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This morning at −32°C/−26°F whilst collecting firewood outside my house, I called to my neighbour (brushing snow off his idling truck): "Cold enough for you?" To which he replied with a nod.

Later on, I reflected that the exchange was effectively identical to the following:

"Hello. How are you?"
"Cold!"

Did my question, "Cold enough for you?" (which I hear a lot around here) constitute a greeting, or did my neighbour and I simply bypass the formalities and get straight to the important stuff?

I could imagine a similar exchange in, well, just about any season in the UK:

"Lovely day" (spoken ironically).
"Mm" (spoken grimly).

Are these exchanges about the weather simply another form of greeting, a replacement to "hi," "hello," "good morning," "how are you?" and so on? Or did my neighbour and I, having a small measure of familiarity, skip the formality in favour of moving on to the important stuff. (Or was it just too cold for us to care?)

If I had a staff person and breezed into his office asking if he'd submitted the quarterly report without first greeting him, that would be rude. But if I breezed into his office and said "Cold enough for you?" without saying hello, it seems to me that this would be less rude.

My hunch is that this sort of exchange is actually a form of greeting, defined on Wikipedia as "an act of communication in which human beings . . . intentionally make their presence known to each other. . . ."

However, Wikipedia's list of greetings on the same page does not include exchanges about the weather.

Therefore: do exchanges about the weather constitute greetings? Are there other fairly stock exchanges that also constitute greetings, that aren't the usual "hello" etc.? Or are these exchanges something else altogether?

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We love talking about the weather in the UK. In fact it’s usually the main topic of conversation! –  spiceyokooko Jan 21 '13 at 20:53
    
Reminds me a bit of the British "How do you do?" which does not really require an answer (often just a "how do you do?" in response is deemed most appropriate). –  Konerak Jan 22 '13 at 11:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Such utterances are known as phatic. In the OED's definition, they 'serve to establish or maintain social relationships rather than to impart information, communicate ideas.' Exchanges about the weather, such as you describe, can made without a greeting such as 'Hello' or 'Good morning' and often occur between strangers.

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+1 That's simply phat. –  coleopterist Jan 21 '13 at 19:46
    
So in other words -- at risk of splitting hairs -- my exchange was not a greeting, it was an exchange of phatic utterances? –  JAM Jan 21 '13 at 19:54
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@JAM. Call it what you like, but greetings are themselves phatic. –  Barrie England Jan 21 '13 at 20:45
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Exactly, just as "how are you" is not actually asking how you are, while "how is your mother doing" is really asking. –  Kate Gregory Jan 21 '13 at 22:00
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I checked the etymology of phatic and it appears not to be related to emphatic! According to Wikipedia, phatic is from Greek phemi (I say, phatos, spoken) whereas emphasis is from Greek en+phaino (I shine). Great new word. –  JAM Jan 22 '13 at 4:35

Such statements are usually considered conversation starters/openers:

A conversation opener is an introduction used to begin a conversation. They are frequently the subject of guides and seminars on how to make friends and/or meet people. Different situations may call for different openers (e.g. approaching a stranger on the street versus meeting them at a more structured gathering of people with like interests).

An opener often takes the form of an open-ended question, which can lead to further comments or conversation as well as creating topics for future conversations (e.g. "How's your mandrill doing?").

A closed-ended question (e.g. "Nice weather today, isn't it?") is regarded as potentially less effective because it can be answered with a simple "Mm-hmm," which is essentially a conversational dead end, requiring the initiater of the conversation to start from scratch.

I suppose that in -32°C conditions, it might be apt to call them ice-breakers instead.

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+1 English.SE should give out bonus points for puns –  Carter Pape Jan 22 '13 at 0:38
    
Yep, that was definitely a +1 just for the ice-breakers, and would be another for the rest of the answer... –  JAM Jan 22 '13 at 4:25

In one of Terry Pratchett's children's books, a computer that - unlike the nomes[sic] that are the main characters - understand human speech, explains that a conversation it overheard consisted of "I am still alive. Are you still alive?" "Yes, I am still alive". This seems foolish to the nomes until they realise that most of their conversations consist of that too.

Even conversations we have that do have an actual subject or objective can also serve the rôle of strengthening social relationships along with the main goal. Indeed, they often do a better job, but meaningful or purposeful topics of conversation aren't always available to us. Hence we make do with essentially saying nothing, so that we still have the social benefit. Neither you nor your neighbour were likely to be in any doubt as to whether it was cold, nor was it likely that either of you had failed to realise it yet.

I would suggest that the real message conveyed wasn't "hello, how are you?", or "I am cold" but:

"Hello, I am your neighbour, who you know. I am part of the group of people that you know!"

"I agree! You are my neighbour, who is part of the group of people that I know. Likewise, I am known to you!".

It's an important message to convey, considering that we're social animals, and there's no longer the same practical side-effect to picking nits out of each others' fur.

Weather is particularly useful in countries with changeable weather, because it always offers an opportunity. It may lead to a longer conversation, but if not it can stand by itself.*

Rather than this being a greeting, it's more that greetings are a form of this. Outside of a small set of situations in which we meet strangers in situations in which we must judge if they are a threat or if either of us are in urgent need of aid, then there is no practical need for a greeting. We say "hello" when we are not peering out to each other across the sea, or unsure as to each other's identity. There is little or no information conveyed in the actual wording itself. It's job is to make a temporary social connection, whether as part of a long-standing social relationship, or just for the duration of a brief conversation that follows.

*The alternative explanation is that the British and Irish are actually a Mediterranean people living in the wrong place. This would explain many of the traits we share, not least the shock tinged with moral outrage with which we can exclaim "it's raining!", as if such a thing was never known in our green and pleasant lands.

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Thanks. I would much rather talk about the weather with my neighbour than pick nits out of his hair! And the green and pleasant lands would not be green (though they might yet be pleasant) were it not for all that dastardly rain. –  JAM Jan 22 '13 at 4:30

In one sense, this is just a greeting. But you can't use it when it's -1C out, or +30C. At +30C you could go with "hot enough for you?" instead. So in addition to just "hello" it makes a small joke: this extreme cold is nothing we can't handle, right neighbour, right fellow-cold-stander, we might even want it to be colder, might we not?

It is fine to use with someone you know, or someone you don't know and are willing to treat as a peer and neighbour. But imagine you were pulled over for speeding and as you rolled down your window, that's how you greeted the officer. Ouch! So it's not the same as "hello" or "good morning". It's more intimate than that.

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Yes. It's not quite interchangeable with the neutral "hello." –  JAM Jan 22 '13 at 4:26
    
I think you could use it "when it's -1C out" if that is unusually cold for the time of year and the typical climate where you live. –  TrevorD Jul 12 '13 at 17:30

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