Cloudy with a chance of small talk | Michigan Radio
WUOMFM

Cloudy with a chance of small talk

Mar 31, 2019

Talking about the weather can be about so much more than sunny days and stormy nights.

Last week, we talked about the subtle routines we follow when opening and closing a conversation.

This week, we decided to look at the interesting roles weather can play in those routines.

This idea comes from an article called "Relational frames in weather talk" by Nikolas Coupland and Virpi Ylänne. In it, the authors discuss how talking about the weather is a kind of phatic communication. In other words, it functions as a way for us to relate to each other, to establish and strengthen relationships.

Imagine you're at work, getting ready to start a meeting. You're chairing the meeting, so there's a visible professional hierarchy. However, you want everyone to feel comfortable, so before the meeting gets underway, you say something like, "Wow, can you believe that rain we got last night?"

One person responds, "I know, I was sure my basement was going to flood." Someone else says, "My teenager left the windows in the car down and now my seats are soaked." Others in the room chime in, and everyone chats until it's time for you to start the meeting.

While on the surface it may seem as though you were just making a simple comment about the weather, but what you've really done is establish common ground through a shared experience: last night's rain. You've helped to show that everyone in the room is equal, because when it comes to weather, we are.

Weather is something we all experience. In a state like Michigan, it's also always changing, so there's always something weather-related to talk about. In this way, it gives us common ground and a safe, neutral place to start when we're trying to open a conversation.

Weather talk can also fill gaps in conversation. Not only is it shared ground, but it's something we can stop talking about at any time without feeling like we need to continue the discussion later. If you're making small talk about the snow with someone at the bus stop, there's nothing awkward about cutting off the conversation once the bus arrives.

One of the most interesting things that weather can do is act as a pre-closing. When we've had a conversation and talked about everything we've wanted to, we'll sometimes turn to the weather as a signal that it's time to wrap things up. You might say something like, "So I hear it's supposed to be pretty nice this weekend." The other person responds, and the conversation can proceed to a close.

English Professor Anne Curzan had an interesting experience at work involving this very routine. It happened during a meeting with her department chair, right after she read Coupland and Ylänne's article on weather talk for the first time.

"[The department chair] and I met and talked about all of the things we need to talk about. Right at the end [of the meeting] he said, 'I think the sun is going to come out today,' and I snorted." 

Fortunately, the department chair was a very nice man and was amused once Curzan explained what was so funny. Still, we don't recommend laughing when people start talking about the weather, especially when it's your boss.