More snow on way, as Britain’s big freeze continues

With more snow to come, the UK is in the grip of some icy winter weather. A freezing front from the Arctic has dominated the skies – and British conversation. Why is the nation so obsessed?

‘Finally,’ the newspapers shout, ‘Winter has come to Britain!’ As freezing air from Scandinavia sweeps over the UK, temperatures have dropped to -10°C. In some areas, snow is still on the ground, with more set to drop in the next two days. Speculation over the length and depth of the big chill is on everyone’s lips.

For the British, talking about the weather is a national pastime. Ahead of queuing and sarcasm in polls of the country’s favourite habits, complaining about the cold or hoping for sunshine is as important to national identity as a nice cup of tea.

The obsession is not without reason. Britain is a meteorological melting pot: competing air flows from Europe, the Atlantic and Siberia, as well as the warming Gulf Stream, battle it out on the little island. The result? Constantly changing weather – and 154 days of rain.

For British business, that makes climate a force to be reckoned with. One study estimates that factoring weather into business plans could boost annual sales by £4.5 billion. When it’s warm, sales of hair removal products increase by a stunning 1400%; in a cold snap, bizarrely, cauliflowers fly off the shelves.

This year’s winter chill is not unprecedented. Back in 1963, Britain suffered its coldest winter for 200 years, with temperatures dropping to -20°C, and up to six feet of snow. Thick ice caps formed on the Thames, and even some areas of the sea.

This winter looks unlikely to top the records set by that fateful year. So why can’t we stop talking about it?

For many Brits, the fact that the weather is far from thrilling is its chief attraction. As an inoffensive, safe subject, weather is ideal small talk, perfect for filling awkward silences or talking to people you don’t know very well. Linguists even have a special word for it: ‘phatic communion’. This means the kind of chatting that doesn’t actually convey any real information – but nevertheless creates an important bond with others.

Talking hot air

Witty writer Oscar Wilde famously called conversation about the weather ‘the last refuge of the unimaginative.’ Many would agree. Conversations should be about fascinating facts, contentious opinions and witty stories, not mindless comments on what we can discover by looking out the window.

Not all our conversations, others say, can be about philosophy and science. Because this month’s cold snap is shared by everyone in the UK, it is precious common ground that helps us forge a bond with many different people. From the safety and comfort of a chat about the cold, who knows what fascinating and challenging relationships might emerge?

You Decide

  1. Is it boring and pointless to talk about the weather?
  2. What is the purpose of conversation?

Activities

  1. Write a winter-themed limerick and read it to your class. Whose is best?
  2. Make a list of five examples of ‘phatic communion’, other than talking about the weather.

Some People Say...

“Small talk is just dull.”

What do you think?

Q & A

All this talk about the cold is totally boring.
To be fair, the ‘big freeze’ is far from a laughing matter. Across Europe, an estimated 400 people have been killed as a result of the plummeting temperatures. Electricity supplies have been cut off, huge ice cubes are threatening to make rivers overflow, and the Italian government is taking emergency measures to deal with a critical shortage of gas for heating. On top of that,hypothermia is a real threat, especially for elderly people.
But I still have better things to talk about than the weather.
You probably do. But beware – the preoccupation with the weather could increase with age. According to one poll, 42% of 18 to 24-year-olds checked the weather every day, but as people got older that figure rose to over 80%.

Word Watch

Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current that flows through the Atlantic Ocean, beginning off the coast of Mexico, then moving past northward toward Europe. Because of it, Britain, Europe and Scandinavia are much warmer than they would otherwise be.
Linguists
A linguist is someone who studies languages. They might be concerned with how language communicates meaning, how it contributes to the way we behave towards each others, or the relationships between different languages.
Oscar Wilde
A playwright and poet, who wrote at the end of the 19th Century. Wilde was an aesthete – interested in beauty and artifice – and is widely known for his cutting, witty sayings and put-downs. His most famous plays include The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windemere’s Fan.
Hypothermia
Suffering from hypothermia means having an abnormally low body temperature. Symptoms include shivering and confusion in the early stages; if untreated, the condition can result in organ failure and death.

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