While we’re on the subject of small talk, it’s worthwhile to say a few words about the biggest small talk cliche around — talking about the weather.
Oscar Wilde said that “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
It turns out that Oscare Wilde was wrong. Talking about the weather is not lame. It’s actually a really good idea.
- The weather affects everybody.
- Talking about the weather leads into a whole lot of other subjects. But if you never get started with a “basic” topic like the weather, you might not get a conversation going at all — and thus you’ll never get to other more substantial topics at all.
I first came across this realization in a chapter from The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable, edited by Seth Godin. The book is a collection of insights from 33 different minds. I’m not sure who wrote the chapter “Talking About the Weather,” but they said it well:
Until I was thirty-five years old I thought talking about the weather was for losers. A waste of time, insulting even. No one can do anything about the weather anyway. I believed that any comment that doesn’t offer new insight or otherwise advance the cause of humanity is just so much hot air….
Then something happened. Alone for the first time in a long time, living in challenging circumstances, experiencing a cold winter in New England, I noticed the weather. It affected me deeply and directly, every single day. Slowly it dawned on me that the weather affected everyone else, too. Maybe talking about it wasn’t totally vacuous after all.
I started with the cashier at a gas station….Years of cynicism made me almost laugh as I said, “Sure got a lot of snow this year so far.” “Yep,” was her reply. Then she said, “I could barely get my car out of the lot, be careful driving!”
Talking about the weather was easy, even effortless. An entree to at least one person on the planet who apparently cared about me, at least enough to share her small challenge and want me safe on the road. Wow.
Next I tried it at work. It turned out to be even more effective with people I already knew. Talking about the weather acted as a little bridge, sometimes to further conversation and sometimes just to the mutual acknowledgment of shared experience.
Whether it was rainy or snowy or sunny or damp for everyone, each had their own relationship with the weather. They might be achy, delighted, burdened, grumpy, relieved, or simply cold or hot. Like anything of personal importance, most were grateful for the opportunity to talk about it.
Then something else happened. As talking about the weather became more natural, I found myself talking about a whole lot more. Cashiers and clients and suppliers and colleagues all over opened up about all kinds of things. I found out about people’s families, their frustrations at work, their plans and aspirations.
Plus, I found out that the weather is not the same for everyone! And it’s only one of many factors dependent on location that you’ll never know about without engaging in casual conversations.
For a businessperson, there may be no better way to make a connection, continue a thread, or open a deeper dialogue. Honoring the simply reality of another person’s experience is an instant link to the bigger world outside one’s self. It’s the seed of empathy, and it’s free…. Talking about the weather is a baby step on your way to making change.