The weather used to be small talk. Now it’s dead serious.
Of course it’s miserable in the dog days of summer, and a few years ago that conversation might have segued to an upcoming beach vacation or a 2-for-1 margarita happy hour. We talked about weather to break the ice. We talked about weather to kill time. We even talked about weather when we didn’t really want to talk. It’s the universal connector, rich or poor, a literal barometer of how we’re doing.
But what used to be smallest of small talk is now big: Big issue, big problems, big opinions. It’s climate, not just weather, and it encompasses historic heat, flooding, drought, wildfires and storms — all looming in the daily news and social media feeds. It’s freaking some people out, ticking some people off, and turning what was a safe subject into a hidden land mine. Weather is the newest topic — along with politics, religion and sex — to avoid at those awkward Thanksgiving dinners.
The science of climate change is not the issue at hand. The question is how and when to bring it up.
“I do my best to keep politics out of it,” says Weather Channel meteorologist Stephanie Abrams. “That’s really the best thing that you can do — it’s just stating facts.”
Summers in Atlanta can get uncomfortably hot, but weather is not a subject she’ll broach at a social gathering. “If someone brings it up to me, then I’ll certainly have that conversation. But that can get politicized and if you don’t know someone, you want to make sure that you’re not jumping into that.”
Abrams is, naturally enough, a magnet for questions. Some are innocent — older people might ask about the summers or winters of their childhood, and she’ll confirm that, yes, things are different today. “I don’t think it’s like standing on a soapbox, but people are genuinely interested. They’re curious, ‘Is this happening? Am I going crazy? Am I seeing more of this or less of that?’ So I think that could help confirm what they’ve been feeling or thinking.”
What’s a 100 (500 or 1000) year flood event? It might not be what you think, but also pretty easy to understand! This will be good material for the next party you go to! pic.twitter.com/qhC0vl7QT5
— Stephanie Abrams (@StephanieAbrams) August 24, 2022
Abrams says the majority of people she talks to agree that humans are causing climate change; now she’s co-hosting a new show on the Weather Channel titled “Pattrn” that looks at the science of the issue. Like Abrams, the show steers clear of politics to focus on strategies around the world to address climate change. “This can be very overwhelming, it can be depressing,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Let’s shift the gear and see all the wonderful things that people are doing for the environment.’”
And so at a party, she looks for common ground: “This is what I say: ‘Forget everything else. Can we just not be wasteful?’ We don’t need to leave the lights on. We can use stuff that’s gently used. We can recycle plastic and glass. When you’re going to the grocery store, bring your cloth bags instead of us all using these plastic bags. I mean, I’m pretty sure that we can all agree that we just don’t need to be wasteful and excessive.”
Abrams calls this the weather equivalent of hiding the vegetables in the casserole. “We can all educate ourselves, and it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom and it doesn’t have to be political. It’s kind of a nice way to gently put it out there.”
But some do not go gently into that good night. As the political becomes increasingly personal, the line where polite conversation stops and activism starts has blurred. So if you invite Margaret Klein Salamon to your party, you’re going to hear about climate change, whether you want to or not.
“People are acting like things are normal,” says the executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which funds what it calls “disruptive” climate protests. “We are not acting like this is an emergency. It’s time to break with social convention.”
Salamon, 36, says she made small talk about weather — just like everyone else — until she had a “climate freak out” nine years ago. Her therapist pointed out that she worried a lot but didn’t know much about the subject. So she dedicated her life to educating herself and others about the coming apocalypse. She’s gets it’s not a pleasant topic. She’s undeterred. She’s Cassandra — can’t stop, won’t stop.
“Any conversation can be viewed as an opportunity for a political intervention,” Salamon says. Small talk facilitates denial, and that’s not happening on her watch. “I’m not saying you have to give a lecture. The rule of thumb is to acknowledge reality. We all have a moral duty to do what we can.”
For Salamon, who trained as a clinical psychologist, that means explaining to baby boomers how climate change will hurt their kids and grandkids. It’s means warning people who live in areas less affected that no place is immune. It means telling people climate is a real issue even on those gorgeous spring and fall days, or that the planet is warming despite that huge snowstorm in the winter. It means reassuring her peers that their anger and anxiety are both appropriate and that they shouldn’t be afraid to share their concerns. “Overwhelmingly, people want to talk about it,” she says.
Do they? Not everyone, all the time. Some people know just enough to avoid the topic because they’re terrified. Some stick their head in the sand, she says, comfortable with their “willful ignorance.” And many don’t share the urgency she feels, or the need to obsess about it.
So, occasionally she shuts up. Sometimes a party is just a party, not a platform. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” she admits, not entirely convinced herself. “You’ve got to pick your battles.”
There’s yet another approach, one that calculates how much is enough — or too much.
Jamal Raad, the executive director of Evergreen Action, spends every day thinking about climate change. His organization is focused on more federal spending for clean energy and clean cars, and he’s pretty excited about the Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which includes more than $300 billion for energy and climate reform.
But not at a party, please. “I would probably not engage in a discussion about climate change because the last thing I want to do at a BBQ is talk about work,” says Raad, 37. “I don’t think I need, in my personal life, to make that connection. That sounds physically and emotionally draining to me.”
Make no mistake: Raad is a full-time climate activist; he grew up in Washington state and spent five years in Washington, D.C. Like most people living in the nation’s capital, he escaped the muggy misery of August when he could. And when the heat and humidity came up in conversation, it was a short acknowledgment of shared hardship, not a political statement: “Talking about weather without climate was pretty common until a few years ago.”
That changed in 2017, after wildfires in Northwest filled the air with smoke and then there was record heat in Seattle — one of the least air-conditioned cities in the county. During a road trip in 2020, Raad drove through towns “burnt to a crisp.” And in the circles he travels “the connection between weather and climate happens more often than most.”
He’s actually optimistic: Most people understand that climate change is a real phenomenon and support clean energy policies. But the fight for change doesn’t have to happen at a social event.
“If someone wants to have an earnest conversation, I’ll engage but I will not initiate,” he says. “We only have so much time in a day. Having a balance is really important.”
Something shifted in Washington over the past few years: A town devoted to the idea of bipartisan civility and engagement got rude. Protesters have always gathered on the National Mall or in front of the Supreme Court; now they swarm into restaurants to confront officials and show up outside their homes. Establishment dinner party conversations escalated into tense confrontations; partisan A-listers were shunned at elite parties. Some things, explained social power brokers, are more important that civility.
“As conditions change, social expectations change as well,” says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post.
As spokesman for the Emily Post Institute, Senning has fielded a number of weather-related questions: Living in a drought area with water restrictions, one homeowner wanted to know whether she should tell visitors that they are allowed only one shower per day. (Yes.) Another wanted to know whether she should warn an upcoming houseguest that the local air quality is bad. (Absolutely.)
Part of his job is to teach social and conversational skills, and Senning breaks it down into three tiers. Traditionally, Tier 1 is safe talk for polite company: Food, traffic, sports, pop culture, hobbies. Tier 2 involves subjects that evoke strong opinions and emotions: Religion, politics, sex. Tier 3? Family and personal finances, subjects that should be avoided unless you know the person very well and they ask for your opinion.
Senning, 45, has already seen a generational shift — younger workers, for example, thinks it’s important to talk more openly about money to address pay inequities. Weather used to be the obvious icebreaker, the safest of low-hanging fruit. But that has changed, too, especially among millennials facing decades of living with the damage of climate change.
“I won’t say, ‘Don’t talk about the weather,’ but if the conversation goes there, handle it like any Tier 2 topic that needs to be managed with the same care,” he says. The price of admission for any sensitive subject: A willingness to listen, an awareness that people feel strongly, and an understanding that it is not your job to force your opinion on other people: “There’s a responsibility to get your etiquette antenna out. Don’t dive in too deep too quickly. And your willingness to cede the last word is often the quickest exit.”
But etiquette has limits, and there’s value in protest, what the late Georgia congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Are you going to change minds? Probably not right away, says Senning. Will some people think it’s rude? Yes, but that’s the point. His only caveat? Think about what you’re doing and why: “Stepping into the realm of protest requires consciousness of action.”
Stay quiet or speak up? Gentle persuasion or protest? Polite or rude? And will it make any difference? Something to talk about.