Enjoying a blast from the past

July 27, 2007

Looking forward to a reunion at your alma mater - or dreading it? Harriet Swain found that dressing casually, networking and dancing along to the band will make for a thoroughly agreeable event.

Well, if it isn't old so-and-so. It isn't? Apologies, it must be the hair - or should I say lack of it. Ha ha. Now let me tell you the latest on the dire state of the university buildings. Maybe you can help out?

If this kind of exchange is why you dread the idea of a reunion, relax, says Jonathan Clark, head of Friends Reunited, the internet site set up to put old friends in touch with one another. According to research by his site, what people get most anxious about when preparing for a reunion is their appearance.

"While people are worried about how their careers have gone and how much money they have, they are most worried about how they have aged," he says. He advises resisting the temptation to cope with these fears by over-dressing. Instead, he suggests that, in the absence of a specified dress code, smart casual is probably the best approach "as if you aren't that bothered".

Indeed, this is probably the best approach to take to the whole event. "It should be seen as not really a big deal," he says. "Most people come away feeling a lot happier about how things have turned out for them. You always imagine the worst - that your progression has slowed down and everyone else has shot ahead. But the reality is that most other people are in the same boat. You come away thinking 'Actually, I'm pretty happy with my lot'."

Not necessarily, warns Ray Pahl, emeritus professor of sociology at Essex University and author of On Friendship . He says the danger with reunions is that they can highlight the inequalities of life. "You were all pretty much equal as undergraduates," he says. "Now there has been a huge difference - some people are very poor and struggling, other people are captains of industry. That's bound to create a kind of awkwardness."

And these inequalities are not just apparent in terms of wealth. Some will be happily married with hordes of happy children. Others will have suffered relationship breakdowns, illnesses, tragedy. While people tend to mix with others pretty much like themselves, a reunion throws them into contact with people whose lives have turned out very differently. "It opens up realities of life that we generally cover over."

The tendency is, therefore, to go in for a superficial joviality, harking back to a supposed golden age, he says, and he blames universities for encouraging this in order to maximise alumni donations. But he says if you really want to get the most out of a reunion it is something you should try to resist. Instead, Pahl says, "be sensitive to other people and maybe you will even grow emotionally as a result of it. If you swallow the spin and bonhomie, you are living a lie."

If all this sounds too heavy, reunions that involve a cultural event, such as a musical evening or an art exhibition, are often easier because people have a common interest to talk about as well as their private lives, Pahl says. It is also much easier if you have kept in touch, even to a small degree, with some of your peers.

Ron Gray, director of development and alumni relations at Warwick University, says he always encourages graduates to call friends in advance, otherwise they might find the person they are most looking forward to seeing doesn't turn up.

On the other hand, he also recommends trying to talk to people you never spoke to while at university. "You have something in common with them, even if you never knew them as a student, so it can be nice to meet them," Gray says.

Martin Hoffman, who attended a reunion at the London School of Economics last summer, says it is a good idea to do some homework beforehand to refresh your memory and avoid the embarrassment of recognising a face but completely forgetting a name and what connection they had with you.

He suggests Googling some of your former peers to see what they have been up to, and reminding yourself of who taught you.

If you are the person who was doing the teaching, don't try to recreate with a former student the kind of relationship you had with them 30 or 40 years ago, warns Pahl. Remember that they have grown up, and are now probably brighter, richer and more knowledgeable about the world than you are.

Gray says it is useful for academics to look at class lists in advance of a reunion because it is much more likely that a former student will remember his or her professor than the other way around.

If you haven't a clue who a former student is, he says, one simple question can move the conversation on to a comfortable place: "Tell me what you have done since graduation, and did your experience in the department prepare you for it?"

Hoffman says to make the most of a reunion you have to be prepared to see it as a networking opportunity and simply walk up to people and introduce yourself. He also recommends attending all the various events organised for you, rather than bunking off to go shopping or to see the sights.

Nor should you be overly self-conscious about dancing along with the band since your children won't be there to see you.

Finally, Clark says it can be very easy to rekindle friendships or even make new ones because of your common past. But if you want to maintain them you need to keep the momentum going.

"Everyone is busy these days," he says. "If you don't make an effort straight away, you will later be in the situation of having to do the reunion all over again."

More information
Friends Reunited website
On Friendship , by Ray Pahl, Polity, 2000

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