“Can I ask you a question?”
My language tutor and I had been meeting for several months and were getting to know each other really well. So well, in fact, that she had begun asking me lots of questions about American culture and what Americans are really like. I had already busted a few weird stereotypes.
“Sure, of course,” I answered.
“Do Americans actually talk to each other about the weather?”
“Yeah. In school, we were taught that you should never ask an American woman her age, but that it was always appropriate to ask an American about the weather.”
“Ah, like for small talk. Yeah, sure. We talk about the weather.”
At this, she burst out laughing.
I think she’d been expecting me to launch into an explanation of how this was yet another example of what 1980s Chinese textbooks got wrong about the world. Instead, I was telling her that yes, it was true, Americans were so incredibly bizarre that they actually chatted about the weather.
Later, at home, I reflected on her comments. I’d never stopped to think about American small talk topics before. Was it really that weird to talk about weather?
From that day forth, I was keenly aware any time my Chinese friends brought up the weather. And you know what I discovered?
THEY TALKED ABOUT WEATHER ALL THE TIME.
They talked about how hot it was. (And then say at least it wasn’t as hot as Sanya.) How cold it was. (But not as cold as Beijing.) They’d comment about how windy it had been the night before, and how the wind had knocked over a potted plant on the balcony. They’d discuss how much hotter things had gotten with urbanization. If it started to rain, you’d inevitably hear a chorus of “Xia yu le!” (“It’s raining!”) no matter where you were. Whether I was in a city, a little town, or out in villages, the weather was sure to be a topic. Even in Kunming, where the weather doesn’t actually change that drastically throughout the year, people commented incessantly about how the weather du jour was or was not living up to Kunming’s billing as the City of Eternal Spring.
And it wasn’t just my Chinese friends. My expat friends from all kinds of different countries were all posting screen caps of the weather forecast, or complaining about the heat/snow/wind/rain/lack of rain. Talking about the weather appears to be a universal human habit.
So, what gives? Why was it so funny to my tutor to hear that Americans talk about the weather when every culture on Earth does the same?
Could it be that although everyone does talk about the weather, no other group had been specifically called out for it? Kind of like how Americans always say Germans are punctual. That may be true, but there are other groups that value punctuality, too. It’s just that only the Germans are tied to it in our culture’s mind. Or, remember back in the 80s when movies always portrayed Japanese tourists as being crazy with how many pictures they took with their big cameras? You don’t have to be from Japan to go crazy with a camera. (See also: what happened when the whole world got cell phones with cameras.)
So, I think Americans simply got associated with weather chatting. We got enshrined in the official English language learning textbook as “the people who talk about the weather.” Yeah, that does sound pretty weird when you say it that way.
Anyway, that’s my best guess at the explanation. Let me know if you have a better guess! What other stereotypes have you noticed that actually apply to people from lots of different countries?
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