Talk About the Weather
On my morning walk, I wave to my neighbor and ask how he’s doing. “Oh, just waiting for the sun to come out,” he smiles, working on his truck. It’s been two days of gray, damp weather, but it feels like weeks. I tell him this. He agrees. Looking up from the hood, he squints and points to the hills in the distance. “I’ve lived here for twenty years,” he says. “Watching that sunset never gets old.” We exchange a few more pleasantries, and I’m on my way.
Maybe it’s a year of being in quarantine, but I miss talking about the weather: complaining about the heat with a stranger on the train, noticing the first signs of spring with the mail carrier, hearing the barista’s thoughts on Los Angeles summers. During a Zoom call last week, a scientist in Britain tells me it’s warm and sunny there. It occurs to me that the sunlight I see from my window is the same sunlight that’s hitting her, five thousand miles away. It’s easy to talk about the weather because weather is an experience we all share.
This is also why I used to hate talking about it. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I’d think to myself as friends and peers would update me on the temperature in their part of the world. “Who has time for small talk?” The irony, of course, is that complaining about small talk has become the new small talk. The only thing more mundane than talking about the weather is complaining about people who talk about the weather, and anyway, the mundaneness of small talk is kind of the point. We need boring conversations to survive in social settings. They are a feature, not a bug.
For example, years ago, I had brunch with a friend who invited a colleague to join. The colleague arrived late and apologized several times, venting about traffic. We nodded and listened, but within seconds, the conversation had spiraled into an emotional breakdown. Her boss was toxic, she had too much work on her plate, and she wasn’t getting enough sleep at night. She started crying, and I almost did, too — I could sense her suffering from across the table.
After the meal, my friend rolled her eyes. “She’s always like that.” How could she be so insensitive? It takes a lot to be honest about your emotions that way, I said. “That’s not honesty,” my friend scoffed, “that’s oversharing.” Indeed, there’s a difference between vulnerability and oversharing, and people often use vulnerability counterintuitively, says author and researcher Brené Brown. “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable,” she writes in her book, Daring Greatly. “It’s the opposite — it’s armor.” In other words, sometimes we overshare to fake vulnerability and manipulate interactions. It usually makes for a flat, one-sided conversation. Small talk, on the other hand, allows us to get to a place where vulnerability is possible. It’s the foreplay of a conversation.
Small talk is also a challenge in creativity. Just before the pandemic, I drove to a networking event in the rain. When I commented on it to a stranger, she asked if I knew that a rain cloud weighs more than a million pounds. I disagreed — there’s no way that’s true. “Look it up,” she laughed, then spouted off more facts about different types of clouds. Eventually, I believed her. I may not remember the difference between a cumulonimbus and a cirrus cloud, but I’ll never forget the conversation. It takes an open mind to find something interesting about the mundane experiences of everyday life. (Note: cumulonimbus clouds are the puffy ones.)
My husband was a teenager when his grandmother passed away. When he went to her funeral, he hadn’t cried about the loss and felt guilty for not getting to know her while she was alive. For most of the eulogy, he found himself unmoved. But when a family member recounted, “She loved to talk about the weather,” he finally broke down. There was something universal about that detail. It connected him to a woman he didn’t know very well. Talking about the weather is such a simple, human experience. It shouldn’t be so hard to find joy in that.
Years later, as we’re driving down the highway, my husband tells me, “we need some rain.” We’ve been talking about the weather for ten years now. “I miss the rain,” I say. “I kind of like it. Did you know a cloud weighs a million pounds?” He says yes, I’ve told him that before, and he still doesn’t know if it’s true. “The mountains always look so nice after a good rain,” I add. Sure, there are a hundred other things to talk about — our upcoming camping trip, last week’s therapy session, his mother’s birthday — but we’ll get to that. There’s plenty of time for large talk. In the meantime, he’s right. We do need rain.