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What your English teacher never told you - Nice weather, today!

Agosto 2015
Forse avete imparato tutti i modi di dire per parlare del tempo, l’argomento di conversazione preferito dagli inglesi. Quello che a scuola non insegnano è che anche la più banale conversazione sul meteo ha i suoi codici e la sua etichetta. Un esempio? Mai contraddire un interlocutore inglese!

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

It’s true that British people talk about the weather a lot, but beware, this “weather-speak” is not all that it seems. In his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island American writer Bill Bryson made some very humorous observations about the British character. Although Bryson’s book was highly appreciated in the UK, he did make one or two little mistakes, especially when discussing British people’s apparent obsession with talking about the weather.


“To an outsider,” Bryson wrote, “the most striking thing about the English weather is that there is not very much of it: All those phenomena that elsewhere give nature a bit of excitement, unpredictability and danger – tornadoes, monsoons, blizzards, run-for-your-life hailstorms – are almost wholly unknown in the British Isles.” Bryson’s conclusion is that English weather is not at all interesting and the fact that British people talk about it so much is just one of their idiosyncrasies.


Bryson makes two mistakes here. The first is a terrible gaffe: although British people love to complain about the weather, we react badly if foreigners criticize it. So if, for example, an American spending Christmas in London notices that public transport has stopped because of  two inches of snow, he or she should avoid commenting: “Huh, we had six feet of snow in New York last winter and the airports never closed!” Similarly, when the summer temperature reaches the high 20s and British people start to complain “Phew, this is too hot for me!”, Italian visitors should never say, “Come to Rome in the summer. That’s much hotter!”


In fact British people treat the weather like a member of the family: we can complain it, but criticism from outsiders is unacceptable. We know, of course, that English weather is not very dramatic, but we get very offended if foreigners suggest that it is somehow inferior or uninteresting! A great way to make yourself agreeable to a British person is to say something like: ‘When I spent a summer holiday in Cornwall we had some beautiful days.’


Bryson’s second mistake was to assume, like most other cultural commentators, that when British people talk about the weather they are actually exchanging information about meteorological conditions. And here’s the great secret: British “weather-speak” is actually code!
This code has evolved over many years to help us overcome our social inhibitions and talk to each other. It is common knowledge in the UK, that “Nice day, isn’t it?”  “Ooh, it’s freezing, isn’t it?” or similar sentences are not requests for meteorological data. In fact they are simple, meaningless expressions, used to greet people, start conversations, or fill uncomfortable silences.


You may know that the correct response to the old-fashioned greeting  “How do you do?” is (or was) to repeat the question back “How do you do?” Today, British people’s vague comments about the weather function in the same way. So, the correct response to “Nice day, isn’t ?” is “Yes, isn’t it!” “Yeah, lovely!” or something similar, even if you think the weather is not particularly nice! Similarly, in response to “Phew, it’s far too hot for me, today!” you should say “I know it’s awful, isn’t it?” even if you live in Palermo and were just thinking of putting a sweater on!


The point is that these expressions are just conversation-starters, so the polite response is to agree. In this way, you signal that you have accepted the other person’s opening line and are willing to chat. If you respond to “Nice weather, isn’t it,” with something like “No, actually it’s really cold!” or “We get much better weather where I live!” it will be a serious faux pas and the atmosphere will immediately become very tense. If you think about it, the British have chosen a great subject as their social facilitator. The weather might not be dramatic, but it’s certainly capricious and erratic, so there’s always something new to talk, complain or be surprised about!


Situation: Over 30°C (too hot)
What you say: “Phew, it’s far too hot for me, today!”

Situation: Above 25°C (hot)
What you say: “Hot today, isn’t it! Looks like we might have a summer this year!”

Situation: 20-25°C with a light breeze
What you say: “Lovely day isn’t it?”

Situation: Gentle wind
What you say: ditto

Situation: Strong wind
What you say: “Another hurricane on the way?”

Situation: Fog
What you say: “I don’t fancy driving in this!”

Situation: Light rain
What you say: Don’t say anything. People don’t notice it.

Situation: Downpour
What you say: “What happened to global warming, eh?”

Situation: Snow (at Christmas)
What you say: “White Christmas this year!”

Situation: Snow (at any other time)
What you say: “I suppose the public transport will stop for a week now!”

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