Any discussion of English conversation, like any English conversation, must begin with The Weather. And in this spirit of observing traditional protocol, I shall, like every other writer on Englishness, quote Dr Johnson’s famous comment that ‘When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’, and point out that this observation is as accurate now as it was over two hundred years ago.
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.
Jeremy Paxman cannot understand why a ‘middle-aged blonde’ he encounters outside the Met Office in Bracknell says ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’, and he puts this irrational behaviour down to a distinctively English ‘capacity for infinite surprise at the weather’. In fact, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ – like ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ and all the others – is English code for ‘I’d like to talk to you – will you talk to me?’, or, if you like, simply another way of saying ‘hello’. The hapless female was just trying to strike up a conversation with Mr Paxman. Not necessarily a long conversation – just a mutual acknowledgement, an exchange of greetings. Under the rules of weather-speak, all he was required to say was ‘Mm, yes, isn’t it?’ or some other equally meaningless ritual response, which is code for ‘Yes, I’ll talk to you/greet you’. By failing to respond at all, Paxman committed a minor breach of etiquette, effectively conveying the rather discourteous message ‘No, I will not exchange greetings with you’. (This was not a serious transgression, however, as the rules of privacy and reserve override those of sociability: talking to strangers is never compulsory.)