Nashville, TN. “If you cannot think of anything appropriate to say, you will please restrict your remarks to the weather.” So says Mrs. Dashwood to her daughter Margaret in the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility. Although the exact line is not found in the original novel, Jane Austen’s characters do mention the weather a lot—perhaps too much. The modern mind considers their polite fixation on the weather a bit dull, and possibly the sign of a lack of intelligence.
But we do it, too. At least, I find myself talking more and more about the weather of late. I log into a Zoom meeting on a summer morning from my home in Nashville, and my coworker (who is in Richmond, or Indianapolis, or Quezon City) asks me how I’m doing today; my first urge is to say, “Good, good…. It’s pretty hot here.” The urge has always been there—somehow, it seems right to add something to the simple “Good” or “Fine,” but without going into things like, “Yesterday, I said something hurtful to someone, and now I regret it,” or “I attended the most stunningly beautiful Mass of my life last weekend.” The highs and lows of life are not really my long-distance coworkers’ concerns; they are secrets treasured up for those I have lived with. My coworkers get the highs and lows of the air pressure.
Yet somehow mundane observations about the weather spark a connection. “Yeah,” my coworker replies, “it’s getting hot here too.” Perhaps they name the temperature, and then, if this is one of the coworkers in the Philippines, I Google the Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion I can never remember. Shock ensues; yes, much hotter there! Hope you’re staying cool. Hope your AC works.
Why do we talk about the weather? Because, although Nashville and Manila have different weather, the experience of weather—as something pleasant or unpleasant that no one can control and all must endure, hope for, pray for—is universal.
Because it is universal, it is neutral—safe and even comforting. So many conversation topics are minefields these days. Politics is traditionally considered off-limits at work, and my company generally holds to this tradition, which is a relief; at best, in our two-hemisphere company, it leaves inhabitants of one country a little lost when the other country’s politics are under discussion, and at worst, it could cause unnecessary tension between otherwise-friendly coworkers within the U.S. Yet so many other topics have become subsumed into politics that it’s hard to know where to start a conversation.
A year ago, the safe topic we world-wide employees had in common was the fact that we were all stuck at home. But lately, even that seems to have devolved into politics, or at least a close sibling; it’s what Jayber Crow would call “The News.” Lockdowns, reopenings, mask mandates, vaccine roll-outs, Pfizer, Moderna, when are you getting yours? It’s exhausting. The weather is easier. No one can argue about what brand of sunshine is safest. There is no one to blame if one area doesn’t get a fair share of it.
Or is there? I’m afraid even weather is starting to become part of politics. You see, it’s not weather anymore; it’s climate change. Every drought, every hurricane, that terrible freeze that killed 151 Texans (may they rest in peace)… it’s all our own fault, or rather, someone else’s fault. It’s because our neighbor drives a gas-guzzler rather than a hybrid, or because Trump allowed fracking, or because nerds buy Bitcoin. It’s because people fly on airplanes and run air conditioners and have too many children. And once we start talking about what “other people” are doing, in an aggregated, abstract way, we are talking politics.
Let me pause for a brief disclaimer: I have heard of some hated people called “climate deniers,” and I do not count myself among them. Even assuming that the term is short-hand for “human-caused climate change deniers,” I don’t quite fit into that camp. (Currently, I incline to the notion that humans are doing some damage to the earth, though not the apocalyptic damage we’re often accused of, but I keep an open mind.) My point is simply that climate change, however valid and important, is “The News” and not a topic of polite, inclusive small-talk.
Weather, on the other hand, still is. The climate is a world-wide, abstract news item; weather is a local, human reality. The distinction, I argue, is vital.
My city has a wonderful, volunteer-run local weather service called, fittingly, Nashville Severe Weather. The three wonderful men there and their interns post daily forecasts written with a bit of humor, and during severe weather events, they livestream and tweet about exactly which precise neighborhoods need to hunker down. The men have full-time jobs and families, and they give these hyper-local weather reports for free because they are self-professed “weather nerds” who care about Nashvillians. They don’t talk about climate change or population levels; the kind of advice they give is in the same genre as that given by Smoky the Bear: “Turn around, don’t drown,” when there is flash flooding on the roads. “Clean the top of your rides,” when there has been a heavy snow, lest you send “ice missiles” hurtling into the windshield of the driver behind you. Here are things you, a normal human, can do today to keep yourself and others safe, while politicians worry about how many tenths of a degree the atmosphere will warm in the next decade. It’s personal, practical, literally down-to-earth, and the furthest thing from controversial.
Sometimes their reports are even therapeutic. Last spring, a tornado raced through our city and some towns to our east, killing dozens and destroying countless homes, schools, businesses, churches. Nashville Severe Weather worked with the National Weather Service and others to alert as many people as possible to the fact that the storm was bearing down upon them. But afterward, the volunteer founder of Nashville Severe Weather was the one who walked the length of the storm’s wake and wrote gut-wrenching posts about the survivor’s guilt we all felt. This tornado had made “The News” nationwide, in terms of facts and figures, but this volunteer “weather nerd” was someone who knew its meaning. He wrote out the words spelled by the gaping buildings, the blue tarps on the roofs, the disrupted lives.
This is hardly Mrs. Dashwood’s idea of talking about the weather as a neutral subject. But that raw grief was acceptable because it was shared. Our place, our community, had been wounded and needed to heal. In the strange and mysterious way of God, the weather caused the wound, but talking about it bindeth up.
Have you noticed how hard it is to talk to a new acquaintance about anything? If you greet a new neighbor, knowing nothing about him or her, what can you possibly say? Whether he has a Black Lives Matter yard sign or an American flag over the door, whether she wears a mask to greet you or shakes hands, such markers will immediately show you whether you reside in the same societal camp; if in different camps, then at war. In the current political climate—a changed and warming climate, if you will—I wonder if talking about the literal, local weather might help to bind some wounds that divide us from our neighbors. Can we salvage the last bits of this shared experience?
“Good morning! Hot out, isn’t it?” It doesn’t sound like much, but if we are wise enough to answer such a question without reference to climate change, perhaps it is a start.