This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 25 February 2015.
Formal hall is terrific fun, but there’s an awful lot of archaic nonsense which goes along with it. (He said, inadvertently summing up his entire student life). They provide excellent food and good company in a suitably Hogwarts-y atmosphere, while also justifying the twenty-five quid one must shell out for a subfusc. In my experience, dinner in formal hall is an immensely congenial experience, striking a perfect balance between sophistication and booziness, and the Latin is at least not as annoying as it could be.
But the question remains as to what constitutes proper etiquette at formal hall? Is it rude to bring your own glasses? Or indeed your own ketchup? And is it, as I was told on one occasion, rude to take selfies at the dinner table? Yes, apparently, but I fail to see why- what, we’re content to let these 17th century geezers line the halls with their narcissistically-recorded visages, but I’m not allowed to make a (higher quality) version of the same?
But I digress. Suffice it to say that at formal hall it is terribly easy to slip up and be frightfully embarrassed- whether it’s using the wrong cutlery or drinking too much and being sick on your Economics tutor. All of this is fairly easily rectified with some basic advice; use cutlery from the outside in, stick to standard table manners, know your limits. Simple, really.
The best experiences to be had at formal hall, though, are the ones with guests. I recently had my grandparents over for formal dinner, and seeing the slightly awed looks on their faces made me realise something. Oxford is impressive. But while you’re here, you don’t see it. You forget that not all Pret a Mangers are older than your church back home. The grandiose becomes routine. But sitting in the softly-lit hall with a nice glass of wine and the people I loved, I realised how lucky I was- how lucky we all are. I saw it again. That is the power and the privilege of formal hall. Next to that, the etiquette seems simply… moot.