MSc Digital Anthropology alumnus
If you’ve spent any amount of time with a British person you’ve heard it: weather-talk. It permeates any and all conversation; “Lovely day, isn’t it?”, “It’s raining cats and dogs!”, “The sun’s got his hat on.” A BBC study revealed that 94% of Brits they surveyed had spoken about the weather in the last 6 hours. Another disclosed that the average British person will spend four and half months of their life talking about the weather. This means that at any moment, approximately one third of the population of Britain is talking about the weather, or is about to do so. And let it be known, I’m guilty as well. Especially in lifts.
As a digital anthropologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how online human behaviour reflects who we are and what we value. As a British person, I spend a lot of time wondering why I can’t stop bringing up the weather. A few weeks ago, these recurring thoughts crossed paths, presenting me with a suddenly-burning question: how far does this weather-talk extend? Do British people even like to talk about weather online? Yes, yes they do. A quick deep-dive on Twitter revealed hundreds of weather tweets, from positive declarations (“It’s amazing weather for November”) to more troubling concerns (“What’s going on with the weather, it feels like summer when it’s fall 🤷 #WhatsGoingOn”).
At this point you may be wondering, why should we care? Talking about the weather is nothing new, nor is it particularly impactful. For cultural anthropologists, however, such a deeply ingrained behaviour is a goldmine. Culture is a powerful and intimate mirror of humanity and Twitter is a digital pop-culture museum. In Twitter’s recent Cultural Insight report, where billions of tweets from the US were analysed to arrive at 18 key trends, one of these trends was ‘In Awe of Nature’ and more specifically; in awe of the weather. In fact, there was a 42% rise in conversations around extreme weather over the last three years. These figures point to climate change (and increased awareness of it), as well as a renewed appreciation for the planet. It would be tempting to assume that the weather- related tweets I had observed in UK-based users would reflect a similar cultural shift. In actual fact, however, British weather-talk is not concerned with the weather at all.
Anthropologists have long mused over Britain’s assumed love of the weather. Bill Bryson deemed the fascination simply inexplicable, considering British weather isn’t all too interesting in itself. On the other hand, Jeremy Paxman believed that the weather was so dramatically undramatic that it was, in fact, rather extraordinary and worthy of much discussion. In 2005, Kate Fox revealed that anthropologists had been missing the point. When British people talk about the weather they are not talking about the weather at all. Weather-talk is actually a form of highly specialised code ‘evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other’ (Fox 2005). Whether it takes the form of a simple greeting, an ice-breaker, or a conversation-lull-filler, “Ooh, isn’t it cold?” is actually a form of grooming-talk (the human equivalent of picking fleas off of one another). As with most things human, weather-talk is predominantly concerned with social bonding.
Moreover, like many cultural phenomena, there are complex rules to weather-talk. For example, comments about the weather are often presented as questions, as they require a response. Responses need not be elaborate, but they must be in agreement. If this rule is broken, the atmosphere becomes tense. Replying with “No, it’s just a light drizzle” to “It’s raining cats and dogs!” is simply offensive. Then there is the hierarchy of weather, to which almost every British person subscribes to, the highest tier being sunny and warm, the lowest being rainy and cold. Any differentiations in taste must be personalised: “Yes, but actually I quite like the cold.” This mutual hierarchy allows for another highlight of British culture: moaning rituals. Cold, dreary and wet weather facilities shared misery. Perhaps most importantly, it is widely considered rude for anyone outside of the UK to criticise British weather. In fact, the weather, as mild and extreme-less, is one of the few things that the British appear unanimously patriotic over.
Surprisingly, these ancient cultural codes are equally observed within weather-talk in the Twitter-sphere. While it certainly makes sense for social bonding to be prioritised on social media, it is more confusing as to why this specific form of grooming-talk, designed to lubricate uncomfortable conversations, persists online where interactions are largely optional and removed from traditional social pressures. The kind of ‘out-of-necessity’ conversations that generally bring about weather-talk, like finding yourself alone with your neighbour in a lift, do not exist in the same way online. And yet, weather-talk persists. What does it tell us?
Foremost, the seamless transition of weather-talk to social media reconfirms what digital anthropologists have already long been pointing out: that for many people, social media has become a place they live, rather than a platform or service they visit. Using the weather as a social lubricant is so second nature to many Brits, that they may not even think twice about posting a tweet about it. Such is the power of culture! On the other hand, posting a tweet requires time, thought and a sense of an audience. It is a deliberate action that is indebted with its own fair share of (digital) cultural rules. Perhaps, in expressing familiarity through culture, taking the time to “passively” tweet about the weather is a means of active reassurance.
Here we can infer further cultural insight by understanding the context of these tweets: nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns. In fact, this has the potential to reveal a lot about contemporary British values. For example, it confirms that in times of great uncertainty and fear, British people may find comfort in replicating familiar cultural behaviours. Moreover, respecting the unique codes of weather-talk, such as politeness and etiquette over logic (responding and agreeing to weather-talk), reflect the sustained importance of impression management for British people even during times of duress. In this way, weather-talk on Twitter is a reminder of how formidable culture, and its mundane rituals, really are. Such behaviours will continue to find ways to prevail, regardless of whether they are necessary or not. In fact, online weather-talk could be considered more complex than in-person weather- talk, as it requires a level of intentionality that in-person weather-talk does not.
Twitter’s weather-talk also acts as an important reminder to be wary of the ontology of totemism that characterised early anthropology. The first anthropologists assumed that the totems of tribes that they studied reflected a love for or deep connection to the particular animal the totem imitated. In reality, totems reflect deeply complex social and cultural codes, historical context, and even relationships with other tribes. Likewise, assuming British people have a deep affinity or even obsession with the weather, as a state of atmosphere, based on how many times the word ‘weather’ appears in on Twitter is just as limiting. Such ‘totemism’ that doesn’t take into account symbolic, ritual or culturally-informed contexts can be observed in commercial qualitative and market research to this day. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that weather-talk has seemingly unnecessarily transcended onto Twitter is another timely reminder that culture shapes social media, not the other way round.
- Fox, Kate (2004) Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Geddes, Linda (2015) Why do Brits talk about the weather so much? BBC Future [online].