures elsewhere? Teresa, who is from Italy, said “the strangest thing I’ve noticed here is the pre drinks tradition… in Italy you go out and drink, drink, drink, or you have a house party and you drink, drink, drink, but my friends and I never really drink before going out (it might seem a stupid thing, but it’s true!”

According to Thomas, drinking in Hong Kong is only slightly different to Britain. “We drink a lot but we don’t drink so frequently,” he said. Victor highlighted the similarities between the UK and Sweden, where there is ‘the same sort of drinking culture.’ The UK levels of binge drinking are some of the highest in the world, so these responses are perhaps surprising.

Palatinate also asked the international students about sports and societies, how they help to create a pack mentality, and the significance of this as an aspect of lad culture. Una, an international student from Ireland, shared her experiences of lad culture at Durham. “Societies heighten lad culture,” she reported, “we have lad culture in Dublin but in societies here it’s all about the initiations, going out drinking, being in this pack together, I’ve never seen it like that before”. Victor expressed this sentiment too, and saw the situation as “men and boys collectively, in a group, taking up a lot of public space, being loud and seeking attention.” Alice was able to compare this to university life in Italy, where there are “no such things as initiations for societies”.

Sexism and misogyny were the most common issues raised by the students Palatinate interviewed, and there was some contradictions in the responses. “I think same-sex schools have a lot to do with it, especially boarding schools,” suggested Victor. All Swedish schools are co-educational, and Victor says that this early divide between the sexes is an important factor in the persistence of lad culture. “I have an English friend who moved to Sweden, and one of the main reasons she decided to stay was that she found it much more equal in terms of gender,” he said. He is adamant that British lad culture is inherently “patriarchal” and “misogynistic”. Una was also quick to point out the gender divide in Britain. She’s lived in Germany and France, as well as Ireland, and spoke about the divide in Ireland in similar terms to the UK: “In Germany there isn’t as much of a boundary between the sexes, but in Ireland there’s more of a distinction.”

“They’re very self-conscious – they don’t want people to think that they care”

Thomas, the international student from Hong Kong, also spoke about sexist behaviour as part of Durham’s lad culture, but Teresa suggested that sexism wasn’t as prevalent. When Palatinate asked if she had witnessed or experienced sexism on a night out, she explained “Never in these three months [since arriving in October], to be honest”.

One interviewee, who wanted to contribute anonymously, spoke about lad culture in terms of gender relations. “I’ve definitely encountered it in Durham; more so with the British ‘lads’ than the international ones,” he explained. “One example would be the constant mission to ‘pull’ (new word to me) and the pride and honour associated with that the next morning. It kind of seems like it’s okay for the ‘lads’ to drool all over the girls, but not vice versa.”

So, how does this differ from the expectations in France, where has spent much of his time? “In France – at least in the environment I lived in – everything related to ‘pulling’ had a bit more emotion attached. It wasn’t just a quest to pull a girl, it was the quest to pull the girl that really genuinely interested you; no judgement attached. All in all, I guess I just don’t relate to this lad culture.” Alice shared the experiences of a Brazilian friend. “My friend was asked ‘do you want to meet for coffee before our lecture?’ by her friend who is male, and he starts trying with her. So, she said ‘sorry, but I have a boyfriend,’ to which he replied: ‘but you said you would get coffee with me.’ He had assumed she wanted to go out with him.”

“Boys in England tend to be really proud of this masculinity they have”

Interestingly, there was also a lot of sympathy voiced for the people who get caught up in his behaviour. Victor says that “they’re very self-conscious – they don’t want people to think that they care” and Una spoke about a perceived preoccupation with how the outside world views you; dressing down intentionally to convey apathy, for example. Alice said she was confused by how “boys in England tend to be really proud of this masculinity they have,” and explained that on occasion she was surprised that young men were not inclined to speak about how they felt. “Apparently it’s normal to not say what you’re thinking here, but for me it’s the opposite”. Victor wondered if lad culture was more a product of social pressures than anything else, suggesting that “they can’t be happy with that mentality.” This impression of things was common.

Largely, Durham’s international students seem confused by the workings of lad culture; it is both a source of frustration and surprise. Perhaps their experiences can help remind British students that on an international scale, university lad culture is not an unchallenged norm.

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