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The great British summer (Pic: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
The great British summer (Pic: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
The great British summer (Pic: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

First of all, don’t scoff. You may think you know how to talk about things that should apparent to everyone. You just point at the thing, say what it is, and commence a conversation. But that’s not why the Brits talk about the weather.

For the residents of a place where it is possible to rely on the elements, the weather is of little concern. Sometimes a little rain must fall, sometimes it’s sunny. The British Isles, being stuck out to sea off the coast of mainland Europe, and right at the top of the north Atlantic drift, are the beneficiaries of an enormously changeable set of weather conditions. Well, maybe enormous is putting it too strongly. If you’re sitting in an area that is prone to properly dramatic weather like tornados or tropical storms, a bit of fog after a sunny morning shower must seem like a cough in a cavern. But that’s part of the point too.

Because the weather is mercurial but not often all that dangerous, when the Brits start saying, “Coo! This rain’s not shifting is it?” or “Nice to get out from under all that cloud, eh?” it’s partly a way of expressing their personalities, and partly a way to work out what’s in store in the immediate future. Talking about the weather has the effect both of a soothsayer poking about in bits of dead chicken and a lounge lizard trying to pick up girls by asking what their starsign is.*

The best and safest way to talk to a Brit about the weather is to let them go first. You’ll need to be alert to the way opening gambits are delivered. If someone brightly commences a conversation with “Turned out nice again!” or “They say this mist will be gone by lunchtime,” they’re probably a glass-half-full person and you’d be wise not to counter with “Well, for now at any rate” or “And then back again by dinner” unless you want to see their hopeful features fall.

On the other hand, if they start with a rueful “So this is the great British summertime, eh?” or “Typical! I’ve got washing on the line too,” they’re probably more of a pessimist, so countering that with “Well, they do say it’s the warmest July on record” or “Ah just leave it, this’ll blow over” will make your new friend think you’re contradicting them and a frosty silence may ensue.

Also, people react differently to various weather conditions depending on where they are. A touch of snow in the warmer south is a cause for public celebration. In the north of Scotland, it’s just another dreary downpour. Bright sunshine isn’t everyone’s cup of tea either, but the act of talking about the weather is also an act of conversation, an attempt to find common ground, so you’re on comparatively safe ground on a sunny day. But this is where the soothsaying bit comes in.

While it is imperative to sort the optimists from the pessimists, the act of talking about the weather isn’t just about what is falling from the skies as you speak. It’s about the future and whether we are prepared for what is about to happen. Is the weather getting better or worse? Is it raining cats and dogs or nice weather for ducks? You’ll need to be ready to react, whichever way the conversation turns.

People who greet a cheery “We could do with a bit more of this sunshine” with a dour “It won’t last, there’s a storm a’comin'” probably aren’t on the lookout for new friends. That said, if they start a conversation with “Better make the most of it while it lasts, eh?” you’re probably going to be chatting for a while, because they want things to get better even as the storm clouds gather over the picnic table.

And that’s the crux of it, really. The British view the weather as an ongoing debate between themselves and God/blind fate/random chance as to whether they are blessed/lucky/overreacting to things they can’t control. Starting a conversation with strangers is just a way of checking their findings.

Oh, one last thing: sometimes the Brits use the fact that they know they like to talk about the weather to talk about other things—saucier things—as George Formby so capably demonstrates, with a cheeky wink:

See more:
Iconic British Things No.9: Talking About The Weather
British Man Invents Biscuit Dunking Device
How To Pronounce Deliberately Off-putting British Place Names
WATCH: How To Open A Bottle Of Wine With A Shoe

* Note: do not try and pick up girls with an opening line about the weather. Unless you are in your 60s and so are they.

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Filed Under: British Culture
By Fraser McAlpine