Oscar Wilde said conversation about it was the last refuge of the unimaginative, while Bill Bryson noted that its most striking characteristic is that there isn’t much of it. The weather – and the British obsession with talking about it – has been puzzling outsiders for decades.
According to recent research, 94% of British respondents admit to having conversed about the weather in the past six hours, while 38% say they have in the past 60 minutes. “This means at almost any moment in this country, at least a third of the population is either talking about the weather, has already done so or is about to do so,” says social anthropologist Kate Fox, who performed the studies in 2010 for an update of her book Watching the English.
So why do the British do it? Is there something about the nation’s weather that makes it worthy of discussion, or is it simply a cultural foible? And do any other nationalities share this peculiar conversational trait?
Several features of Britain’s geography make the weather the way it is: mild, changeable, and famously unpredictable.
Britain’s position at the edge of the Atlantic places it at the end of a storm track – relatively narrow zones over oceans that storms travel down, driven by the prevailing winds. “These storms are feeding on the temperature difference from the equator to the pole,” says Douglas Parker, joint Met Office professor of meteorology at the University of Leeds.
As the warm and cold air fly towards and over each other, the earth’s rotation creates cyclones – and the UK bears the tail end of them.
Then there is the Gulf Stream, which makes the British climate milder than it should be, given its northern latitude, and the fact that the UK is made up of islands, meaning there is a lot of moisture in the air. “Water in the atmosphere makes the weather particularly unpredictable,” Parker says.
The variability means residents never know quite what to expect. Snow in summer? T-shirts in winter? Recently, the hottest-ever November day was recorded in mid-Wales, with temperatures hitting a balmy 22.4C. “It’s much more unpredictable than the climate of many countries,” says Trevor Harley, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Dundee, who runs a website devoted to the British weather. “There’s always something happening – and if there isn’t, there is the promise.”
It is these types of extremes that generate much of the debate on online forums about the British weather (yes, they do exist!). The British Weather Newsgroup, for example, has been running since the mid-1990s and was started as a forum for enthusiasts to discuss scientific aspects of the British weather.
Today, almost all aspects of the weather are up for debate, although there are two major themes, says Harley. One is speculation about – and a desire for – severe weather, such as a traditional white Christmas – never mind the fact the UK has only experienced a widespread, Dickensian-like Christmas snow four times in the past 51 years.
The other theme is nostalgia for the weather of the past, which Harley notes is often at odds with the reality. “In my memory, every summer’s day in the 60s was hot and sunny with unbroken sunshine. In fact, this could only have been a few days in a few months; summers in the 60s were unusually cool and unsettled,” he says.
Many of the day-to-day conversations British people initiate about the weather, however, are more mundane. Comments like “cold, isn’t it?” don’t even particularly demand a full response; a grunt of agreement will suffice.
Weather talk helps us overcome social inhibitions – Kate Fox
Fox has eavesdropped on hundreds of such weather-related conversations as part of her research. She concludes that they’re less about the weather and more akin to the kind of physical grooming that occurs among our primate cousins. “Weather talk is a kind of code that we have evolved to help us overcome social inhibitions and actually talk to one another,” says Fox.
In some situations, weather talk is an icebreaker. In others it’s used to fill awkward silences, or divert the conversation away from uncomfortable topics. Often it’s an excuse for a good old grumble, which can be a bonding experience in itself, but we can also use weather speak to gauge other people’s moods: “Depending on their response to your weather greeting, you can tell if someone is in the mood for a chat, or is feeling grumpy and negative,” says Fox.
But there are certain unwritten rules that the British follow when conducting these weather-related conversations. Firstly, the topic will almost always be introduced as a form of question, even if only in the intonation (e.g., “Raining again?”). Secondly, the person answering must agree. “Failing to agree is quite a serious breach of etiquette. Or at least if you disagree, you have to express it in terms of a sort of personal foible,” says Fox. “If someone says: ‘Cold, isn’t it?’ and you say: ‘Well actually, no,’ the person would be a bit taken aback, and feel that that was a discourteous thing to say.”
Positive or negative?
Of course, these kinds of purely social conversations also occur in other cultures. But both the nature of the conversation – and their content – will vary. Derek Bousfield, an expert in language and impoliteness at Manchester Metropolitan University, explains that in every culture, individuals tread a delicate balance. On the one hand, they want approval by other members of society and to forge closer bonds with others. On the other, they desire to be autonomous and left alone.
Countries that privilege positive face will choose personal topics, such as someone’s age or weight, as an appropriate icebreaker
Academics call these opposing needs a ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’, respectively, and most societies privilege one over the other. “British people stereotypically favour negative face (the desire to be unimpeded) over positive face (the desire to be approved of), although we still have a sense of positive face,” says Bousfield. “For instance, getting on the bus and ignoring someone you know would be an affront to positive face, and cause interpersonal issues. But negative face” – which in this example, might mean not intruding on a stranger’s personal space, or refraining from starting an unwanted conversation – “has greater weight.”
When it comes to small talk, countries that privilege positive face will choose personal topics, such as someone’s age, weight or what they do for a living, as an appropriate icebreaker. That explains why people from some cultures – including the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia, South America and the United States – will ask questions that British people might find rude at worst or a tad forward at best, says Bousfield.
A country like Britain, on the other hand, will choose a safe and personally unobtrusive topic – such as the weather.
Japan, Switzerland and Finland are other examples of negative face cultures. And certainly in Japan, another island nation with unpredictable weather, the weather and the seasons are common conversation topics. Take the following haiku by the Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki: “Over the wintry forest, winds howl in rage with no leaves to blow.”
The Swiss and Finns, though, are not quite as obsessed, possibly because there’s less to talk about. In Finland, for example, you can bond with people simply by sitting and drinking with them; you don’t even have to talk much, says Bousfield. “When you do this in the depth of winter – where Helsinki has underground tunnels so the shops can still operate even in deep snow – what weather is there to talk about?” he says. “Everyone knows it’s only going to be ice and snow for up to four, five or sometimes six months, so why talk about it?”
In Britain, on the other hand, we can be wrapped up against the elements on Saturday; picnicking in shorts and t-shirt on Sunday; and battling torrential rain on Monday. That’s just the way it is here.
Cold, isn’t it?
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