By Emily Erickson
As we’re all far too familiar with right now, living in a place that is susceptible to extreme weather and environmental patterns is humbling. Multiple times a year, we’re reminded that we are not as in control of our surroundings as we’d like and, when it comes to nature, we reap what we sow.
To live with this harshness, a reserve of heartiness needs to be just below our surface, readily accessed when we’re pushed beyond the limits of comfort or convention. It’s an adapt-or-crumble attitude that drives people to organize indoor game nights, purchase smoke filter exercise masks and spend more time bobbing in the lake (because we just need a few minutes outside). We carry on, living in tandem with the heat and the smoke because we have to.
In addition to tapping into our reserves of heartiness, extreme weather precipitates another type of survival behavior: small talk. Although it gets a bad rap, small talk — especially about the weather — can serve important functions for how we navigate our social worlds. A quip about the AQI can form a building block for connection with a stranger, fill the nervous quiet before a dentist appointment or demonstrate genuine, albeit truncated, curiosity about the experiences of others.
It also goes without saying that not all versions of small talk are created equally and talking about the weather isn’t one-size-fits-all — there are many varieties with their own levels of effectiveness.
The most obvious form is “meaningless” small talk. A rhetorical question like, “How about this weather?” is posed, usually without direct eye contact and while the asker’s body is still in motion. It comes not from a place of interest or with the intention of eliciting a response but, rather, serves as a thinly veiled admission that, “I’d rather not be talking to you, but it felt inappropriate to pretend you didn’t exist.”
Then, there’s “searching for common ground” small talk. Like a gentle probe into someone’s consciousness, the question, “Climate change, am I right?” asks so much more than how one is fairing in all this weather. It is a question asked with a little bit of danger, determining if your conversation partner subscribes to a different set of beliefs and values than you do.
Of course, there’s also “social anxiety” small talk, usually engaged in with a person or group of people you view as a life raft in a sea of conversational or situational discomfort. It’s a, “You’re the only person I know at this event so let’s break down the last decade of fire season behaviors year by year, in excruciating detail,” type of conversation. Social anxiety small talk is a helpful, yet fragile version of communication, broken by the simplest of distractions or a poorly timed trip to the bathroom.
Another version of small talk is the, “You’re my kind of awkward” variety. It’s conversational bites shared between people who are familiar with one another, signaling comfort and peppered with humor or shared experiences. “Hello” is replaced with “All this smoky air is making my sweat smell weird, how’s yours?” or “I need you to be honest. Do you think jumping in the lake counts as a shower?”
Then, everyone has been the unfortunate recipient of “one-sided” small talk, in which we become an unwitting sounding board for another person’s word vomit: “This smoke has really made it hard for me to mow my lawn. I hate staying indoors, but I got a new air conditioner, so that helps. I might order a pizza later, but only if it can get delivered. Well, OK, bye.”
Finally, there’s “genuine” small talk, a version of conversation only shortened by circumstance, not from a desire for it to be abbreviated. It’s an expression of thoughtfulness and care, posed with attentiveness and the goal of listening. A phrase like, “I remember your mom has COPD, this fire season must be really hard for you all,” not only takes up conversational space, it demonstrates your genuine interest in another person’s life and experience.
So whether you love to talk about the weather, or opt for the averted-eyes small-talk-avoidance route, I hope you’re finding a way to make it through. Stay safe, be well, and “tell your mom I said hi.”
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