Weather-Speak: Banal Banter or Social Lubricant?

Oscar Wilde famously said,Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Obviously he considered such talk to be banal banter.

Until I started to do some research for today’s Andy’s Corner it had never occurred to me just how often we talk about the weather.  I’m not speaking of conversations about the issue of global climate change or our seemingly endless drought in California. I’m referring to our casual daily exchanges with others, whether acquaintances or strangers, about what is all around us and so obvious that it technically doesn’t require comment. “Nice day.” “Isn’t this heat something else?” Windy enough for you?”

Evidently, the British hold the record for weather-speak, as social anthropologist Kate Fox calls it. Her research in 2010 led her to conclude that “at almost any moment in this country, at least a third of the population is either talking about the weather, has already done so or is about to do so.

My own extensive ethnographic research (based on attending gatherings of fellow cyclists and dog park attendees over the past week) suggests that we Americans may be right up there with the British when it comes to the proclivity to engage in weather-speak. Inevitably among the first words to leave the lips of those I encountered in these settings had something to do with the current weather.

Weather Underground App (my key weather-speak data source)

Whether weather-speak is a positive or negative thing is open to debate (as is using “Whether weather-speak” in a sentence). On one side are those like Oscar Wilde who considered conversing about the weather to be the epitome of small talk and in his words “the last refuge for the unimaginative.” On the other hand, as Sophie Haigney argues in a recent NY Times piece,

Weather is the bread and butter of small talk — maligned, dismissed as banal, even used as shorthand for talking about nothing at all, despite its immense significance to everyday life (emphasis added).

Just how significant weather-speak is in our everyday life is documented by Kate Fox in her entertaining and very readable ethnography, which I loved, WATCHING THE ENGLISH The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Although Fox’s research focuses on the British, her conclusions are quite applicable to our own culture. For example, what she calls the “hidden rules” of weather-speak seem very American to me.

It is not always quite that obvious, but all English weather conversations have a distinctive structure, an unmistakable rhythmic pattern, which to an anthropologist marks them out instantly as ‘ritual’. There is a clear sense that these are ‘choreographed’ exchanges, conducted according to unwritten but tacitly accepted rules.

I’ve summarized some of these rules below. I guarantee that if you pay attention to your interactions with others you will see these rules in action.

Clearly weather-speak has implications that go beyond the ritualistic verbal exchanges we experience and the unspoken rules that guide these exchanges. As Ruth Graham suggests in a Slate article, small talk is “a crucial social lubricant as valuable as wine or laughter.” I think we can all agree that wine and laughter go a long way as “social lubricants.”

But I was especially struck by the NY Times opinion piece by Tish H Warren, a North American Anglican priest. Entitled How Americans Can Learn to Live Together Again, she starts off with this:

The nation is coming apart. The world is in turmoil. We need to chat about the weather.

Why chat about the weather? Her concluding comment sums it all up nicely:

Of course, to heal the deep divisions in our society we need profound political and systemic change. But though we need more than just small talk, we certainly do not need less than that. As a culture, our conversations can run so quickly to what divides us, and this is all the more true online. We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another. These are the baby steps of learning to live together across differences.

OK, enough of my pontificating from this lonely computer. It’s time for me to head out to the dog park and chat with someone about what a beautiful day it is.

Published in The New Yorker, April 11, 2022

2 Comments

  1. Larry Squarepants says:

    I’ve found variations on this Oscar Wilde quote to be useful: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

    Like

    • theRaggedys says:

      Thanks for Oscar Wilde quote. I have to admit that I had to jog my memory about Little Nell. This is what some on line source says: “Little Nell, fictional character, a frail child who is a major figure in Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41). Dickens’s account of her death after many vicissitudes is often considered the apotheosis of Victorian sentimentality”. I certainly hope that Andy’s Corner isn’t considered to be the apotheosis of Victorian sentimentality after many vicissitudes (although maybe I should strive for that since I don’t know what apotheosis means).

      Like

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