Small talk on weather as a…meteorologist
Quite often, I find myself in situations where the person next to me in the elevator or grocery store line brings up the weather. It’s something we could both relate to in our diverse, chaotic lives. Think about how often the weather is the “awkward silence” conversation starter and how often the outside conditions have messed with your outfit, activities, or mood. If we share the same air mass, we talk about how cold/hot/humid/rainy it’s been. If we do not live in the same area, we talk about the large-scale national weather disaster, or, how hot home was last July and how high the electricity bill was. Weather is a common ground- a comfortable conversation in sometimes uncomfortable meteorological or social situations (e.g., blaming the weather when beads of sweat are dripping from your forehead after running into meeting on a hot day). But if it is such familiar turf to most, then why is it so difficult to communicate properly? This is a question that keeps the social scientists up at night.
While small talk in public about the weather sometimes makes me cringe, it is interesting to gain insights as to what the non-meteorological community is knowledgeable (or not so knowledgeable) on. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is informative for me since I don’t necessarily follow the local weather forecast every day (hence many times being embarrassed as the meteorologist stuck in the rain without an umbrella), because it is not what I do from day to day. Sure, it is my profession to understand the weather, but I am not a forecaster.
As a meteorologist, I don’t need to spin up my fellow conversationalists on the laws of thermodynamics or motion to get them to understand the impact of certain complex phenomena on his or her lives. The impacts are clear. The forecasts are readily accessible to all of those who are “plugged in”, and they are unbelievably accurate. Yet through the triumph of day to day forecasting accuracy, the potentially high impact extremes are our pitfall and most loudly communicated (e.g., a snow storm bust). A large majority of people I talk to don’t understand what the percent of rain means, or what a watch vs. warning means. This makes sense given the way the system is defined and named. The fact that we could save lives and property around the clock in essentially every back yard of the country is astounding, yet, if communicated improperly could be meaningless and life-threatening. Life becomes so demanding and people become impatient to the point that we forget how amazing it is to not only characterize the motion of air around us that we cannot see, but be able to predict what it will do next in such an accurate way. This long-winded viewpoint on meteorology would hardly fit into “weather small-talk”, so the conversation often remains limited to the following themes:
1) Observation- “it is so nice out today”, or, “it is so miserable out today”
2) Annoyed (Denial) – “I thought it would get warmer today!”, or, “I didn’t think it would rain today”
3) Angry (Blame)– “I’m mad we have school today – the forecast was calling for 4-8 inches of snow”, or “I got soaked during a thunderstorm – rain wasn’t in the forecast!”
Discussing the insanely complex field of meteorology in such a limited conversation does not do the field and proper communication justice. However, it is and will be the small talk starter until the day where people are so dialed into their phones that small talk doesn’t exist, so by using it as a social experiment can be extremely useful. Understanding areas where non-meteorologists and non-scientists are the most concerned/out-spoken about may be useful for weather and disaster communication.
So what does a meteorologist talk about for small talk? I can vouch for at least myself that I too talk about weather. So long as the sun burns in the sky, the atmosphere will stir and weather will rage on. Weather affects our lives every day- whether we like it or not. While small talk on weather might be easy, large talk on weather proves difficult.