It’s a bright sunny day and I run to catch the elevator to the 4th floor. I could walk but I’m already a bit late. The elevator is crowded with faces of every color and bodies of every size – but the expressions are identical. No smiles, no light in the eyes, no eye contact. Someone has to break the silence so I, in the spirit of the culture in which I am living, speak ‘weather’ to everyone in general: “Isn’t it beautiful outside?”. Without missing a beat, a woman at the back of the elevator says “I heard it’s going to be rainy on Friday.” and with this response, reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore character and the famous line “If it is a good morning, which I doubt”, silence again takes over and the 4th floor can’t come soon enough.
Communicating across the boundary of …weather. It is a difficult task. My sister-in-law Susanna, on returning from Pakistan and reentering life in the west, made this insightful observation of America “People know the weather better than they know their neighbors”. How do you get past this common conversation starter and often stopper? My experience has been that of all the countries I have traveled, the places where this is the most common is the Northeastern part of the United States and England.
In an effort to understand this phenomenon and communicate across these boundaries of weather, I found a book titled Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. While it isn’t specifically about my current area of the world, it gave me some tremendous help in the area of weather in particular. I highly recommend the book for any of you who are curious, confused or just plain annoyed with some of the unspoken rules in the West. The part that helped me interpret ‘weather speak’ was the chapter titled….“Weather”! Consider this paragraph:
“English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that “Nice day, isn’t it?”, “Ooh, isn’t it cold?” “Still raining eh?” and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data; they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters, or ‘default fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming talk’ – the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.” Later in the chapter the author states that weather is a “social facilitator”.
If I understand ‘weather-speak’ as a social facilitator, I will be much less critical of this ritual. I will realize that some cultures need help to move them into conversation and I will play by these rules while living in this culture. I realized this morning that to socially facilitate a connection with my compatriots on the elevator I should have continued the conversation by agreeing about the bad weather only four days away! It would have invited her into further dialogue. I should add that the woman who responded to me also broke the cardinal rule of weather speak. In order to really have the social bonding experience that I had initiated, she was supposed to agree with me, or so the book tells me. “Failure to agree in this manner is a serious breach of etiquette. When the priest says ‘Lord have mercy upon us’, you do not respond ‘Well, actually why should he?’ you intone dutifully ‘Christ have mercy upon us’.”
But the etiquette barring both contradiction and silence was not kept, and I was left yet again knowing that I still have a great deal to learn about the unspoken rules of engagement. Perhaps if I have the patience I can come up with my own book called Watching the Americans – A Third-Culture-Kid’s Journey into a World of Unspoken Rituals and Rules.