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Embracing a standby conversation topic

| Friday, February 22, 2019

A quote commonly misattributed to Oscar Wilde says “talking about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” From this, I can only draw the conclusion that if he had said it, it would be because he had never walked from DeBartolo Hall to North Dining Hall with someone who qualifies most closely as an acquaintance, or been a part of mandatory dorm bonding time during Welcome Weekend. If he had, he never would have the pure gumption to supposedly make this erroneous claim. Sun, rain and snow not only provide a respite from social discomfort, but conversing about our celestial situation also can lead to meaningful conversations about someone’s background and experiences.

When you lapse into that uncomfortable silence and look around desperately to your surroundings for a spark of inspiration, your social savior becomes exactly that, your surroundings. The weather calls out irresistibly from all directions, whether it be a rubber-blackened patch of resilient snow still left over an empty manhole cover, or the screaming wind that coolly ignores winter coat, hoodie and long sleeve shirt, then laughs in the face of the epidermis and proceeds directly to your bones. It honestly becomes hard to think of anything else in this scenario, so why not embrace it?

Dropping the simple comment of “I hate the wind” forms a ripple in the pond, which leads to a myriad of conversational possibilities. Your previously uncomfortable companion will gratefully give any range of responses including agreement, sympathy (if they are also from warmer climes), disdain (if they are from Chicago — sorry, Chicago suburbs) or a wistful remembrance of days on the beach and the lack of seasons (anywhere on the West Coast or Florida).

Even when we are not outdoors, it can be a very convenient topic. Even teachers, who sometimes may find it hard to relate to students, find common ground in conversation about the common ground, and I have had many classes start with an amiable discussion about the weather. This conversation allows for a wonderful transition to more important and heftier topics, and works as a pleasant way to loosen tongues and start a social interaction.

Another wonderful application of weather talk is that everyone is qualified to have an opinion on it, so it will never exclude or discount someone from the conversation. Weather is such an effective conversation-filler because it is a shared experience. Everyone is suffering through the same Polar Vortex. Every single person with that pale northern European skin was burned on the day of the Vandy game. They are facts of life that forever bond students together. Complaining is both necessary and enjoyable, especially when it can be done in groups, and the weather in gorgeous South Bend will always be something to complain about. The weather also hits all the extremes at our school, making it a topic that also shifts and does not have to be monotonous over time. At Notre Dame, talking about the weather is the equivalent of talking about traffic in California, and always serves as a welcome conversation topic for new acquaintances and old alike, no matter what state the conversation is currently in.

Apart from being a shared experience and one of the most clutch vanquishers of the dreaded awkward silence, it also has the potential to lead to much more meaningful one-on-one conversation. In the first weeks of school here, I employed the weather card in mentioning offhandedly that the weather was 60 to 70 degrees year-round where I live (kind of a flex), and a man from Florida immediately rose to the unspoken challenge. Within the span of a few short minutes, we compared humidity, and soon I learned that he grew up on the southwest tip of Florida, had two dogs, spoke fluent Croatian and his brother was a beekeeper. Not a bad informational haul for a few minutes of conversation. It started out unimaginative perhaps, but by the end I knew a lot of the factors that contributed to the person I had just spoken to. Now he is one of my best friends. Parallel interactions have happened to me many times, and in the early stages of a relationship it gave me the information I needed to really develop a knowledge of my friends that made our relationships that much closer.  

I am not saying that every conversation should start with weather. I am not claiming that weather represents the be-all, end-all of conversation and will lead to social enlightenment. I am simply putting forth the suggestion that when someone drops a comment about the terrible and unforgiving nature of nature during an awkward pause in conversation, we should try to embrace it instead of condemn it. Sure, it is not the most creative topic. But it is a universal, shared experience. It is an outlet to vent, and an opportunity to discover more about other people. It is enjoyable to gripe, and meaningful because of the more creative conversational paths it can open up.

So thank you, ever-changeable and frustratingly fluctuating South Bend weather, and screw you, Oscar.

Ben Causey


Feb. 9

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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