Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No time, no place to talk about the weather

The tedious thing about the British and the weather is when you find yourself a moment of great joy, tension or sadness and you find yourself having a conversation about the rain, the wind, the sunshine or the approaching cyclone. When you have relatives whom you have known for many years and you can't recall any conversation between you that wasn't about the weather. Or when all you ever hear about the weather is complaints, whether it is too cold, too fair or too middling.

But sometimes the weather is an entirely appropriate subject. In the last few days, we've been having a heatwave (not sure who decides it is a heatwave – when a leading supermarket claims to be selling 800 cucumbers an hour perhaps?). It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, for this event to come up in conversation; it probably impacts on all our lives in some small way. For my own part, my body has responded by sleeping half the day.

And when it comes to strangers, the subject of the weather is vital. Apparently they've published a guide for Polish people workinng in Devon which recommends breaking the ice with the natives by talking about the weather. Which makes me wonder how on Earth you begin a conversation with a stranger in Poland or any other country? I'm the last person to celebrate small-talk, but you have to start somewhere and being under the same sky is the only thing you can be sure you both have in common.

There is some skill to this, skill which the writer of this article hasn't fully mastered when he attempts to discuss the weather with his fellow commuters.
“Six were positively bright and chatty, one was too immersed in his iPod to hear me, another couldn't understand me and one gave a courteous response but then returned to reading his newspaper.”
See, one might regard it as the Golden Rule of starting a conversation with a stranger: If your intended stranger is currently reading, listening to music or engaged in a conversation with someone else, do not interrupt them in order to talk about the weather. Not only may this fail to illicit a response, but it is bad manners. And thus decidedly unBritish.

But of course, one does wonder whether talking to strangers, let alone talking to strangers about the weather, is a particularly British attribute. Clearly the London reporter wasn't used to it. Oop North, I often found myself indulging in meteological intercourse several times a day, but Down South (at least my corner of the South), one has to drag this stuff out of people.

My neighbours may be a particularly odd bunch and not representative of anyone. But they will not talk to us. In eighteen months only one person has volunteered a name. Even this most sociable of neighbours doesn't always say return a greeting but he does have a severe stammer so I might have gone indoors again before he can get it out (that isn't a joke; it is the benefit of the doubt). The other names we have learnt were obtained by direct interrogation and misdirected post. “Hello, I'm the Goldfish, I've just moved in next door.” (and not even that; I use my off-line handles for these purposes) didn't illicit any response whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong, they haven't turned against us; nobody is unpleasant and there's no community that we're being excluded from. We do hear chanting coming from the village green of a full moon, but that's probably just the Neighbourhood Watch.

Anyway, not sure what I'm rabbitting on about, except, it is jolly hot just now, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm a quarter Polish, so I can tell you with a quarter's-worth of confidence that it's acceptable to ask a Polish person which restaurant makes the best pierogies. (Mmm, pierogies.) Is it possible, however, to order something as ordinary as pierogies in your average Warsaw restaurant? That I don't know. I've never been to Warsaw. I've driven through Polish Hill, but I'm not sure it's strictly Polish up there any longer.

It's certainly hot here, and hazy! We had an air quality warning yesterday and everything.

Anonymous said...

way too hot.. although its cooled off up at this end of the UK in the last day or so.. thankfully!

I got given an award yesterday, (the brilliante weblog award) which i've to pass on.. i chose you. :) thanks for a great blog!


Anonymous said...

It's very much a North/South thing. I grew up in London but I live in Yorkshire now.

I never use to make small-talk with strangers, but I've started to do it more and more since I moved here, and usually get a welcome response, even if it closes the conversation.

If I try this when I'm down in London ... well, mostly it just doesn't work. Londoners are champions at blanking out everything, and most of the time it isn't even possible to make a passing remark to them without (metaphorically, at least) tugging on their sleeves to get their attention.

The Goldfish said...

Jess, I've never heard of pierogies, but they sound yummy! I shall have to look for them; round here there is a significant Polish community, mostly migrant agricultural workers. And this village settled many Polish refugees during the war (although there's not much cultural evidence of this today, alas).

Anyway, rambling...

Kethry, thank you, and yes it is cooling down - today I watched for the partial eclipse but the whole thing happened behind a big dark cloud.

Stevie, this is my experience also (born down south, eight years in Yorkshire, now down south again). London does seem to be the extreme end of the spectrum though, where sometimes making eye-contact seems taboo.

Maddy said...

They're yummy. Well worth hunting around for [or make your own]

Don't go moaning about the heat! You have no idea what 'real heat' might be.

Your neighbourhood watch people worry me, but better than vigilantes!

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and adjust the air conditioning, as I do believe that I might be about to begin to glow.

Ian Hewitt said...

Great post. As a Brit who has lived in America for eight years I would like to point out that the British reputation for weather-talk is somewhat unfair.

The Americans invented the concept of a 24-hour TV weather channel - and the normal news channels are also devoted to altogether too much weather. The Ameican people are as weather-obsessed as the British and then some!


There is no such thing as bad weather... just inappropriate clothing.