To disagree with someone over the weather is one of the most blatant acts of hostility you can commit. Kate Fox agrees with me. In her book, Watching the English, she says, “It would be very rude to respond to ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ with ‘No, actually, it’s quite mild.’” I maintain that to agree upon the weather as a basis for civility is not peculiar to the English, it is also the fabric that binds the Irish, for whom I can speak, and probably many other nationalities, for whom I am not qualified to speak. Have you ever contradicted someone’s summation of the weather, or had your view of an inclement day corrected? I have, and – elephant-esque – I have never forgotten how it left me, reeling. December, a few years ago, queueing in the Post Office, I turned, and standing behind me was a neighbour whom I’d once met in the backgreen, a brief introduction from which I’d had the immediate impression it hadn’t gone well. Nothing I could put my finger on, a certain chill, that’s all. So, there we were in the Post Office, and I, as one does, fell back on the reliable subject of the weather, declaiming the indisputable onslaught of horizontal, freezing rain with some innocuous form of words like: ‘Isn’t the weather just foul? A day when the only sensible choice is to close the door and wrap up warm with a good book.’ To which she assaulted me with: ‘I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I find it refreshing.’ Now, it’s one thing coming out with the old ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’ line, which is borderline acceptable as it plays that gentle trick of not quite disagreeing, yet gently chiding you along, as if to say, ‘Yes, it’s bloody awful, but what can we do other than wear fifteen layers of merino wool and as much musty Gore-Tex as you can find stuffed in the back of the cupboard!’ But that’s not the approach she took, and, had a force-ten gale torn through the Post Office at that moment, I would not have found it more shocking than her social-code breaking quarrelsome rebuke. The conversation was done. As were we.
But the defect was mine. She simply had another way of seeing things. “One of the hardest things in this world is to understand there is another way of seeing things.” That’s Niall Williams in This is Happiness, a book I mentioned recently, that continues to ring around in my head. He gets into the heads of characters, plain people from County Clare, showing that apparently the simplest of people may be a lot more complicated than they seem. A work of fiction, set in a time (the Fifties, or thereabouts) when, maybe or maybe not, there was greater tolerance of the other. The phrase, ‘Is that so?’ pops up frequently in the book by way of expressing surprise that someone might think contrary to another yet not be too concerned about differences of opinion. It’s hard to do, accepting others’ ways of looking at things, and hard to write about, unless you don’t mind sounding like a preacher. So what I have started doing is to lie in the dark, close to midnight, listening to a late night radio programme called Today in Parliament, and instead of rubbishing people inside my head (our societal default), I make myself say, ‘Is that so,’ mixing it up with the occasional, ‘Well, that’s one way of looking at it,’ along with, ‘That’s an interesting opinion,’ and even, ‘It never occurred to me to think of it that way.’
‘Is that so’ may trip from your tongue more easily that it does mine, you may not be caught up in the defensiveness of the age, sandbagging your opinions against the flood of alternative opinions you don’t want to hear, if so, well done. Me, I’m a work in progress, trying to keep an open mind, daring myself not to get so worked up about others seeing things differently. Religion, politics, education, health… bring it on, nothing’s taboo with the new ‘Is that so’ me. My mind is airy, free and open to what you have to say. Except, that is, if it relates to the weather. If I say that today’s wind is so cold it could skin a rabbit and you dare to disagree, then you’re not the sort of person I want to be around. We’re finished.