7 reasons why Brits are so obsessed with the weather
By Matt Mostyn Tuesday 25 May 2021
To celebrate OVO’s sponsorship of Channel 4 Weather, we’re honouring the Great British weather’s role in powering Great British Homes with regular blogs on the UK’s favourite subject!
Ah, the Great British Weather. From freezing fog to scorching sun, the ever-changing nature of our maddening skies is a constant source of fascination here in the UK. Chances are you’ve already talked about it at least once today!
But the subject of the weather runs through our veins in more ways than we even realise. From shaping our culture, to changing our history, weather’s captured our attention, and imagination, in some intriguing ways. Here are 7 surprising reasons why the weather really does rule our world in this little corner of planet Earth.
1. Weather’s a key part of our cultural identity
No-one could ever deny that we Brits love nothing more than a good chat (or indeed, moan) about the weather. In fact, a recent survey declared weather talk to be the most British trait ever – even above drinking tea, eating fish and chips, or queueing1!
That’s no surprise, when you consider that in just the last 6 hours, 9 out of 10 of us have talked about the weather. On average, each of us spends about 6 entire months of our lives discussing the subject2. It’s as clear as a cloudless day – no other nation can claim to be quite as weather-obsessed as the Brits.
Our favourite national pastime extends to everything from front page headlines on floods, heatwaves and snow, to Hollywood movies that frame our culture in the context of our weather. If only we all had a pound for every time we’ve seen London depicted as grey, dismal and rainy in a film or TV show, right?!
The subject of weather runs so deep in our cultural DNA that it sometimes trips off the tongue without us even realising. Who amongst us doesn’t regularly talk of “saving for a rainy day”, a “storm in a teacup”, having one’s “head in the clouds”, or “feeling a bit under the weather”?
2. Weather talk is a great leveller
That brings us to the second reason for our national obsession – which also relates to our distinctly ‘British’ culture. Small-talk.
Some nationalities choose quite personal topics as conversational ice-breakers. Someone’s marital status, age, or what they do for a living are all fair game. But us Brits might find those questions a wee bit “forward”. Being slightly more reserved in character, a safe, neutral topic like the weather is much safer ground.
Of course, it’s a good default topic to fill any awkward moments or gaps in a conversation. But the reasons for choosing the weather as an ice-breaker run even deeper. Social scientists describe weather-talk as a type of “physical grooming”, much like that practiced by our primate ancestors.
“It’s a kind of code that we’ve evolved to help us overcome social inhibitions and connect with one another,” says social anthropologist Kate Fox. “Depending on their response to your weather greeting, you can tell if someone’s in the mood for a chat, or is feeling grumpy and negative.” And that transforms something as seemingly trivial as the weather into a key social cue that allows us to learn more about each other, and find common ground.
And finally, weather talk can often be an excuse for a good old grumble – which can be a bonding experience in itself. It taps into that very British “Blitz spirit” we’re so proud of. It’s the resigned eye-rolling, and “stiff upper lip” that’s come to represent our national character, and gives us a sense of all being “in it together”. Who knew that “nice weather for ducks” could be loaded with so much hidden meaning.
3. Weather is particularly unpredictable in the UK
We may not have the most dramatic weather in the world – but the UK’s is actually some of the most changeable. A big part of that is down to our geographical position, perched between the Atlantic Ocean and the large land mass of continental Europe. We’re also slap-bang in the middle of where 5 different air masses all meet up. And while the jet stream gives us a more temperate climate than our latitude suggests (which is the same as chilly Newfoundland), it means there’s a lot going on, meteorologically speaking.
Our weather’s infernal mood swings can be traced back through history. A good example is the dramatic switch from drought in early 2012, to the wettest April to June on record. That not only makes for a good talking point, but it also means that weather plays a key role in our lives, affecting what we can and can’t do on a daily level.
4 seasons in one day is a term that could’ve been made for our climate. And it means we often have to look at the weather forecast several times a day, just to plan a trip, or an outdoor activity. “It's what makes the British weather so fascinating," says Dr Liz Bentley, head of the Weather Club at the Royal Meteorological Society. "Experiencing such big changes so quickly is unique."
The weather’s mood swings also affect our own. There’s a real beauty about the ever-changing British weather. And when we’re treated to hot days and unexpected sunshine, it causes such a swing in our happiness levels that it’s really no surprise why we’re all so obsessed with what’s going on above our heads.
4. Key moments in our history have been shaped by the weather
There’s another fascinating reason why the weather plays such a big part in our national psyche; the effect it’s had on our history. Weather has played a critical role in some of the most important chapters of our nation’s story – and often, it’s been our biggest ally.
For instance, in 1588 the powerful fleet of the Spanish Armada set sail to conquer England – but strong winds blew them off course, forcing them much further north, where many of the ships foundered – and the invasion failed.
And while we might complain about the rain, it’s rescued our armies on 2 notable occasions. At the battle of Agincourt, 2 weeks of heavy rain turned the battlefield into a quagmire. That caused the stronger French forces to get stuck in the bog – where they were picked off by Henry V's forces and their longbows. And at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's cannons also got stuck in the rain-soaked mud, which played a big part in his defeat.
Then in 1940 – in what was dubbed the miracle of Dunkirk – fog grounded the Luftwaffe. At the same moment, unusually light winds allowed hundreds of small boats to set sail from England, and get close enough to the beaches to scoop up 338,000 Allied soldiers and take them safely home.
These are the stories that shape a nation – and when the elements play such a pivotal role, it’s no wonder we feel such a sense of, well, wonder for our weather.
5. Extreme weather causes even more chaos in our nation
Let’s face it. Here in the UK, we’re just not good at coping with some of what the weather throws at us. A few centimetres of snow brings the entire country to a halt. Schools close, and we’re all snowed in at home, unable to get to work. And woe betide if the thermometers rise. A brief heatwave and roads melt, rail lines buckle, and the nation swelters.
While that might be a source of amusement to the countries that take heat or snow in their stride, there’s a good reason why we struggle to cope. It’s partly because we live in a country with so much different weather, that it’s just not feasible to invest in the infrastructure needed for each and every scenario. We’re a rarity, in that we can easily get snow, sleet, ice, rain, hail, wind, gales, thunder, lightning, sun, cold, heat and fog, all in any given year (or day – as some might argue). It means that when our weather decides to play up, the impact is huge. And in one way or another, it makes the news headlines pretty much every single day of the year.
6. Weather has a powerful impact on many aspects of our lives
In years gone by, the changing seasons and weather patterns affected nearly every aspect of the lives of our ancestors. And following the agricultural revolution, any change from the usual cycle could make the difference between a bumper harvest, with abundant work and food, to ruined crops, no work, hunger, and even starvation.
Back then, bad weather could change lives and cause untold suffering – but even today, weather can affect not only our mood and our health, but also our nation’s economy. Think of the economic costs of recent floods, for instance – which in 2019-20 was estimated to cost £78 million3. And a study carried out in 2015 by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that a drop of even one degree in the minimum average temperature can cost the UK economy £2.5 billion – thanks to lower output among businesses affected by cold weather, plus lost productivity caused by transport delays, and people not making it to work.
Extreme weather can even affect when we die. Sudden weather shifts like heatwaves and cold snaps cause a sharp increase in mortality rates. “If the climate keeps bouncing around, that puts stress on people’s bodies, because they just don’t have time to adapt to the new temperature before it changes again,” says Harvard professor of environmental health Joel Schwartz.
Of course, weather can affect our very survival itself. And given our unpredictable weather’s influence on so many aspects of our lives, it’s no wonder we’re a nation obsessed. And that brings us to the final piece of the puzzle – the growing awareness of our changing climate…
7. We’re becoming more aware of climate issues than ever before
As the world awakens to face the most pressing challenge facing humankind, climate change is front and centre. Earth’s average temperature is now rising unnaturally, and there are serious environmental and social knock-on effects – including changing weather patterns.
As the Earth heats up, ice caps melt, sea levels rise and rainfall increases. In turn, these cause extremes in weather – from floods, hurricanes and cyclones, to heatwaves, droughts and wildfires. And of course, this all grabs our attention like never before.
From floods in the UK to heatwaves across Europe, wildfires in Australia, and hurricanes in Central America, our weather is changing rapidly. As we know, this is a critical decade for action on climate change. And our changing weather is alerting us to what needs to be done.
All of which means we’re absolutely right to be weather-obsessed. After all, our weather affects our whole planet, and everyone on it – and we’re all recognising that now more than ever.
Want to read more about our changing climate, and what we can do about it? Read our blog on the causes, effects and possible solutions to climate change. We’ve also got some top tips to help you explain climate change to kids. And check out our recommendations for 10 of the best documentaries on climate change, and how to fight it.
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Sources and references
2. From ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox
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