Why you should care
Weather talk doesn’t deserve its reputation as an express ticket to dullsville.
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Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “Conversation about weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” and at least since then, weather talk has suffered a bad reputation. It is alleged that the weather is a conversational cul-de-sac, a dead end for the deadly dull. “People think it’s boring,” says Debra Fine, who wrote an etiquette guide called The Fine Art of Small Talk. Etiquette experts do endorse weather talk, but grudgingly so and in limited doses. They nod to its democratic appeal — a discussion about the weather is inherently inclusive, as we all are affected by it — but treat it as anodyne, a bland “icebreaker” for more important topics.
Is weather talk so dull? We respectfully disagree. Not for the obvious, i.e., climate change, reasons — the cyclone in Vanuatu, or the California drought, for instance — or even its politicization by retrograde senators. (Had we talked about the weather a bit more seriously 30 years ago, we might not be planning yet another round of fruitless climate conferences.) Rather, weather talk, when done correctly, with sincerity and humility and maybe some poetry, has possibilities as infinite as the skies above.
To be in weather’s thrall is to be vulnerable, and human.
“What is there but weather, what spirit/ Have I except it comes from the sun?” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens and not, I think, in a metaphorical way. The weather itself is not boring, not even here in relentlessly pleasant Silicon Valley, where I recently moved from New York. “It’s not just the major tornadoes or blizzards or other dangerous weather,” argues Steven Cooper, a meteorologist and National Weather Service official; the weather exerts a power that is both more mundane and more intimate. It governs how we get to work, what we do for leisure, how we dress our children. To be in its thrall — even if it’s under a sun that broils you, or a cold that seeps into your fingertips — is to be vulnerable, and human.
Of course, just because something affects us profoundly does not make it good conversation fodder. After all, we do not generally blather on about faith or love or health in polite company. Cooper’s kids, grown now, don’t share his passion for the heavens; even his wife “had a lot more interest when we were dating” than after they married, he concedes.
Yet I talk with friends and family in less salubrious climes about the weather constantly. It is a way of checking in on them, of trying to understand the circumstances that shape their lives. When they tell me that Prospect Park is bleak, the trees still barren at the start of April, or that the cold in Iowa is of the hollow, cheek-slapping variety, I sympathize.
No doubt sympathy is easier out here, where the sun never seems to stop shining and where some fragrant flower is forever in bloom. There’s something eerie about the weather in California. I suppose it is conducive to entrepreneurship: Rarely will anything as mundane as weather interfere with the plans of Silicon Valley supermen. To be constrained by the weather, or thrilled by it, is a reminder that we are human, and mortal. This spring, we will miss the riot of new blossoms, the sound of ice cracking, of water let loose to run again in burbling springs.
Let’s do it, dear reader: Let’s talk about the weather. Let’s really talk about the weather.