Weather As The Default Conversation Piece

“Hush, please. That is enough, Margaret. If you cannot think of anything appropriate to say, you will please restrict your remarks to the weather.” (Mrs. Dashwood to her daughter in the movie adaptation of Jane Austin’s “Sense and Sensibility,” 1995)

The weather is the quintessential default topic. If you don’t want to discuss “heavy” topics like politics or religion, you talk about the weather. It’s amazing how interested humans are in the weather. We have multiple internet sites devoted to it, local  TV channels discuss it throughout the day, and an entire cable channel talks weather 24 hours a day!

When I was a child we had three basic sources for the weather: 1) the newspaper; 2) the weather segment of the TV news and; 3) the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil .” Let me discuss each in turn, especially for my younger audience.

This “newspaper” was a product made of wood pulp upon which ink was pressed—in the old days by a linotype machine—then loosely bound together and subsequently bought from a vendor or delivered to your home by a person who threw this bundled-up paper on your lawn, driveway, doorstep, or your neighbor’s yard. If it was raining this paper got wet, rendering some of it unreadable. After walking outside to pick it up, you read it, washed the residual newspaper ink off your fingertips, (else you would touch your face and look like a chimney sweep) and then discarded the remains in the trash because there was no recycling in those days. Then the process was repeated day and day, year after year, decade after decade until … we invented the internet. 

This “TV weather” was like our modern TV weather only everything on the screen existed colorless in shades of gray, it had an audience, and you couldn’t skip the commercials. It was also different because the people stood still and calmly read the weather against the background of immovable maps that you couldn’t read. Now they “put the clouds in motion” against the background of virtual 3D maps taking ten minutes to give you thirty seconds worth of information. The basic problem with the old-time weather was that their predictions were not good. If they said it would be sunny … bring your umbrella. 

As for the groundhog, my mother seemed to literally believe in this prognosticator, so I planned the start of baseball season around the groundhog’s predictions. If told it would be an early spring, I put my winter clothes away and oiled my baseball glove; told it would be a late spring, I did the opposite. Later, when I was about forty, I saw the movie “Groundhog Day” and realized there was nothing scientific about the groundhog. Just kidding, I already knew that! (I also discovered that “Groundhog Day” is one of the greatest films ever made; it is largely about Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence.)

Finally, there was one other option. We could also dial a special number called “time and temperature” and get those two pieces of data anytime, assuming the number wasn’t busy. Dialing on a rotary dial phone whose cord tethered you to the wall … all so you knew the time and the temperature.  

Of course, the weather forecast wasn’t very reliable in the day before “Doppler radar” and satellites. Weather is notoriously difficult to forecast—it is a chaotic system subject to small perturbations—and the fact that it is so reliably predicted today is a testimony to the power of science. Science, not Nostradamus, really predicts the future. (That’s why we know when Halley’s comet will come next!) Now we have nearly perfect daily forecasts and even four or five days into the future the predictions are quite good.

When it comes to weather, people have different preferences. Some like it hot, like Marilyn Monroe, some love the snow, some hate winter, and some love having four seasons. A philosophy professor in Las Vegas told me “perpetual sunshine is depressing.” When she told me this I thought of all those souls back in Buffalo who dreamed of leaving behind three feet of snow for that depressing perpetual sunshine. I was talking to a visitor from New York yesterday who said they would hate the winter cloudiness here in Seattle. Of course, I lived in Cleveland for years and a winter of mild temperatures and a few clouds is great—you can play golf in January. But to each his or her own.

So what is the perfect weather? Parts of Hawaii are in the 70s almost all the time so that’s great. But if one lived there  they might say “perpetual 70s is depressing.” Maybe a near-perfect place would be one that had multiple climates close by and you could constantly migrate between them. If you lived in a place with a rain shadow, for instance, you could drive a few miles and experience plenty of rain. Or you could live on say the dry east side of the Cascades, and journey just a bit to the west for more rain. Or you could have an advanced climate-controlled system in your own house and change the weather continually, or stick forever with the one you liked.

Very interesting how much we care about the weather. I would guess there are two main causes of this fascination. First, in our evolutionary history weather was crucial to our survival—so there must be some small genetic component to this concern, some innate desire to know the weather. Second, culture amplifies this concern since we do a lot outdoors—picnics, hikes, ballgames, parades, etc. So we simply want to know if it will rain or snow.

Still, the most important thing to remember about the weather comes from Mark Twain:

“It is best to read the weather forecasts before we pray for rain.”

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8 thoughts on “Weather As The Default Conversation Piece

  1. Very interesting. So much in this post about human nature, and about how many people don’t want to understand anything, but simply believe what they like.

    I have always thought of being really bad at having casual conversations: I never really cared about the weather. I have now learned that Wittgenstein hated this kind of conversations, so now I don’t feel bad for myself anymore not being good at casual conversation, ha ha.

    Interesting how most people seem to complain about or dislike hot or cold weather. I think it is because we have a tendency to take for granted almost everything, i.e. boredom, and since we are also selfish, we hardly think about other people having it colder or hotter.

    Personally, I love the rain, never used an umbrella for the last 30 years or so. I mean, it’s just drips of water.

    “….virtual 3D maps taking ten minutes to give you thirty seconds worth of information.”.

    We live in an era where quantity of information trumps quality. Not good….

    Thank you.

  2. A phrase I often heard, back-in-the-day, was: “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” Thankfully things have changed with technology. I no longer have to rely on Gramps’ arthritic knees for the approach of rain. However, I’m not so sure about weather still being a safe default position; it can quickly lead to arguments over climate change. It’s a real Tower of Babel out there on social media with a plethora of alternative facts.

  3. I don’t spend mush time talking about weather. Friends in Equador (Cuenca) laud the climate, 8500 feet above sea level, in a country sitting on the warmest lattitude on the planet. I guess they don’t get much snow. Agriculture flourishes. People are healthy, minds, clear. Architecture is nothing like places such as Columbia or Venezuela. I speak enough Spanish to get by there, and, culturally, it would be outstanding. I don’t say awesome. That has been worn out here. But we won’t go there to finish our sentence. My wife is far too invested in aspects of American dreaming. To me, none of that—or, of Ecuador, matter.

  4. I never liked small talk but I’ve learned to accept it as I got older. Since most people aren’t interested in my philosophical musings I try to engage them with things that might interest them.

  5. Yes, I didn’t think about climate change deniers. But modern weather forecasting is an amazing scientific achievement.

  6. Interesting comments on newspapers in general and vis-a-vis the internet.

    I truly miss the newspaper and the fact that there was a physical presence to where its editing and journalistic standards resided. (full disclosure: in junior high was a paperboy, with my own route)

    In my opinion, the internet is a significant step backward. It has a tremendous amount of information, but finding understanding beneath the facts is a challenge. To the average consumer it is a mile wide and an inch deep. The very vastness of the available information, much of it contradictory, has lead us to a place where many question if there is anything that is true or factual. (the now common phrase regarding the media “I don’t believe any of them”) With the attitude that nothing is true, then the person is liberated to believe whatever they wish. Which is often whatever fits their world view and feels good, no matter how absurd it may be.
    Combine all this with the internet’s progeny, social media, and we have dragons stalking societies, preying on those who live in a political internet world that doesn’t exist.
    I have no answers as to how to put this genie back in the bottle.

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