Do the British really talk about the weather?

Quick answer: Yes. Right now, the village is talking about the weather because it’s spring. Or summer. Or almost summer.

Is this different than what happens in the winter? It’s not. We always talk about the weather. Because we’re—.

Well, no, we’re not all British, but even those of us who aren’t live in Britain, and it doesn’t take long to learn that the way to make a bit of quick human contact it to talk about the weather. And we’re social beings. We need contact. So we talk about the weather.

What do we say? Well, saying a nice day’s nice is acceptable, but moaning’s got more punch. Because no matter how much the people I know glory in a beautiful day, underneath it all they live on a wet island and it would be unpatriotic to forget that. They believe in cloud, in rain, in damp. Anything else just flits across the windshield of life and is gone. Whatever replaces it will be water-based.

Besides, moaning allows for jokes, even if they’ve all been made before. A beautiful day? Happiness? Where’s the laugh there?

A rare relevant photo: people sitting outside Exeter Cathedral, in front of a statue of someone whose first name is Richard.

A rare relevant photo: people sitting outside on the Exeter Cathedral close, in front of a statue of someone whose first name is Richard. Oh, okay, it’s Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600). He was a priest. If he swings that foot, he’s going to kick someone.

According to Kate Fox, whose book Watching the English I haven’t quoted in entirely too long, moaning is an English (and by extension, and I hope I’m not wrong here, British) passion. She admits that the English aren’t the only people who moan but describes a form that she believes is uniquely English: “a sort of grumpy and apathetic stoicism; complaining…in a resigned manner, without any real expectation that things could be improved.”

And the weather’s perfect for that. We could complain about the government but we could—and surely we eventually will—dump the current one and complaining about it might nudge us toward action. But the weather? What can we do about that? Moan. Laugh. Put on a raincoat.

As Fox understands the way the English talk about the weather, people aren’t really talking about the weather when they’re talking about the weather. What they’re doing is talking. Finding a way to make contact. The weather’s an accepted channel but only borderline relevant to what’s really happening.

So moaning about the weather brings together two national passions. Or quirks. Or—well, I believe the technical term is whatever.

How does that work in practice?

The other day, G. and I saw each other on the road early in the morning. I was walking the dogs. She was walking herself. We traded a few words about how beautiful the day was, and what a gorgeous part of the day the early morning is. We were both happy, or at least we gave a damn good impression of it.

Before long, we were trading updates on our aches, our pains, the various ways we’re less able than we once were, and she mentioned the percentage of over-50s in Britain who have osteoarthritis. It might have been 70% or 85%. In fact, it might have been people over 60, not 50. But it involved numbers, that much I’m sure of, and they were ear-catching ones, even if they didn’t catch well enough to stay with me.

Don’t you just love how much you learn here?

Her point was—and I’m paraphrasing wildly, because she didn’t go all pseudo-poetic about it—that the damp draws arthritis out of human bones the way the sun draws sprouts out of seeds. So Britain breeds arthritis. We exchanged a few more bits of ache-and-pain news and went on our way fortified by the knowledge that we’re doomed. We were oddly cheery about it, and I suspect that’s a British thing as well.

Then I drove to Exeter, where I had some errands to run before I turned around and drove home without passing Go or dropping in on the friends Wild Thing and I usually see when we’re there. And I noticed something: This damp island is a place where people sit outside a good chunk of the year, and look forward to it. It’s a place where a sizable chunk of the population thinks of the outdoors as one of the places they live their lives, not just a place they hustle through between work, home, and grocery shopping.

To someone who spent forty years in Minnesota, that means the climate’s kind. Yes, it’s wet, but it’s not trying to kill you all winter. And while we’re at it, it’s not thinking about whether to give you heat stroke during a good part of the summer. I exaggerate very slightly, and only about the summer. The winter? It can kill you and if seasons had emotions it would be happy to. Leaving the house during a Minnesota winter is like suiting up to step out of the space station. I used to think I’d be a completely different person if I could just grab a jacket and walk out the door.

Here In Cornwall, even in the winter, people will sit outside. Not as many of them as in summer and not as often, but on a dry day it’s possible and people do it. One of the cafes in the village sets out a stack of blankets for people to wrap up in, and even if we look like patients at a pre-antibiotic TB sanitarium, we soak up some sun—or at least some not-rain—and feel better for it.

And still, the nation’s core belief is that the climate’s miserable. And bad for us.

I get swept into that, even though I don’t really believe it. Because at the same time I sort of do. We’re social creatures. I’ve been captured by the thinking around me. But for someone who’s officially miserable about the weather, I’m surprisingly happy. I’ve turned out to be the same person I was in Minnesota, but in some non-weight-related way I’m a lighter version of her.

48 thoughts on “Do the British really talk about the weather?

  1. Can I say how totally I love this line? “I’ve turned out to be the same person I was in Minnesota, but in some non-weight-related way I’m a lighter version of her.”

    What you do not hear in UK: Have a nice day. (They know all about tempting fate…)

    (T

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for my Friday AM smile. You guys have a right to complain. I stopped complaining about our weather after February 2015, which was the coldest month on record in Connecticut since they started recording temperature. As long as it doesn’t go all Minnesota on us, I’m never going to complain again. I’m sure there’s some weather god who’s just waiting to say: “you think this is bad…bwah ha ha”

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    • You are bold, saying you’re never going to complain again. (I’m assuming that’s only about the weather, but even so.) If I made a pledge like that, I wouldn’t last ten minutes. Even if I loved the weather, I’d just somehow have to….

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  3. Well, there’s two things (at least) about the weather in these isles. One is that, except superficially, we’re usually grumbly not about the fact that it’s too cold or too hot or too wet or too dry but that we have a very changeable climate and can’t predict on any given day what it’s going to be like the next minute let alone the next month oir season. We don’t have clear-cut seasons here. And it’s the changeability that unites us because we all share it. I suspect it’s also the same sort of inconsistencies – nature’s inconsistencies – that form the British sense of humour which relies on irony and is in itself a bit off-kilter.

    Secondly, talking about the weather is an alternative to the much more assertive sorts of introductory questions such as “Who are you?” “what are you doing here” and it mildly voices the thought “I want to start a conversation with you but don’t know how without seeming intrusive.”

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        • I had a long conversation once with a man who was walking his turtle. Or tortoise. One of the things he told me was that Americans used one word and the British used the other, but I can’t remember which was which. I always thought they described different varieties of roughly the same creature. I have no idea if he knew what he was talking about.

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          • Brit: if it lives mostly in water it’s a turtle. If it lives on land it’s a tortoise. (And if you sit on the toilet and find any in the pan, it’s a turtle. Oh wait, not – that’s just in our house!)

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            • I don’t think I’d have found a whole lot of use for that last definition, but thanks for warning me just in case I took it out in public and made a fool of myself.

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    • It is, oddly enough, sunny here and has been for days. It’s shocking. And you’re right: It is a safe subject. The rule seems to be, whatever anyone says about the weather, you agree.

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  4. Here on the Oregon Coast we have two seasons: wet and dry. It has a reputation for always raining, but the summers are very nearly rainless. Things are changing with the recent droughts, but I’ve known folks to move because of the cloudy, rainy weather come winter. Lots of folks seem to complain about it, but I’ve broken your rule to agree with whatever folks say about our endless, too warm for me, sunny summer days. I like nothing better than some wild storm watching over the ocean, or a moody drizzly day to stay in with a good book.

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    • Agreeing with whatever people say about the weather isn’t really my rule. As far as I can figure out, it’s a British one. Or so Kate Fox claims (if I remember correctly–I’m not about to go looking for the quote). As for me, I love a good storm, but endless rain does get to me after a while.

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  5. I tend not to complain about the weather, thinking Mother Nature knows better than I. All things pass in time. BUT, I didn’t care for the rains of May. Even I, as a pluviophile, had enough of the May rains. Something like 21 or 22 days straight. Gah. My garden got behind and so yes, I did complain. Churlishly, with abandon.

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    • I think the British really do talk about the weather more than–well, the only comparison I can make is to Americans. When I lived in New York, I barely remember anyone talking about the weather. In Minnesota people talked about it more because it was so completely miserable so much of the time. In the U.K., I think it’s just something to talk about. It’s comforting. It’s safe. And it gives everyone something to do.

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    • It is, isn’t it?

      Which (by way of changing the subject) makes me think of an embarrassingly bad attempt at stand-up I was at recently. A friend sitting next to me was about ready, she said, to stand up herself, say, “That was wonderful. Thank you,” and take the mic away. I was wishing she’d do it. But eventually it staggered to an end on its own.

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  6. True story: on Friday, I mentioned the weather (we are in the full throes of a summer meltdown–100% humidity today, temps in upper 80s) to a colleague and then proceeded to get into an argument (somewhat playful, but still made me grit my teeth) with him about climate change.

    So, no, weather is not a safe topic of discussion around here anymore.

    Anyway, enjoyed this post. Even when it appears that we’re talking about nothing, we’re still talking about something.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Once I invited a Brit team of co-workers to join me at the beach on Long Island (they were here for a commercial shoot I was involved in). It was Easter. Which meant it was cold. But ALL of them went into the ocean. Why? Because the sun came out. Brrrrrrrr!

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    • It’s all in what you’re used to. Some Minnesotans I knew went to Cuba in the winter and since it was 70 degrees (and since there was no ice on the water) went swimming. They got out of the water to find they’d drawn a crowd, all there to watch the maniacs who went swimming in the winter.

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  8. I secretly love when it’s grey and windy and overcast and dramatic. Up hiking on the moors like Emily Bronte. It stirs my soul and stuff like that but it would be corny and embarrassing to admit it, so grumbling it is. We never went abroad on holiday when I was a kid, the sun just gives me a headache.

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