Weather – The Great ‘Social Facilitator’

Eeyore being sad.

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.

13 thoughts on “Weather – The Great ‘Social Facilitator’

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I haven’t found it universal actually – Perhaps it is because when you live in climates that don’t have as much variation in weather as England or this part of the United States then there isn’t much use in using weather as a ‘social facilitator’! I do however from Pari’s comment think that there may be something to the loss of community that could belong to an increasingly industrialized world. Something worth thinking about, if technological and industry progress leads to a breakdown in human connection and civility. I was just thinking about that this morning as I checked in at a hospital for an appointment and the woman behind the computer screen was, what I would term, rude. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

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  1. You are so right: “weather-speak” is almost like a mating ritual in England.

    I prefer :”I just love that colour coat you’re wearing!” “Your baby is so beautiful” ” Can I say how nice you look?” This next one at these awful self-service checkout things -“I just hate the way these things keep barking orders at you!”

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    1. This made me laugh so hard…a mating ritual it is! You would love this book Wilma – really humorous look at what many of us after returning from living overseas suddenly realized were odd cultural norms.

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  2. Going into college I started as an economics major and wanted to study why people spent their money and under what circumstances. By the time I left college I had a degree in sociology with a minor in psychology. The relevance is that somewhere in my process I felt I was getting too far away from people. Your elevator situation is particularly intriguing because it reminds me of something I used to do in school. I would get on the elevator and intentionally turn and face everyone. It was very rare that a conversation did not start just out of sheer awkwardness. I think the issue is that we have lost faith in our fellow man. In an era where the news scares everyone and it is stressed that you need to protect your personal space, We have lost our sense of community. We have lost our collective identity. As much as we hate to be by ourselves we hate to be vulnerable even more. Sad state I feel. It is very much the Eeyore Philosophy “No matter how much the sun comes out the rain is right around the corner.” Great read and thank you

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    1. Thanks much for reading and for the insightful comment. I’ve heard of people turning around to face everyone in the elevator but have never experienced it! I agree with our loss of community and collective identity leading to isolation, loneliness and ultimately affecting even our health. It’s an area where other cultures seem to have a far greater understanding – in our strong determination to promote individualism and individual freedoms at all levels of society, what have we lost? Turns out a lot I think.

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    2. So agree that we have “We have lost our sense of community. We have lost our collective identity.”
      I used to be painfully shy once, sometime after my marriage when i moved to a new country I realised that if I wanted friends I would have to change and start talking to people and somewhere down the line I thought “strangers are just friends we have not met yet”
      so I made friends from everywhere till i returned to India and in our new apartment complex with over 300 flats I found people were impossible to talk to. Just kept coming across brick or even stonewalls. Even now I barely have a couple of friends. it took my next door neighbour six years to come visit my place. Well we are back in Kuwait now and once again making friends from everywhere whew it is wonderful!

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      1. So – this is really interesting to me because I would have guessed that India would be pretty tuned in to community and connection but it sounds like you were in a situation that was pretty anonymous with coming and going. Maybe you and I are spoiled by the expatriate situations we have been in where they demand connection or you don’t survive very well. What do you think?

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