What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather

By Alyssa Pelish


I. What We Talk About

“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.” –Emily Post, Etiquette

It can’t be a difficult thing to compile a commonplace book on that most commonplace of topics, the weather. (In fact, a quick search at Amazon reveals at least six such efforts, including three variations of a Webster’s book of quotations, an illustrated book of Yankee weather proverbs, and a significant portion of the Pooh Book of Quotations.) As a fact of life, it’s inescapable (Wallace Stevens: “What is there here but weather…?”), as a conversation topic it’s failsafe (see Emily Post’s sincere advice, above), and as a failsafe conversation topic it is and has been poked and poked fun at by linguists, anthropologists, and the generally sardonic (Samuel Johnson: “It is uncommonly observed, that when two Englishman meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”). But despite its completely talked-out status, the banality of talking about it and of talking about talking about it (or maybe because of it?), I can’t stop thinking about how we talk about the weather.

For a number of years, I wanted to believe that there were hidden depths to our talk about the weather. Of course, such small talk does contain an accepted subtext: phatic communion is what it’s called, coined by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski while living with the Melanesian tribes of Eastern New Guinea, where he equitably observed how “a mere phrase of politeness, in use as much among savage tribes as in a European drawing room, fulfils a function to which the meaning of its words is almost completely irrelevant. Enquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things – all such are exchanged…not in order to express any thought.” He finally concluded that “each utterance is an act serving the direct aim of binding hearer to speaker by a tie of some social sentiment other.” So yes, small talk is a social gesture; it is connective tissue, not content – and weather comprises a substantial part of it. But still it seemed to me that passing talk of sunlight and snowfall and heat and humidity was different from other small talk. Or, at least, I needed to believe it.

Generations of parent-child relationships subsist on phatic communion: there may be real family feeling there, but inconsequential speech is the major mode of communication. With my father, it was always the weather. I was contemptuous of this in college, where I made a show of searching for profound conversation, while my father unfailingly tagged a report of the local weather to the documents he forwarded me, or inquired about the temperature where I was, three hours south. And I was amused by it in my mid-twenties, when he fondly informed me that, first thing every morning, he checked the forecast in the distant cities where my brother and I lived. But finally, when I was going through a depressive period and, consequently, checked the predicted hours of sunlight each day the way a diabetic monitors her blood sugar, I began to wonder about this consistent exchange of local forecasts that still largely comprised our regular if brief phone conversations.

In a piece Samuel Johnson wrote for the Idler – the one whose first line everybody who writes anything about the weather quotes—he castigates the idea that one’s mood – indeed, one’s very constitution – could be affected or determined by the weather. “Surely nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason,” he very scathingly writes, “than to resign its powers to the influence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind.” He dismisses such convictions as if they were so much astrology.[1]

II. Being and the Weather

“The state of the weather soon becomes a state of mind” –Wallace Stevens, Letters

Yet there is no shortage of speculation on how the weather, or atmospheric conditions, may shape our personal and cultural landscapes. In the ancient world, the delicate balance of the four humors[2] was thought to be affected by seasonal vicissitudes and geography: thus it seemed that an excess of heat or a prolonged rainy season could tip one into choler or melancholy. Early modern science elaborated on this theory, inferring that different climates resulted in characteristic temperaments. Hence the stereotype of the hot-headed Spaniard or devious Italian, whose choleric disposition the English attributed to the heat of his climate.

Later, this association of temperament with climate was emphasized in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century practice of chorography, a type of British local geography that catalogued counties in terms of their history, genealogy, and local productions – which included weather. (Severe weather in particular, of the kind that left a palpable impact on the landscape, lent a region its identifying traits.) Vladimir Jancovic, in one[3] of an actually not incredibly tiny number of books on the topic of weather and cultural history, explains how “regions acquired identity through their weather and the weather was characterized by its regions: Cornish storms, Yorkshire water spouts, and the salubrity of Norfolk’s air were not only phenomena of nature but also historically recognized peculiarities of regions.” Once a region is associated with a particular kind of weather, it’s only natural that the character of its inhabitants will be, too. Which was exactly the case in chorography-crazed England and, clearly, has not changed so much in our era: taciturn and cautious, snow- and ice-bound Midwesterners, anyone? Laid-back, sun-drenched Californians?[4]

Weather is typically among the least emotional things a person can talk about[5]: it is, in its quotidian form, patently inoffensive, reassuringly bland. Yet all the same, we have a difficult time fully disassociating emotion from the weather. Gray skies = gloom. Thunder = scary. Acid rain = apocalyptic shivers. It was the Victorian aesthete and social theorist John Ruskin who gave us a term that really stuck for this, our persistent personification of the natural world. Ruskin dubbed this tendency the pathetic fallacy, which just means the false attribution of emotion – pathos – to a thing. In his definitive essay on the concept (“Of the Pathetic Fallacy”), Ruskin details the process by which “all violent feelings…produce in us a falseness of external things.” Thus if we hear “ominous whimpering” in “the gusts that precede a thunderstorm,” as Ruskin, a dedicated observer and recorder of the weather did, it’s mainly because we ourselves are feeling a bit on edge (as Ruskin most certainly was when he began to write and lecture against what he called “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” in which he attributed England’s increasingly insufferable air pollution to the moral pollution of its people). However, Ruskin, though tsking over the excessive ascription of human emotion to natural phenomena, allows that the feelings that often inspire these projections are themselves evoked by the natural phenomena we are thus compelled to personify. In other words, if we attribute emotional qualities to sunsets and squalls, it is of course because they induce such emotions in us.

III. From Weather to Ritual

“It must change.” – Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”

And still, while there’s a long tradition – nearly an inevitable one, it seems – of situating our moods and temperaments in the weather, the question that remains (in my mind, at least) is whether there’s anything beyond the phatic aspect of those small exchanges about the weather that we have every day. What I wanted to believe, during that period of my own significant depression, over-dependence on sunlight, and exchanges with my father that centered on degrees Fahrenheit and inches of precipitation, was that all this seemingly empty talk about the weather is actually a means of showing empathy. Thus, when we exchange brief observations about the weather, this is more than just phatic communion: It is, I decided, an unobtrusive way of displaying empathy.

For a while, I enjoyed this theory. I imagined all of us speaking in a subtle idiom to one another – remarking on the snowfall or the blue sky in order to tacitly demonstrate, over and over: I feel what you feel. I understand how you feel. It felt very Mitdasein-y.[6] For a while I felt an unusual tenderness toward anyone who mentioned the weather – which was pretty much everyone. I softened toward my father’s predictable conversational gambits. I even wrote and tried to circulate an essay that floated this theory – but it wasn’t quite credible.

I’m still not sure that, as a theory, it’s an especially convincing one – any more than, say, the claim that the customary exchange of how are yous indicates an actual interest in the physical and emotional wellbeing of every person we greet. Yet because the weather itself continues to affect us, and because we continue to talk about it (way more than it’s ever socially acceptable to divulge a lot about your actual emotional state in casual conversation), the idea has never quite left me.

Predictably, then, my eye was caught by The Weather, Kenneth Goldsmith’s book-length transcription of a year’s worth of radio weather forecasts in New York City. What Goldsmith has transcribed is weather talk in its most non-phatic function: the kind of commentary on the skies that is actually informative – as opposed to affirmative – that indicates whether you should take an umbrella or pack your sunscreen. However, the book’s full collation of these daily reports says quite a lot about our relationship to the weather. David Antin’s promotional blurb for it calls the compiled forecasts “a classical narrative of New York’s four seasons.” Critics have noted how the chronological movement of the reports does indeed create a narrative rhythm, advancing from the deepest freeze of January through spring’s slow thaw that trickles into summer’s thunder storm-punctuated heat and curls into autumn’s milder weather to return, as we knew it would, to another winter. Marjorie Perloff, in her consideration of the book, notes how “the larger narrative thus mimes the familiar myth of ‘in like a lion, out like a lamb.’” She also notes the frequent smaller instances of classical narrative that surface and run their course within the narrative: “Listen to the weather forecast and you cannot avoid the beginnings, middles, and ends of Aristotelian narrative: ‘The storm is approaching!’ (beginning)…‘The storm is getting closer!’ (middle)…‘The storm is here!’ (climax)…‘Oh, boy, what a storm that was!’ (denouement).”

She’s quite right, of course. Weather forecasting (and Goldsmith’s compiled transcriptions) underscores just how much we talk about the weather in a narrative sense. (A quick scan of Twitter and Facebook before, during, and just after the recent New York snow storm will affirm this narrative inclination of ours.) In a certain respect, weather is our shared narrative. Both the smaller weather events within a given year and the familiar progression of the seasons follow the recognizable rhythms of story – one that all of us experience and know in a way that isn’t true of even the most popular of prime time television series.

Shared narratives have a great deal of social significance: just consider how founding myths, like the nationalistic Aeneid or all the quasi-mythical details of the American War of Independence, create a collective point of reference that fosters a sense of community. Similarly, being able to reference a collectively experienced natural phenomenon – like a major snowstorm or hurricane – creates a sense of community, too. Perhaps the most elementary version of these kinds of shared narratives can be found in ritual, which reinforces cultural beliefs as it follows a distinct order of actions not unlike narrative. Not surprisingly, then the sacred rituals of Western antiquity eventually morphed into the public spectacle that is drama. Such publicly performed narratives allowed the audience to participate in their ritual nature, allowed a merging of the individual with the collective that was particularly good for morale.

Greek tragedy in particular is thought to follow the form of an ancient ritual of the Enniautos-Daimon, or seasonal god; the archetypal drama of this kind of tragedy follows what’s called a “tragic rhythm of action.”[7] In his famous study of this rhythm in Oedipus Rex, the critic Francis Fergusson observed how Greek tragedy is comprised of many self-contained episodes, each with its own very Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end. For an audience that was already distinctly attuned to the rhythms of ritual, the rhythm of the play was what mattered most – the shared ritual of it.

Now, “the classical narrative” of the seasonal cycle that so many critics of Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather were reminded of is not altogether unrecognizable as just this type of shared ritual that grows out of mythology. Marjorie Perloff, as I mentioned, notes just one of many other weather-related mythology[8] – the myth of how, when March comes in “like a lion” it goes out “like a lamb.” Like most of these myths-cum-proverbs, it isn’t reliably accurate, but it is soothing – and it does suggest the shared knowledge and expectations that the cycles (overarching and internal) of weather allow us.

When we mention the weather, then, as part of the larger seasonal narrative, or of a smaller, immediate one, like the course of a storm, we’re acknowledging this shared narrative – one of the few universal ones we have. Of course, we aren’t consciously acknowledging it; but nevertheless, don’t we refer to it all the same? Perhaps, then, what we’re accessing when we habitually remark upon the weather outside is this sense of a shared narrative, one that’s as ineluctable as breathing. Our unthinking and fleeting remarks about inches of snow and the shapes of the clouds are a trace of our shared narrative that is the weather and its cycles – the deepest level of any cultural ritual.

IV. The Poetry of our Climate

“What is there here but weather?” –Wallace Stevens, “Waving Adieu, Adieu Adieu”

I am projecting, though. And I continue to project in a way that, although heavily rationalized, would surely draw some tsking from the Ruskin who wrote “Of the Pathetic Fallacy.” If I project my own wistful imaginings on an everyday phenomenon like small talk, it is because I want there to be a more profound reason for all the hours and, surely by now, weeks or months that I have (that all of us have) been subjected to (but we bring it on ourselves) idle talk about the weather. It is quite likely (I’ll admit it again) that there is nothing more remarkable to this kind of talk than there is about any other topic of small talk, and that the phatic function of it is not a bad way to understand it. (“Binding hearer to speaker by a tie of some social sentiment or another,” Malinowski observed. What could be bad about that?)

In attempting to reconcile plain actuality with my urge to attribute elaborate emotional/social significance to a simple social behavior, I often think of Wallace Stevens – the poet whom I think Ruskin would most admire in his measured attitude toward the weather. Ruskin, who lodged the bulk of his complaints about the pathetic fallacy at the Romantic poets, ranked man according to his susceptibility to it. He identifies at bottom, “the men who feel nothing, and therefore see truly,” then a kind of second-rate poet who “feel[s] strongly, think[s] strongly, and see[s] untruly,” and finally “the high creative poet” “who feel[s] strongly, think[s] strongly, and see[s] truly.” This highest rank of poet, Ruskin goes on to say, “might even be thought, to a great extent, impassive…receiving indeed all feelings to the full, but having a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feelings, as it were, from far off.” It is difficult to believe that Ruskin, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, had not, and would never, encounter the poetry of Stevens, whose work would not begin to be published for nearly three-quarters of a century later.

Stevens, in his countless meditations on the weather – most especially the skies – is an unquestionable heir to the Romantic poets’ overwhelm at the natural world. That is, he can’t stop thinking and writing about it[9], but it is with the knowledge that all the gods who animated it for those earlier poets are not there, that they never existed. This sense of bereavement is present in nearly all of his poetry, a continued blinking at an empty sky. “To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences,” he writes in his Opus Posthumous. “It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they have come to nothing. … It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we, too, had been annihilated. It left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness.”

In one of his most celebrated poems, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” he instructs the “ephebe” to whom he addresses it that “The sun / Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be / In the difficulty of what it is to be.” And it is indeed very difficult to live without gods, to live without a mythology that animates existence into purpose, that imbues the skies with content and meaning. But the “Supreme Fiction” is entirely about the creative freedom that is contingent upon – that is necessitated by – that realization. In an earlier poem, “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu,” Stevens considers what is given up “In a world without heaven to follow,” and considers the experience as a definitive “farewell” to, undoubtedly, the idea of divinity. The poem takes on a great emptiness in its middle stanzas, as he considers what, then, it would be like “To be one’s singular self … Just to be there.” Yet it ends on a note of astonishing strength: “Ever-jubilant, / What is there here but weather, what spirit / have I except it comes from the sun?”

Throughout his career, Stevens’s poetry veered between the utter emptiness of a world without gods and the astonishing sense of possibility that allowed. And so: for some time, I wanted to believe there were hidden depths to our talk about the weather…

[1] Of course, the earliest version of what’s called meteorology was founded on, yes, the study of meteors – which were long held to be divine signs – not to mention often perceived as shooting stars.)

[2] For those who need a refresher: the Hippocratic theory of the four humors held that the four elements (air, fire, earth, water) were represented in the human body by the humors (blood; yellow bile, or choler; phlegm; and black bile, or melancholy). Depending upon the balance of the latter, a person was either sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholy.

[4] William B. Meyer’s Americans and Their Weather (2000) is actually dedicated to thoroughly dismantling the age-old association of temperament with climate (a.k.a. climatic determinism). As a case in point, he traces the various strains of English settlers to their northern and southern colonies in the New World, insisting on how temperament influenced their location of settlement, and not vice versa. However, his argument ultimately seems stymied by the same chicken-or-egg problems of most nature-nurture debates.

[5] Interestingly, though, severe weather events, like Hurricane Katrina (just for instance) or the contentious issue of climate change can evoke extraordinarily emotional responses.

[6] Mitdasein: “Being-there with,” Heidegger’s way of articulating how, inherent to Dasein (“Being-there”) is an understanding of Others – a kind of solicitude that makes that understanding possible.

[7] One of those catch phrases coined by one person and popularized by another. In this case, literary theorist Kenneth Burke came up with the term in The Grammar of Motives (1945), and the academic and critic Francis Fergusson made it stick in his much-anthologized essay “Oedipus: Ritual and Play” (1945).

[8] Just think of all the weather-related proverbs you’ve ever heard: “In like a lion, out like lamb.” “April showers bring May flowers.” “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.” “Clear moon, frost soon.” That whole groundhog thing. As opposed to really reliably predicting anything, they offer us a kind of mythos of atmospheric norms that is more consoling than credible or accurate.

[9] Just a sampling of his fixation: (poem titles only) “The Snow Man,” “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” “Lunar Paraphrase,” “To the Roaring Wind,” “Snow and Stars,” “This Sun This March,” “A Fading of the Sun,” “Winter Bells,” “Autumn Refrain,” “A Fish-Scale Sunrise,” “The Poems of Our Climate,” “Of Bright and Blue Birds and the Gala Sun,” “The News and the Weather.”