Earlier this week I posted about whether the widely known stereotype of us British having bad teeth had any validity? In the end, it had none at all and we can rest easy knowing there are few with more healthy or well-maintained teeth than us.
Today I’m going to deal with another stereotype, namely are we in the U.K. in a permanent state of obsession with our weather? As the saying goes, when two Englishmen meet, their talk is of the weather and unlike Hollywood and their teeth obsession, this saying definitely has its origins from these very islands.
Oscar Wilde may have said that talking about the weather is a sign of a lack of imagination, and this may be so given that our weather is not normally very extreme. A 2010 study revealed that 94% of us in Britain had talked about the weather in the past 6 hours with 38% surveyed having talked about the weather in the last hour. I must say that today I had a book-signing and without exception, every single person talked about the weather.
Several years ago I wrote about what makes our weather unique. 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 feed on the temperature difference from the equator to the pole. 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.
Additionally, features of Britain’s geography make the weather the way it is: mild, changeable, and of course famously unpredictable which is no doubt why we all talk about it.
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. Given a good bit of summer heat, in effect, we become one big tropical island with all the thunderstorms and flash foods associated with it.
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 or around 76 degrees F. This isn’t even balmy SW England or London but mountainous Wales.
Our weather is generally mild and increasingly with Global Warming, the temperature differentiation between the seasons is blurring. Summer days can be 13-15 degrees C (56F) even in the south one day and then 30C (90F) the next. Likewise, winter can be 20 degrees one day and then around freeze the next day… before we even get on to the rain.
That being said, though parts of the U.K. can be very wet, the reputation for it being always raining is totally unwarranted. London, for example, gets less annual rain than Paris or New York and no-one jokes about the rain when visiting those cities. We do get lots of days of urgh type of overcast cloud and once or twice a year we get massive rain storms that can last 2-3 days like New York can get of snow, but that’s about it. And considering London itself is parallel with Canada whilst the top of our country is level with Alaska and Greenland, it is hardly unexpected to get some problems.
Like our British smiles, lots of our weather image comes from the movies. For some reason, Hollywood likes to feature London in the rain, though from what I can tell, they normally have to use the fire brigade to hose down the streets because it isn’t wet. Maybe the myth is now so strong that some international audiences wouldn’t recognise the location as being London without rain. London sits in a deep bowl which coupled with its proximity to the very chilly North Sea means that it is prone to overcast days as the cloud sits low and can’t be blown away. However, you only have to travel 100 miles away to get 30% more sunshine, bizarrely this is northwards to Norfolk, not southwards.
Similarly for snow, we don’t have white Christmases. This myth may be in part due to Charles Dickens but since his days, we have only had 4 white Christmases in London, we’ve had far more white Easters in March or April… a fact borne out by it being a generally very warm and dry winter in London (cold and very wet in other places) and yet there being snow showers the last 4 days. Even my Austrian tour guests were complaining how cold it was and happily surprised it was so sunny as in Vienna it was warm and raining. In reality it is little more likely to snow in London at Christmas than it is in California.
So that’s it, our weather isn’t usually extreme but it is the very definition of unpredictable and that is why we talk about it all the time. However, it is more complicated than that. Talking about the weather also allows us to fill up awkwardly silent moments when reserved British isn’t quite sure what to say… would it be rude to say something… would it be rude not to say anything or very British problems. Stating it is cold outside or I think it is going to rain later means we can acknowledge the presence of someone and so be polite but without either of us having to commit to a conversation which neither of us probably wants.
Talking about the weather is also a good ice-breaker and also, a way to measure whether someone his having a good day or is receptive to conversation or requests. One can ask a reasonable question in a positive way such as “It’s quite nice today isn’t it” and then if the reply is along the lines of they “hate the sunshine” or it’s “only nice compared to yesterday” or it’s “not enough to make up for last weeks washed out BBQ” then it’s time to leave them in peace. To actually state it is cold outside and then the other person to disagree would be socially awkward and almost unheard of however.
To certain degrees all societies have these slightly bland conversations, it is just that in Britain we rather excel in them. Social scientists describe how we all tread a fine line with, on the one hand, wanting approval by other members of society and to forge closer bonds with others. On the other, the desire to be autonomous and left alone.
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 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 are predominantly 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.
Other nations that have a negative face include Switzerland, Finland and Japan. Japan is probably the only other nation along with the U.K. that is famous for its intricate manners and reputation for politness and it too is an island nation with unpredictable weather, in fact one of the very few that can match our unpreductability, and as such Japanese people also talk about the weather.
The Swiss and Finns, though, are not quite as obsessed with the weather as we are, possibly because there’s less variation to talk about. In Finland, for example, you can connect with people simply by sitting and drinking with them. Also the Finnish weather is much less variable than in Britain and if in winter you know you’re going to have five months of near constant snow and then several months of near constant fine weather, it means there is little point in conversing about the weather at all.
In Britain, on the other hand, we can be wrapped up against snow or strong winds on Saturday; picnicking in shorts and t-shirt on Sunday; and battling torrential rain on Monday. Sometimes all three in the same day. That’s just the way it is here and that, coupled with our negative face personality means we most definitely do talk about the weather more than anyone else. So if the stereotype about our weather being always wet, isn’t deserved, the one that we are obsessed with the weather is very accurate.