I have a friend who hates it when we talk about the weather. “Really?” he always quips. “Is that all we have to talk about?” He often laments the fact that his infrequent phone check-ins with family dwindle down to a question about the weather. At which point he thinks it’s time to get off the phone.
So, why does everyone care about the weather so much? I mean, they do care, if they ask about it all the time, right? There are whole online forums devoted to why people discuss the weather. Many say it’s an easy way of breaking the ice and setting a non-aggressive and conversational tone.
But, still. Why the weather? Why don’t we typically ask what someone had for breakfast? Isn’t that a non-aggressive way to break the ice too? “Sausage with eggs,” you could say. That’s a simple breakfast and a fairly easy, diplomatic answer. But if you’ve just told that to a vegan, you could very well have ruined their day without even thinking about it.
OK, scratch that, “I had yoghurt for breakfast, with muesli and fruit.” There, that’s sure to please. But tell that to the wrong person and, while they may not say it, they are internalising the possibility that the yoghurt and fruit in your breakfast weren’t organic and were actually produced by the mega-dairy monopolies that are out to ruin us all through pasteurisation.
You could opt for the simple: “How’s it going?” That seems unobtrusive and caring enough, right? Not so fast. That question, I’ve been told by a few bartenders, is Pandora’s box. The person to whom the question is being posed will most likely tell you they are very busy. And then you’re obligated to ask them why? Then comes the life story, when all you really want to do is get on with your day.
In our modern world, we are entitled to just about every luxury possible. We can indulge every single one of our preferences to a point where we all may live the same lives but do so radically differently from one and other. We can drone on and on about ourselves – thank you social media – and not think twice about how indulgent and uninteresting it might be. This paradox creates a maze of impossible-to-navigate, taboo-laden conversation starters that force us to focus on the banal – the weather.
Now that I am thinking about it, I am realising that there may not actually be a more perfectly benign question to ask someone other than: “How’s the weather?” How could any given answer to that particular question offend someone? It satisfies all the criteria – personal yet impersonal, and yet still situation-specific.
The best part is, anyone can answer that question and do so differently every time it is asked. All-the-while not risking a raindrop of taboo.
Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle