I realise that for most of the month of January so far I have blogged almost incessantly about the weather. Don’t blame me… it’s my cultural heritage talking.
The weather is, of course, the most important topic of conversation for Brits. Whenever we meet other people, the first five minutes of social interaction are inevitably weather related.
My father phones me every week from the English Peak District and his opening question is always an enquiry about the weather in Germany. He then gives me pretty much a blow by blow account of the weather in the Peak District… not just today’s weather, but also yesterday’s, the day before’s and a general forecast for the coming week. The account is punctuated only to ask for the same detailed information about the weather in the Rhineland.
Of course neither of us needs to know what the weather is like in each other’s part of the world. He will not be visiting the Rhineland this week and I won’t be in the Peak District. But exchange of useful information is not the point of the British weather conversation.
Talking about the weather serves an altogether deeper purpose. It is the way British people settle into a conversation. It is a form of “breaking the ice”. It is an acknowledgement of the other person, a form of social communing. It’s a bit like monkeys grooming each other. Weather is a perfect subject for this mutual back-scratching, because it is non-contentious and everyone can agree.
“It’s very cold today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s forecast to warm up later in the week though.”
“It’d be about time.”
Nobody ever disagrees about the weather. In fact to do so would be socially akin to dealing the other person a slap in the face. It’s not a discussion, so much as a gentle stroking of the other person’s head, a wagging tail, a warm pat on the shoulder.
Of course the Germans do not approach the “weather conversation” in the same way at all. Whenever Birgit arrives in the office and I instinctively open a morning weather-conversation-ritual, she sees it as a golden opportunity to prove the superiority of the Swabian nation.
So our morning ritual would go more like this:
“It’s very cold today, isn’t it?”
“Pah! The Rhineland doesn’t know the meaning of winter. Down in Baden-Württemberg we have proper winters every year. Up here there’s nearly never snow or ice. And now that they’ve finally got some, the whole state has broken down and nobody is prepared to clear the roads or get the trains running on time.”
“Well it feels cold to me.”
“You British live on a foggy island – you don’t have proper winters or summers either. You just have perpetual drizzle. No wonder you feel the cold – you don’t have a robust enough constitution to deal with proper weather. It’s amazing you haven’t all already died out.”
You see what I mean. By the end of a weather discussion with Birgit, I don’t feel hugged or stroked or tail-wagged-at. I feel like I’ve done ten rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. This is what is called culture shock.
Of course the same applies equally the other way around. The Germans don’t have the weather to assist their “social grooming,” but for that they have their health. By the time Birgit and I are sipping the first coffee of the morning, Birgit will be waiting for me to inquire how she is. Asking after a German’s health is equivalent to a primate offering to pick fleas from another ape’s head.
Before you start turning to Germans sitting next to you in the office and asking how they’re feeling though, a word of caution. This is not an exercise to be undertaken lightly by squeamish Brits. Remember, if we tried this in Britain, the conversation would not go any further than:
“How are you?”
“Much better thank you. I really mustn’t grumble.”
The latter sentence could be uttered by anyone with a mild cold through to a range of nasty terminal diseases.
The German, however, will take your enquiry very literally as a deep seated interest in his or her state of health. The response will include a level of detail that a Brit would share only reluctantly even with their doctor. From a German, the simple phrase: “How are you?” may elicit all manner of details about the other party’s digestive system, bowel movements, internal organs or worse (Germans are aided by their inspection-shelf model toilets which allow them to observe and recount the minutiae to you). Not only that, you will be expected to sympathise and probe for even more details as part of the social ritual of “stroking” or “tail wagging” to the German. Try to suppress your gag reflex if you can.
So, when Birgit arrives for work this morning, I shall have to decide whether to spark a fight for national supremacy by commenting on the imminent thaw… or whether to risk her having contracted a tapeworm over the weekend and having to enquire about the symptoms. Which is it to be?