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The Missing Meaning in “Weather Talk”

It is not uncommon in America (and of course not only in America or in this century) to from time to time hear that one met with a group of people – perhaps even with one’s family or friends, but that one spoke mostly about the weather: “weather talk”. Though I have never read a history or sociology of what is also called “light conversation” or “chat” in Western history, or various countries, nations, peoples, etc., it seems that “weather talk” in my experience says a great deal about social and spiritual conditions in a society.

Goethe and Charlotte von Stein in conversation. Unknown artist, late 18th century.
Goethe and Charlotte von Stein in conversation.
Unknown artist, late 18th century.

In Goethe’s enigmatic Fairy Tale (Märchen, 1795), a figure answers the mysterious question: What is more enlivening than light?, with the answer: Gespräch – Conversation. This idea has stood out very strongly in the course of my life, because it seems to indicate a special necessary depth which is possible in human relationships, as if some ultimacy is achieved (enlivenment) when two human beings share their inner lives. Lower than an angelic visitation – which might terrify with overpowering awe; higher and more than the most any animal has ever conveyed to man; Emerson, who admired Goethe, in his characteristic optimism said something similar, it seems to me, when he described a conversation as “two Gods conversing”.

But “weather talk” is something profoundly other – or, perhaps one might describe it, in a way, as the lowest fulfillment of this human possibility of conversation. For “weather talk” is, or hopes to be, a generally harmless, peaceful, unchallenging (even if the weather be bad) chat between people. “Weather talk” is, I argue, a sign of broken, disheartened, divided community. It is at times a polite un-recognition of deep social problems between two or more human beings in the sharing of their lives. If at its best conversation is more enlivening than light; “weather talk” is, contrariwise, deadening in some way. “It was boring!”, people will almost always say of a conversation which consisted of little more than something like “weather talk”. It is basically a symptom of isolation and separation.

A conversation that is confined to the weather could be said to have overtly-spoken contents, and covertly-unspoken realities. Most people would say that “weather talk” is safe conversation with people with whom one cannot speak more deeply, or with whom one has little in common for conversation. Both its negative and privative aspects are important to notice.

Weather is often a shared experience. When one speaks with one’s neighbors; one generally is experiencing similar weather conditions. It is a common, shared experience and reality. Now of course in the time of electronic communication, it is possible to speak from completely contrasting climates – snow bound dwellings to deserts to balmy beaches. (I still cannot forget the ease with which I, in mid-winter, called a friend from a mild, cool night at a common telephone booth along the shore of Hawaii’s oldest island to her snowbound condition near the Great Lakes.) “How’s the weather?” must be a comparatively new question in human history; for generally weather was shared by those around one. But whether near or far, talk about the weather is a common feature of many conversations.

When people meet, and end up talking about the weather – even if they meet on the telephone or internet – (“weather talk” usually includes other safe topics to fill the time of the conversation) they are, it seems to me, searching for something that they share in common (which is not controversial generally). For, generally, people share common evaluations and experiences of the weather – good or bad. Rain is mostly, though not always, bad. I recall when California experienced an eight-year drought: rain was preciously good, and the smallest amounts brought favorable comments which could not compete with the bad weather of so many years of nothing but sunny days! The point it not on this or that weather condition; but on the common experience of this weather by people. And whether the experience of weather in some particular location is shared, or is shared over the telephone by someone in completely differing conditions; it seems to me that “weather talk” is a searching for an objective element of the world which is shared. We may not at all agree on God, politics, economics, social problems or solutions; but we can generally agree on good and bad weather, and share common experiences of its conditions and evaluation. So when people talk about “the weather”, it seems to me that they are searching for something that they can safely talk about – that they have in common.

But what “weather talk” is not about is, it seems to me, just as interesting. If people do not agree about religion or life, politics or economics, and they do not want to speak honestly and openly about their personal or familial or life problems, secrets, etc they can always talk about the weather (or the children, pets, food, etc). “Weather talk” is human sharing when people have little deeper in common, or are afraid to share or disagree. Of course, it is easy and common to call “weather talk” shallow; and that it often probably is. But is seems to me that the deeper fact is that it is a feeble search for that which Goethe said was more enlivening than light. It is a social and spiritual state when the human being cannot speak openly and honestly about the deeper, real human questions and experiences of life. “Weather talk” reveals that people do not openly share deeper aspects of life. Often fearing disturbance and disagreement about deeper human issues, “weather talk” is a safe surrogate – which does at least have the feeble dignity that it searches for something real and objective to share. It is a shallow failure to experience, that which is “more enlivening than light”.

In sum, “weather talk” is about the weather; but it is also about the state of the common shared humanity – enlivening or dead.

First published in the magazine English, #20, May 2000, p. 22.