Rain or shine, why talking about the weather is more than just a conversation starter

Take a leaf out of a weather-obsessed Brit's book to understand why this risk-free icebreaker always works

The UAE experienced a rare rain shower in March but Brits are often ready for all manner of unexpected weather fluctuations. Pawan Singh / The National
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If the recent UAE weather has not been a part of your conversation then, quite frankly, we can never be friends.

As a British person, talking, sorry, obsessing, about the weather is not only a national pastime, it is also coded deep into my DNA. It is as much a part of my cultural heritage as tea, fish and chips and getting overly excited at finding Greggs sausage rolls in the freezer section of Spinneys.

Just as there are more than 50 Inuit words for snow, so too are there dozens of unspoken implications, meta revelations and intricate subtleties around British weather-based lexicon. For example, being told: “I’d take an umbrella if I were you”, is the British equivalent of a full-on, alarms blaring, reactor-meltdown of a weather warning – no matter how casually it is likely to be delivered.

One of the accusations levied against Brits (and, yes, I know there are many) is that we are a suspicious bunch. If you try to chat to us on public transport, we are instantly wondering what it is you really want, while being offered a free sample in a shop can bring about an existential crisis (Why? Why are you giving this to me?)

The root of our suspicious nature is simple: the weather. When you can cycle through all four seasons in one day, leaving the house in shorts and T-shirt and returning in some hastily bought wellies, rain mac and umbrella, you become deeply suspicious that the world is not quite what it seems.

Brits of a certain age have never quite recovered from the storm of 1987, a cyclone that swept through the UK on October 15 and 16, reaching gale force speeds of 190kph (yes, we hear you in the Caribbean, Asia and the Philippines calling us wimps!), and which downed 15 million trees, ripped roofs off houses, beached ferries and knocked out power lines.

The day before the worst storm to hit Britain in 300 years made landfall, the nation’s premier meteorologist, Michael Fish, went on national television and said: “Earlier on today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.”

Putting aside the fact that in the 1980s, Britain was still so quaint that you could call up the national broadcaster and have your message delivered to the main man (kind of like phoning Amazon and getting through to Jeff Bezos), a generation’s trust issues over this have never quite been resolved.

Even in the UAE, where I have now lived for more than a decade, I start with an observational: 'It’s hot/ cold/ wet out.' A gentle lobbing of the conversational ball into their court to see if they’ll play

In the same way that different cultures around the world have a relationship with the land that connects and anchors them to the mountains, plains, rocks and rivers, British people have that too – but with the skies. The clouds, the patches of blue, the sunny Bank Holiday, the drizzly Guy Fawkes night … for a supposedly glass-half-empty nation, we spend an awful lot of time looking up.

Just as the first rule about Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of talking about the weather is that it is never actually about the weather. Sure, there are the weather chats you have with family and friends. The ones that dissolve into a competition about who is sweating the most in the heat, whose mascara ran fastest in the rain or whose hair became most uncontrollable in the humidity. It should be noted that coming first in any or all of these is a badge of honour.

Then there are the weather chats with strangers, the whole point of which is to lead you on to other topics, such as the fact that their dress is just ideal for this time of year and where did they buy it because you’ve been looking for one just like it and, oh my gosh, I can’t believe it has pockets!

The casual: “What do you think of this [insert current weather situation here]?” as a conversational icebreaker with a stranger at a wedding/ party/ BBQ is a tried-and-tested method for figuring out if this unknown person into whose company you’ve been thrust, is going to be worth chatting to for the new few hours. Or, if you’re going to be hiding behind other people all night to avoid them.

Even in the UAE, where I have now lived for nearly two decades, I start with an observational: “It’s hot/ cold/ wet out.” A gentle lobbing of the conversational ball into their court to see if they’ll play. If I get a non-committal “Hmmm” in return, a brief “yes/ no”, or no opinion at all, I simply move on.

The weather is a safe space for even the most ardent conversational philistine, so if they cannot engage on that level there is no way that by 10.30pm you’ll be best friends, discussing Taylor Swift lyrics and planning a holiday together to Marbella.

It’s time to stop thinking of a conversation about the weather as the fusty, old-fashioned crutch of the unimaginative conversationalist. Instead, appreciate it for what the British have long known: that it’s an easy, risk-free way of dipping your toe in the conversational waters before fully committing to the plunge.

Published: March 29, 2024, 6:02 PM
Updated: March 31, 2024, 6:28 AM