Why do Canadians talk so much about the weather?

Canadians have plenty to talk about because we live in a large, geographically diverse country with climate patterns that can vary widely from province to province and season to season, experts say.

Well, maybe because temperatures, seasons vary so widely, climatologist says

Canadians have plenty to talk about when it comes to weather because temperatures can vary from 40C to -50C across the country depending on the season, David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, says.

As winter's harsh breath continues to engulf so much of Canada, the chatter in cubicle land and coffee shops invariably turns to a familiar topic: the weather.

It is a truism that many Canadians enjoy a good rant about the weather but the reasons behind our predilection for such exchanges often go unstated.

According to David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, much of our apparent obsession arises from the fact that we live in such a large, geographically diverse country with weather patterns that can vary widely from province to province, season to season and even day to day.

"Our temperatures vary from 40C to –50C so when you get that, there is never a dull moment," Phillips says.

Add in the fact that Canadian winter temperatures have risen by 3.2 degrees on average over the past 65 years that national record have been kept, and you can see the attraction in a topic that is so constantly changing.

As Phillips says, "you don’t talk about the weather in a country when tomorrow is like yesterday."

Extremes fuel weather talk

Quantifying the Canadian predilection for environmental chatter is not easy. But some of the most-read news stories on this site are those that detail extreme weather lashing this country or our neighbour to the South.

For example, Hurricane Sandy, the deadly storm that battered the eastern coasts of Canada and the U.S., was the second most Googled term in Canada last year. 

Still, being so fixated on the weather is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon.

A BBC article, for example, notes that the British are also fond of talking about the elements. It points to the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson who said: "When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather."

The BBC also cites a more recent survey of 5,000 people that found that talking about the weather was identified as the top British trait.

Extreme temperatures — hot or cold — and wild swings in weather, like, for instance, warm, mild weather in January, seem to fuel our Canadian conversations, according to Phillips.

"We don’t talk about it in the transition seasons because it just seems lukewarm or so-so. But usually in the dog days of summer or the dead of winter, [weather] tends to punctuate all of our conversations."

'Romantic rapport with nature'

For Diane Pacom, professor of sociology at University of Ottawa, talking about the weather is a key element of the Canadian identity, only partly because we talk about it so much.

A woman walks in Toronto on Jan. 22 as a blast of arctic air brought frigid temperatures and snowfall across Canada. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"The way that you create a collective ethos is through this constant preoccupation with weather, which is not imaginary. It's tangible, it's real," she argues, noting that it is a common theme across the whole country.

"Each different region of Canada has developed a romantic rapport with nature according to their own specifications."

Not surprisingly, winter often forms a key part of that identity, Pacom says, albeit in a sometimes contradictory way.

Canadians alternatively glorify winter in stories and songs, while also complaining about its impact, from the lack of sunshine to the frigid temperatures that make vehicles so difficult to start.

A 'safe' topic

We also talk about weather because it's an easy topic of conversation, Phillips points out.

"It’s not as if you're going to get that faraway look when you bring up sex or politics or religion, and people are wondering where you're going with it. Weather is a safe topic of conversation."

And it's not necessarily that people don't have anything else to say that they bring up climate so much, Phillips says. The weather can be a lead-in to other topics, and it is something that everyone can have an opinion on. So it's kind of a party starter.

Much of the weather talk is also purely practical, Phillips points out. We chat about it because we need to know what to expect and what to plan for.

But at the end of the day all that chatter about climate does nothing to make a frigid day a little more tolerable, or a rainy day any more dry.

 "All that talking that we do about it, all those conversations at Tim Hortons or a Canadian Tire store, all those conversations that start and end with the weather, you know we've not found anything to modify the weather," Phillips says.

"We just talk about it and all the blowing we do doesn't change it."