In Defense of the Weather

It takes 13 seconds for the elevator in my building to get from floor one to floor five (Don’t ask me why I counted–something about my crippling claustrophobia, probably).

Sometimes, another person joins me. If he or she is a stranger, well, those 13 seconds can feel even longer. Recently, a Dutch scientist determined that it only takes four seconds for a pause to get awkward. So this elevator ride with a stranger is sometimes just over three awkward pauses long. Sometimes, though, my elevator buddy, unable to stand the #AWKS any longer, will jump in with a comment about–you guessed it–the weather.

The Brits are known for their insistence on talking about the weather, and in my experience Americans suffer from the affliction as well.

As a child born into the World Wide Web, where taking the time to craft a perfect quip is totally acceptable, when responding to a text can be as stressful as writing an SAT essay, relying on the weather as an opening with strangers used to disgust me. That’s it? I have a brain full of billions of rapidly firing neurons, doing computations that Watson could never dream of, and the only thing I can think of to say is “Man, was it hot today”!? Really?!

But then I read an Atlantic piece about the art of conversation and a researcher at MIT named Sherry Turkle, who studies human social interactions with technology. She was lamenting the loss of real conversation–between people who were face-to-face, at the same table, in the same elevator–and this line stuck out to me the most:

Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.

We’ve all had the experience of writing and re-writing, delicately sculpting and molding that perfect email, text, Reddit argument, tweet, Facebook status, or feminist Tumblr rant. I remember being 12 years old, staring at my AIM chat box, where my crush had just said “whats up,” and struggling to think of anything cooler to say than “nm, u?” even though I really wasn’t up to anything at all.

It’s that “audience effect” that Clive Thompson talks about in his book Smarter Than You Think: “the shift in our performance when we know people are watching.” When you’re writing on the internet, either anonymously on a huge discussion board or semi-privately to your Facebook friends, or even in a direct message, we feel much more pressure to be (or at least sound) more and more interesting. Because we’re constantly being judged by that audience, you force yourself to write better and about things you feel are more interesting (even if they’re not).

But, as Turkle points out, that is not real conversation; real conversation is often boring, vapid, dull, lacking any depth and that’s okay, because we never know when we’re going to emerge into the oasis of conversational refreshment. (And, as Thompson also points out, most of our online conversation is just as shallow as our conversations IRL).

Now that previous pressure I once felt to be the The Most Interesting Man in the World at every waking second with every person I ever encountered, both online and off, has been lifted. And the more I think about it, the more I love talking about the weather. My best friend returns from a trip to New Zealand? Tell me about the weather! My co-worker mentions that she spent several weeks traveling around Australia and sleeping in a bus? Golly, it must have been hot! DC just got slammed with days and days of torrential rain? Let me tell you just how much my life was affected.

I can literally (and I literally mean literally) talk about the weather with anyone, be it the apathetic teenager at the CVS, the grumpy woman waiting in line to pee, or the person in my office building who I swear doesn’t even work there.

So here’s to talking endlessly about the weather. Here’s to awkward cubicle chatter about that time it was cold, that time it was hot, that time your camping trip got ruined because of the rain. While we’re waiting for our food to heat up in the cafeteria’s microwave, tell me about how strong the wind blew last night. While we wash our hands in the bathroom, I’d love to hear about how it’s unusually cold for this late in May. And the next time you and I run into each other in the elevator, you bethca I’m gonna comment on how cloudy it’s supposed to get this weekend. And I’m going to enjoy all thirteen seconds of it.