I’ve just rediscovered a book I bought a few years back: called ‘Watching the English’ it’s about social mores, the way people in this country behave in private and in public and how it differs from the way other races behave. It starts like this:
‘I have just spent an exhausting morning accidentally-on-purpose bumping into people and counting the number who said sorry. I am now about to spend a few hours committing a deadly sin: queue-jumping.’
The book begins with a discussion of discussion of the weather; ie why do we talk about it so much? She concludes that it’s not because the weather itself is so fascinating but because it’s a way in. In the States people would start conversations perhaps with something more personal or direct. In Spain, where I lived for a while, people would likely say something about what’s going on (how late the bus is!) or how they’re feeling (my feet are killing me) or what they’ve been doing – something more personal, in other words. But we find that intrusive. When waiting for a bus, the first comment would be acceptable, but if there’s nothing else to talk about the weather is always safe. And it’s always there. Whilst the British weather may not be dramatic, it is unpredictable – and hence a constant topic of speculation, complaint, bewilderment and fascination. Comparing the actual weather with what was forecast, is a favourite: I once heard a woman in Yorkshire declare, when it began to rain earlier than was forecast: ‘Course, this en’t the actual rain. This is just condensation.’
We don’t tend to wish people a nice day in Britain, either. That, too, is almost intrusive, as if it’s none of our business what sort of day the person has and they might quite like to have a horrible day or a glorious day or an indifferent day, so we have no business wishing them a particular type of day. In any case the phrase is anodyne and meaningless. But at the bottom of this lurks the kind of embarrassment expressed by John Cleese’s character in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’: a fear that if you were to wish someone a nice day, they’d turn round and say ‘How can I have a nice day when my husband’s just died?’ – and then you’ll feel awful. It isn’t safe.
Here’s the dialogue from the film. You have to scroll down a bit – it’s about the 20th dialogue:
Great film. If you haven’t seen it, go watch. It’s a terrific play on the differences between our two great countries.
And here’s the book:
Don’t have a nice day. Have an interesting day – but only if you really want to.