Culture and Climate

Culture has been succinctly defined as the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one category of people from another. This is largely true, especially when we examine the societal norms imposed within national or ethnic frameworks. Parents program their children, teachers their students, society its citizens. We cannot, often do not wish to, escape the passing on of the accumulated wisdom or lore of previous generations, which, after all, seems to have assured the continued existence of our culture or nation.

Yet, culture’s programming itself, the very curriculum of rules, precepts, and taboos it prescribes, is essentially culture-bound; it has age-old origins we are not always able to locate or readily perceive. We can, however, enumerate some of them. Painting with a broad brush, we might say that the cultural roots of the organization of society are language, religion, history, geography and environment, and climate. Is it possible that the last factor, climate, may be the most influential? Read further.

It is often said that of the three most important events in our lives—birth, marriage, and death—we have a choice about only one. If we look at the factors that influence our culture and the way we live, we can make a parallel observation: we have some choice as to religion, we make part of our own history, we can certainly change our environment (Japan, the United States, and Singapore are good examples), and we can even tinker with our geography (Holland), but when it comes to climate, human influence is, so far at least, minimal.

East Side Story

In a chapter on the influence of climate on human culture, it makes sense to begin by spotlighting its most dramatic, indeed cataclysmic, phase—the engendering of the species itself.

Yves Coppens, Chair of Paleoanthropology and Prehistory at the College of France in Paris, wrote papers for the scientific community as early as 1975 in which he provided convincing evidence for a clear correlation between the evolution of climate and the evolution of the hominids. Human beings’ roots lie in the animals. We are at the tip of one of the branches of an immense tree of life that has been growing and diversifying for over four billion years. From an evolutionary point of view, locating the time and place that our branch separated from the rest of the tree is of great importance.

The great majority of scientists in a variety of fields today concede that our birthplace was Africa. Whether one believes in the genesis theory, implying that all humans are descended from one original group in one geographic area, or the alternative theory of polygenesis, which suggests parallel evolution in different areas, the emergence of the genus Homo certainly took place on the African continent.

Eight million years ago a tectonic crisis occurred in Africa that entailed two distinct movements: dramatic sinking, producing the Rift Valley, and rising of the western rim, which gave birth to a line of peaks.

The valley and the mountain barrier obviously disturbed the circulation patterns of the air. To the west, thanks to the Atlantic, precipitation was plentiful. The east side remained drier. The west kept its humid forests, the east evolved into open savannah. The common ancestors of the Hominidae families were also divided by the Rift Valley. The larger western group pursued their adaptation to life in a humid, arboreal milieu and became our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. The smaller contingent in the east began to adapt to their new life in an open, drier environment.

The species in the east evolved into the human predecessor we call the australopithecines. These beings were still more ensconced in tree-filled habitats than are the more recent species, those called robust. Two and a half million years ago a drastic change in climate (a cooling of the whole earth) left East Africa dry. The robust australopithecines emerged as a product of aridity. Grasslands afforded lengthening horizons of visibility, which encouraged an upright stance. This in turn enabled hominids to be warned of the approach of animals, and it facilitated hunting them. They progressed from a vegetarian to a meat-eating diet. The brain enlarged, bringing with it an opportunistic diet, a higher degree of reflection, a new curiosity. The continuing dessication of East Africa allowed hominine progress, which led (through catching meat) to greater mobility and a sense of adventure. For the first time in history, humanity spread out from its origins and in less than three million years conquered five more continents—the entire planet—and has begun the exploration of other planets in the solar system. Coppens calls his model “East Side Story.”

Climate and climatic change continue to affect human development and culture. We cannot predict with certainty the eventual or ultimate effects of global warming, the melting of the ice caps, the rise of the oceans, the wild fluctuations of wind and ocean currents. Climate continues to control us more than we control it.

The Effects of Climate

In what ways are our lives influenced—or even dominated—by climatological conditions? Which characteristics of a people are most likely the products of climate, temperature, and weather? Are some countries more affected than others? Can we combat or rise above the restrictions imposed upon us by natural forces of this kind?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. To begin with, one can surmise that some countries suffer fewer climatological problems than others. Let us take France as an example. The French, apart from those who, in the northwest corner, live dangerously near England, enjoy what is certainly the most equable climate in Europe. The temperate nature of French weather, especially south of Paris, allows its inhabitants a relatively easy coexistence with nature. The temperature is generally pleasant; grain crops, fruit, vegetables, and grapes grow easily; pasture and clean water are abundant; and the delights of the Riviera speak for themselves. The French suffer few or no impediments of climatological origin. One would expect, therefore, that the dominant features of French culture would be a result of other factors (e.g., history) rather than adaptation to climate. It would be tempting to conclude that equable weather would make the French easygoing and laid-back (which they are not), but it might on the other hand contribute to their calm feeling of superiority over others (which they do possess). Other temperate zones around the world are Madeira and the Canaries, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, northern California and some other parts of the United States, many islands in the Northern Pacific, some areas around the Black Sea, and the highlands of the Caucasus region.

It is obvious that in such diverse countries as Finland, Russia, Chad, the Congo, Canada, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, climate will dominate, perhaps even define, customs, habits, viabilities, culture itself. Russia with its months-long frozen steppes, Finland with its long winter nights and its inhabitants’ mighty heating bills, Saudi Arabia with its desert heat, and Singapore with its intense humidity are all hampered for a considerable part of the year by the severity of their weather. How do their inhabitants react?

Climate and Work

In our modern world, with the globalization of the economy, the first question you might ask is this: How does climate affect the way people work? People living in cold climates have a ready answer. We work; Mexicans, Sicilians, Africans, and Arabs don’t (they lie in the shade of tropical trees). There is of course some truth in this (the Mexican peasant would be mad if he lay in the hot sun), but there are hidden cultural aspects here as well (see my remarks on communication patterns below). We can, though, make the generalization that low temperatures are conducive to vigorous physical activity. You don’t sit around, play chess, or paint landscapes in minus twenty degrees centigrade. Cold weather gets you on the move, makes physical work almost a pleasure. Farmers, laborers, dockhands, construction workers, mail deliverers, meter readers, errand boys, football players, and athletes of all kinds do well in cold weather. There are some grounds, too, for believing that low temperatures enable people to think clearly. Brits, Nordics, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, and Canadians would agree with this (of course), as would others who ponder in air-conditioned offices. When Northern Europeans find themselves in sweltering temperatures, they find physical work oppressive, and they don’t make “cool” decisions easily. Perhaps therefore we should forgive the Andalucans and the Congolese for their apparent indolence. But are there any compensating factors? To answer this question we have to touch on the subject of communication.

Climate and Communication

After inquiring about the work ethic, it is only natural, in our telecommunications age, that we be curious about the influence of climate on communication patterns. Here we are left in little doubt as to the direct effect of sunshine, heat, and cold on the way people greet and talk to each other. Let us begin with Europe, in the very north. Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians, meeting friends and acquaintances on the street in winter, indulge in only brief interaction. The greeting (hei) is short in itself, the information exchanged (usually as to where one is heading) often compressed into a 20-second burst at temperatures around freezing, 10 seconds at –10 degrees centigrade, and snapped en passant at twenty below. It does not make sense to dally longer. A broad American smile at twenty below in a Helsinki easterly makes your front teeth ache. Winter visitors to Stockholm or Oslo are fed directions in 5 to 10 seconds flat—20 after Easter—if they need the emergency ward of a hospital or wish to report a double murder to the police.

With the Nordics this culture of outdoor succinctness (called “winter behavior” by the Finns and the Swedes) carries over to their indoor communication habits, where economy of expression and the ability to summarize are prized. The Scandinavian languages, with their abundance of monosyllabic and bisyllabic words, lend themselves to this mode of speech. Finnish is more flowery, but Finnish males make up for this by remaining silent. The women are another matter. This cold weather taciturnity is by no means confined to Scandinavia and Finland. We observe it in Maine, Montana, and Wyoming, in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, in Japan’s Hokkaido.

Returning to the European scene, the influence of sunshine and heat on people’s speech habits is clearly discernible around the Mediterranean. Le Midi de la France, Italy south of Genoa, Sicily, Greece, and half of Spain enjoy the kind of weather that tempts people out of doors. Greeks, Neapolitans, Sicilians, and Andalucans spend a large part of their lives on the street—at their front gate; in roadside cafs, open-air taverns, and restaurants; on the waterfront; by the seashore; in the village square. In these locations, conversation is not hurried, brief, or succinct. Words cost nothing, say the Italians, why not splurge? In these countries conversation is an art, a social enjoyment, a never-ending continuum. It is also more than that; it is an information- gathering and -sharing mechanism, a valuable vehicle of communication for both social and business purposes.

Gossip—a word with nasty connotations in Nordic ears—is an essential component of the social structure in Mediterranean and other hot-weather cultures. This is visible nightly in the custom of the Spanish paseo, where men and women march around town squares in opposite directions, shouting greetings, compliments, insults, and newsy tidbits to each other as they cross each other. The Italian chiacchiera, conducted by women on doorsteps and by men in cafs, is a kind of binding social glue that aligns people’s opinions and increases trust between them.

Nordics, Brits, the Dutch, and North Germans are unable to benefit from unhurried, outdoor networking customs. The climate does not allow it. They lean, instead, on their facts, figures, and computers. Sunshine encourages outdoor dalliance, voluble discussion, unhurried examination of all aspects of a question or issue. Much probing goes on, many avenues of persuasion are explored, fervent desires are pressed time and time again. The Nordic takes no for an answer and whisks herself off. The southern Latin, with the appropriate body language, pleads, cajoles, demonstrates his wit, and entertains. Out-of-doors conversations are conducive to body language. Sweeping Italian gestures would cause the banging of elbows against walls in narrow Japanese offices or the knocking of glass vases off Swedish desks.

Sunshine, slowing down people’s progression from one location to the next, allows Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks to develop open, smiling, exterior appearances in contrast to the pinched faces of cold Nordics or suspicious Germans or Brits, who are unused to unlimited loquaciousness. Of the European Latins only the Portuguese modify this social exuberance. Talkative enough in general, the Portuguese have their regular downswings of melancholy when they talk morosely of their saudades (nostalgic longings) or of the meaning of death or other problems they might have. This lack of verbal alignment with other Latins is said to derive from their cold Atlantic coastline. No part of Portugal touches the Mediterranean, though they enjoy a lot of sun in the south.

Between these northern and southern extremes of Europe, climate affects communication habits in different ways. Germany has a variety of climates from south to north—Bavarians are more outgoing than Prussians. In Poland the biting winters cool Slavic temperament, and excitable Italians from Milan and Turin have a keener work ethic than Romans and talk less, but not much. In Britain the situation is rather special. It is often said that while other countries have climates, Britain really has weather, not only a lot of it but definitely the changeable kind. This is just as well for Britons; otherwise they might never talk to each other (like people in trains reading newspapers). The weather is the perfect entre for contact with another Briton, for Brits are never bored by the subject.

On my first day in Australia—it was a sunny one—I met an Australian on the village street and said, “Good morning, nice day, isn’t it?” He looked at me as if I were mad or maybe trying to seduce him. When he realized I was normal, he looked up briefly at the Aussie sun and replied, “Oh, yeah, mite, yeah.” Brits are the equal of many Latins when it comes to smalltalk, but it would not be so if they didn’t have this weather crutch.

Elsewhere around the globe, climate conditions communication and behavior. Australians, with their five sunny big cities (Melbourne is the exception), are open, friendly, smiling, and talkative. Their New Zealand neighbors with their British-type changeable climate are more guarded and conservative. Much of the United States lies in zones where there is a lot of hot weather, which is reflected in their extroversion. Constant sunshine in southern California causes the residents to be loquacious, extroverted, and leisure- and sports-minded. Hot weather Africans talk interminably on the street, often holding hands while they speak. In Asia courtesy and modesty curtail extroversion, but the heat in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Southeastern Asian nations causes words to flow faster than in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, or Mongolia. In South America, Brazilians, Argentinians, and other people inhabiting the coastal plains are verbal and communicative in the extreme; the Indians of the cooler highlands are more reserved and speak more softly.

Eye contact—another component of communication—is also affected by climate. Latins, Greeks, and Arabs maintain almost constant eye contact with their interlocutor. Arabs often take off their sunglasses to heighten the effect. Nordics and Brits, used to cold winds whipping their faces, often speak outdoors with narrowed eyes and frequently avoid prolonged eye contact during indoor conversations. Tactile behavior is also influenced by climate. Latins, Greeks, Arabs, and Africans often touch each other while they talk. They like the feel of human flesh; gripping a bare arm is a way of showing your partner that you trust him or her. This friendly gesture is less easily attainable through thick Norwegian furs or British macs and duffle coats.

Other Climate Linked Cultural Attributes

Humor in the Rain. Something else I have heard from time to time is that constantly changing weather imparts a sense of humor to the people who have to put up with it, especially when it rains a lot. On reflection I believe there is some truth in this. The British are renowned the world over for their sense of humor, though it is of course British humor. The Irish are also a humorous lot (it is seldom dry for long there) and so are the inhabitants of Bergen, Norway, where it rains 290 days a year. Latins are supposed to be less humorous than the British, but they have wit. Wit is word-based (jeu de mots, double entendres, aphorisms, etc.), whereas humor is situation-based. Mediterranean people, using tens of thousands of words, create many opportunities for wit. Nordics, with their briefer exchanges, must strike home faster with cunning shafts of incongruity or tongue-in-cheek seriousness. Britons, with their rained-out cricket matches, postponed Wimbledon encounters, ruined garden parties, burst pipes in winter, dodgy bank holiday excursions, foggy weddings, hailstones at Sunday school processions, and howling gales at scout camp need that precious commodity—a sense of humor born of disappointment, frustration, disbelief, adaptation, patience, semitolerance, and ultimate resignation—to fall back on.

Dress and Use of Color. The way people dress depends on climate for obvious reasons. Less obvious is how it also affects mentality. Brits, Nordics, and North Germans are interested in the protective aspects of clothes (warmth, durability) for many months of the year. Inhabitants of Southern Europe and much of South America, free from these preoccupations, think more about appearance and style. It is not accidental that French and Italian fashions tend to achieve preeminence around the world. A feeling for color, too, is climate-dependent. Brits and Nordics visiting Greece, Turkey, Sicily, Malta, or even Portugal are struck by the vivid and attractive colors of the fishing boats. Why don’t they (the northerners) paint their boats like that? The Greek, who uses light and dark blues, turquoises, and pinks to decorate his white house, obviously draws his inspiration from the azure sky, the blue-green sea, the pink sunsets. The Portuguese with their vivid orange, green, and blue boats imitate their sunny environment. It is the same with Mexican shawls, Guatemalan rugs, Indonesian dancers, Bolivian ponchos, and Maori or Tahitian tribal dress. Swiss, Finnish, and Swedish houses are usually grey, reflecting cloudy skies and cold temperatures most of the year. In contrast, in the Swedish archipelago, visited by boats only in the sunny summer months, houses are painted bright blue, orange, green, and yellow. The fuss that the Nordic countries make over the Midsummer festival reflects the longing for sunshine, so long denied. The three Baltic states celebrate Midsummer with equal fervor.

Food and Drink. It is only natural that climate dictates what people should eat and drink. Mediterranean peoples draw on their local natural resources and eat a lot of fish and seafood, fruits, and certain vegetables (eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes, spinach, asparagus) cooked in olive oil and washed down with wine. Nordics eat much more meat with thick sauces or gravies to combat the cold. Like the Scots, they eat a lot of porridge and used to match the Scots’ consumption of whisky with vodka, schnapps, and various distilled concoctions. Carbohydrates, potatoes, and bread were consumed in sizeable quantities in northern climates, though dietitians’ advice has caused changes in their eating habits in recent years. In the sprawling huge geographical expanses of Asia and the Americas, eating and drinking habits vary enormously on account of the multiplicity of climates and seasons. The biggest wine consumers of the world are in those areas where vines grow best.

Sunshine and Suicide. Some links between climate and cultural behavior are rather dubious, but the “suicide league” countries (see chart on page 25) indicate a clear connection between the suicide rate and lack of sunshine.

Regional Diversity. In some countries regional variations of climate produce diverse modes of behavior. Spain is a good example: rained-on Basques and Galicians are far more industrious than sun-soaked Andalucans; extremes of climate in the barren Castilian plateau produced a breed of haughty rulers who excelled in political dominance, as warriors, and ultimately as conquistadores. There are parallels in other countries—we are reminded of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in Mongolia, and so on. Also in China, the area north of the Yangtze is clearly distinct from the area to its south. The Chinese in the colder north have traditionally dominated China in political and military terms. The south—the warm, rice-growing area—has met with more success in agriculture and commerce.

Natural Disasters and Culture. In some parts of the world severe extremities of climate give rise to regularly recurring natural disasters of great magnitude. Examples are the perennial droughts of Somalia, Eritrea, parts of Ethiopia, and Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa; the permafrost of northern Siberia and the life-threatening cold of the Arctic regions; and the frequent catastrophic flooding in India, Bangladesh, and Egypt. One would expect the inhabitants of these areas to be decisive about seeking habitation elsewhere. They rarely do. Climatological hardships seem to engender a fatalistic attitude among those who have to bear them.

The Suicide League

Suicide rates per 100,000





















































































Source: World Health Organization

Climate and Affinities. What about cultural affinities among people who experience similar or diverse climatological conditions? Because climate is only one factor in cultural conditioning, diversity of behavior in inhabitants of hot (or cold) zones will naturally be evident. Yet people living in very different climates will have fewer commonalities with each other. To go to real extremes, what do the Inuit and the African Bushman have in common? Assuming they had a common language, what would they talk about? Food? Sex? Weather? Could they agree about anything? A London spring would be chilly for the Bushman, hot for the Inuit. Neither would be likely to appreciate the qualities or appearance of each other’s wife or husband. Each has a completely separate experience of habits, foods, philosophies, landscapes, and animals. One has no concept of ice, snow, or even cold itself; the other does not know sand, scorched earth, tropical foliage, or blistering heat. The Inuit would not be tempted by snake flamb; give him a bit of tasty blubber anytime.

If this personal encounter is far-fetched, the same principle operates to a lesser degree between different Europeans. Sicilians and Finns don’t have a lot to talk about, once the first rapture of exoticism of a new landscape has subsided. Italians in Finland fail to share the Finns’ enthusiasm for sauna, vodka, milk, fishing through the ice, and long, cozy silences. Finns in Palermo are bewildered by the endless smalltalk—meaningless to them—as well as by the arbitrariness of decision making, punctuality, traffic behavior, planning of any kind, volatility of emotions, and so on.


Can cultural behavior transcend climatological impositions? Evidence suggests that it can to some degree. While intense heat tends to diminish work ethic, workaholic Americans with their Protestant work ethic succeed in functioning effectively in hot states, largely thanks to the benefits of air-conditioning. Also those nations adhering strictly to Confucian tenets—Japan, China, and Korea—generally maintain a creditable work rate in the hotter months.

It can’t be denied, however, that climate seems to have a decisive and sometimes devastating effect on cultural behavior—in some instances more than others. In addition it is probably the catalyst for other cultural determinants, such as geography, environmental conditions, and historical direction. I will close this chapter with the following generalizations about the influence of climate on culture.

  • Climate affects culture more in some countries than in others.
  • As heat increases, industriousness decreases.
  • Work ethic can occasionally transcend climate.
  • Sunshine and warm temperatures engender loquaciousness, openness, cheerfulness, and exuberance.
  • Cold conditions produce taciturnity, brevity of expression, and valued privacy.
  • A clear link exists between lack of sunshine and suicide rates (pessimism).
  • Harsh, extreme climates sometimes produce aggressive, warrior-like peoples.
  • Changeable, frequently rainy weather engenders phlegmatism, tolerance, adaptation, a sense of proportion, and humor.

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108 © 2008-2020.
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