When I moved to Berlin from the UK in September 2020, I had barely any experience of the city’s nightlife. My first few weeks were spent exploring the bars and clubs that were open, before the second lockdown hit in November. The reaction I got from Berliners I met was usually sarcastic: “What a great time to move here” or “you’re not seeing the real Berlin”.
Once Germany’s lockdown was finally lifted in May this year, I had a lot of catching up to do and embarked on a messy, summer-long club crawl. Obviously, not every night out lived up to my expectations. But when I recounted my evenings to friends, the low moments (long queues, throwing up, the tears and endless journeys home) were reframed as the tragicomic sideshow to my crazy tales of adventure.
Once I realised just how often I was hyping up my experiences in conversation, I felt a bit ashamed. But over a year of living through the pandemic has skewed everyone’s internal compass. These days, the dancefloor is propelled by a competitive urgency; the feeling that every night out must be experienced to the maximum, with the wild photos and IG stories to match.
George Atallah, 27, from Amman, Jordan agrees. He’s also been partying in Berlin this summer, and says: “I feel like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to constantly go out and have a so-called ‘perfect’ night, because I’m in fear of another lockdown creeping up on us this winter.”
He’s also had his share of terrible nights, but felt obliged to put a positive spin on them online. “On a night out recently, a friend drank too much and got sick, so I took care of her at the club’s first aid clinic,” he remembers. “She eventually recovered but by then the party was almost over. Between everyone’s Instagram stories of the dancefloor and Instagram posts of us wearing gorgeous outfits, social media definitely portrayed a more hyped up version of the night than what it actually was.”
Olivia Walsh, 24, from West Sussex, lives with her parents and is scared of catching COVID and passing it on to them. “Because of this risk, I definitely feel that each night out I go on really has to be worth it,” she says. “This puts a lot of pressure on me and my friends to have a great time.” When a night goes wrong, “it feels like the usual night out disappointment on crack, because normally you’d just be underwhelmed – but in this case it feels like all risk for no payoff”.
When a recent night out in Brighton didn’t go so well, Olivia, like George, felt compelled to paint a different picture on social media. “I felt tired, anxious and stressed, but still took loads of pictures and posted them online as if everything was great.” If having the best night out is a competition, Olivia is ready to remove herself from the race. “I’m looking forward to going back to work so I have an excuse to say no to partying,” she confides.
Matthew Sandham, 23, from Lancaster, has also been enjoying a summer of clubbing. He told me that “since everything reopened, I'm more than comfortable going out on back-to-back days”.
On a recent night out in York, he was disappointed that the club he went to was heaving with soon-to-be uni students celebrating their A Level results. Not wanting to give up on the evening, his solution was “to make the night more enjoyable by drinking more – but then one girl from our group began throwing up in the gutter and I got her sick on my hands attempting to hold her hair back”. When he recounted the dispiriting night back to friends, he found himself exaggerating how “wild and eventful” it was to “convince myself that the evening was worth the time, money and hangover”.
“To turn down invitations feels as though I'm taking one step backwards to the solitude of isolation, meaning that I'll rework my schedule and check my bank balance just to participate in going out,” Matthew says. “Maybe it's not a healthy lifestyle in the long-term, but feeling as though my social life is overwhelming is some comfort for the past year being too quiet, too empty and too difficult to process.”
I asked Professor Mazad Hojjat, an expert in social psychology, what’s behind the need to prove we’re living our best lives this summer. “The desire to exaggerate how much fun you are having is nothing new,” she says. “We call this ‘impression management’ in social psychology.”
“This is one way in which individuals attempt to boost their own self-esteem by creating the impression that they are doing well,” Hojjat explains. “Social media has made this especially easy because people can post selective positive images of themselves for everyone to see and admire.”
She says that this behaviour may even be more common at the minute “because people are not feeling especially good about themselves, due to anxiety about COVID or isolation, and hope to alleviate these negative emotions.”
Is there a way for us to overcome the need for competitive exaggeration? “People should remind themselves that this is a temporary situation,” Hojjat advises. “Everyone is experiencing a difficult time and sometimes reaching out to others – for example, showing empathy and altruism – would be a more effective and long-lasting way to boost one’s mood.”
That might help to some extent, but I don’t think there’s any solution that will relieve the pressure on clubbers this year. To admit that your night out was disappointing is to admit that the stresses and anxieties of this last year have gotten to you. As long as the dancefloor stays open, the competition to have the best night ever will just keep on going.