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.)
We used to have another option, at least for some social situations, but the 'How do you do?' greeting (to which the apparently ludicrous correct response is to repeat the question back 'How do you do?') is now regarded by many as somewhat archaic, and is no longer the universal standard greeting. The 'Nice day, isn't it?' exchange must, however, be understood in the same light, and not taken literally: 'How do you do?' is not a real question about health or well-being, and 'Nice day, isn't it?' is not a real question about the weather.
Comments about the weather are phrased as questions (or with an interrogative intonation) because they require a response - but the reciprocity is the point, not the content. Any interrogative remark on the weather will do to initiate the process, and any mumbled confirmation (or even near-repetition, as in 'Yes, isn't it?') will do as a response. English weather-speak rituals often sound rather like a kind of catechism, or the exchanges between priest and congregation in a church: 'Lord, have mercy upon us', 'Christ, have mercy upon us'; 'Cold, isn't it?', 'Yes, isn't it?', and so on.
It is not always quite that obvious, but all English weather conversations have a distinctive structure, an unmistakable rhythmic pattern, which to an anthropologist marks them out instantly as 'ritual'. There is a clear sense that these are 'choreographed' exchanges, conducted according to unwritten but tacitly accepted rules.
The Context Rule
A principal rule concerns the contexts in which weather-speak can be used. Other writers have claimed that the English talk about the weather all the time, that it is a national obsession or fixation, but this is sloppy observation: in fact, there are three quite specific contexts in which weather-speak is prescribed. Weather- speak can be used:
• as a simple greeting
• as an ice-breaker leading to conversation on other matters
• as a 'default', 'filler' or 'displacement' subject, when conversation on other matters falters, and there is an awkward or uncomfortable lull.
Admittedly, this rule does allow for rather a lot of weather-speak - hence the impression that we talk of little else. A typical English conversation may well start with a weather-speak greeting, progress to a bit more weather-speak ice-breaking, and then 'default' to weather-speak at regular intervals. It is easy to see why many foreigners, and even many English commentators, have assumed that we must be obsessed with the subject.
I am not claiming that we have no interest in the weather itself. The choice of weather as a code to perform these vital social functions is not entirely arbitrary, and in this sense, Jeremy Paxman is right: the changeable and unpredictable nature of the English weather makes it a particularly suitable facilitator of social interaction. If the weather were not so variable, we might have to find another medium for our social messages.