It’s that time of year in Britain where talking about the weather begins its biggest onslaught as wintertime begins and the waves lash our coastlines. It’s the safest refuge of small talk, where total strangers have one thing in common to connect with each other at the bus stop, in the supermarket queue, or in the stilted silence of a doctor’s waiting room. And everyone has an opinion, because we’re all collectively in the same rocky boat with the unpredictable winter temperatures from one day to the next, with frosts and floods and murky dreich skies, as we say here in Scotland, with occasional bursts of low angled sun to taunt us with what we’re missing that others have in warmer climes with far less turbulence. And so, what else could there possibly be to talk about but the weather? It’s non-invasive, harmless, and as such is a tried and tested way of bonding with one’s fellow humans, particularly with a sense of shared ‘suffering’ over the ‘bad’ weather – with that glass half-empty conditioned response.
And according to this article the average British person spends the equivalent of 5 months of their lives talking about the weather, with the subject coming up at a frequency of 3 times a day, lasting around 3 minutes each. This will no doubt also include an exchange of information on the weather forecast, that ever- so-vital and keenly listened to delivery of expert scientific opinion, which we love to blame for getting it wrong and spoiling our plans. The average adult will also post 1 weather related comment a week on social media and spend 11 minutes a week checking that ever so precious weather forecast, via phone app, TV, or internet. And it can also be blamed by event holders who attribute low numbers of public attendance to ‘the weather’ because they just have to speculate on and find a reason for a poor turnout. In other words, people seem quite willing to victimise themselves over the weather, when it just simply is what it is.
Now Oscar Wilde said “conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative” and I have to say I agree him. As a young person learning social skills, I had to consciously adopt this convention coming at me from the world of work, but it certainly didn’t come naturally at first. As the years rolled by, I kind of fell in with it and went the flow, as they say, because there seemed no alternative and it pleased people and smoothed and soothed relations. However the feeing of futility remained for me, because, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said ‘Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it’. And I relate to this because it demonstrates the pointlessness of moaning, grumbling and complaining about something we are subject to on Planet Earth which we just can’t change. All we can change is our attitude towards it, but people en masse seem disinclined to take this approach. It’s more a case of Rain, rain, go away, Come again another day. But why? What is it we are clinging onto exactly?
Since I don’t work in an office where dialogues about the weather are sure to be all year round, they actually began for me in earnest around two weeks ago where the British weather took a turn for the worst. I was with a friend in a café paying our bills respectively, when the young waitress said what a horrible day it was out there as she gazed out of the window at the drizzled shroud of grey, as if it was intentionally there to simply ruin our lives. My friend replied, ‘Well it is November.’ This nicely cut through to the heart of the matter: what else do you expect for this time of year, could be said to be the subtext. But this reply was challenging and not adhering to the rules of engagment which we are supposed to follow, and if my friend had said it in a more aggressive tone, it would have been construed as rude – because – well because, one must agree, you see!
Next up was walking on shiny wet paving under a black sky pricked by stars, towards the community centre where I go to choir practice (how middle-aged that sounds, but don’t knock it until you try it). A fellow member who I didn’t know was also heading that way and needed to break the silence. You know these moments, I’m sure, where silence can never be golden, but swells out and pushes at you and digs you in the ribs to get yourself sorted and make a friendly engagement to prove you’re not a withdrawn blob of nothing.
Lady: It’s such a cold day today, isn’t?’
Me: Silent at first, inwardly sighing – here we go. ‘Yes, it’s so changeable at the moment.’
Lady: ‘So different from yesterday, I don’t know what to wear from one day to the next.’
Me: ‘Hmm’ (Yes, I’d been saying exactly the same thing in other weather conversations recently and right now I couldn’t stand the repetition) I picked up my speed and mounted the steps to the building hoping that this so-called conversation was over.
But what about if I hadn’t answered (and the impulse was there), or disagreed with her? Well, that would have been unconscionable because there are customary expectations to observe and I would have been in treading into dangerous territory. Here is a snippet from an interesting article on this topic looking at why British people talk so much about the weather. ‘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.”’
So that’s how controlling and socially driven such weather conversations can be. On the plus side you could say they are ice breakers and a perfectly reasonable way of bonding and validating one’s experience and feelings about the weather, one’s very mood in fact. And it can be a way of acknowledging one another before a day’s work in a group setting. Strangers can begin a conversation about the weather that may deepen and become more personal and stimulating. Talking about the weather can be a safe bridge to fascinating and illuminating discourse, if you are lucky.
But so often talking about the weather feels boring and counter-productive, especially to us creatives, I suspect. I mean, are we supposed to join in with those who are letting the weather get them down? Utter agreements, the negative energy of which, pulls at us? Why would we do that, when we’ve got all sorts of ideas buzzing around in our brains concerning our current projects, those of the now and those far into the future? It seems to me from my own experience and with fellow creatives that we’re simply not bothered about talking about the weather in the usual socially acceptable manner, or do so begrudgingly. And I’d honestly like to think we’re more constructive about the weather, or at least we try to be. We can use it to take moody landscape photographs, we can walk in it to contemplate mood and use it in our writing to evoke the frame of mind of our characters in a pathetic fallacy kind of way, we can use it in our paintings for soft atmospheres and tints and tones of colour. We can use the textures and forms of winter in the natural world and marvel at ice particles and patterns. And we can use the winter weather to stay inside and focus on our work without the sun trying to drag us our of our ‘ivory tower’ of creation, to down tools, and ‘go play’. We can expose ourselves to bright colours while painting, escape into other worlds while writing and a host of other things. We don’t have to let the weather get us down. We can stay light and bright with our own colour. And we can still go for country walks, all wrapped up from the cold, with or without our dogs, and get muddy in winter, and enjoy it. The gloom of a rainy day gives a higher shine to a sunny one by way of contrast. Weather is a part of life which can be engaged with on all ‘fronts’ – and of course we have to remember that variety is the very spice of life and relish our British weather for giving us plenty of that – so we can take heart and embrace it.
(top pic, Pixabay, lower pic, Lynne’s)