The app on my phone tells me it’s supposed to be 106º in a few days.
I imagine you only care so much. Perhaps you’d be more interested if we were chatting live in person, via video chat, or even on the phone. But that could be only because you’d get to respond and tell me about what the weather is like wherever you live.
It’s popular to deride small talk, but that doesn’t mean anything’s inherently wrong with it. I know I’ve judged it before.
When my dad’s health was deteriorating towards the end of his life, I yearned to have deeper conversations with him. Yet we mostly talked about stuff like the weather or work or whatever insane thing Trump was up to at the time. I wish I could call him right now and hear about the weather in Vegas or his thoughts on the state of the economy or this student loan payback thing—even though we’d probably disagree about a lot of it.
There were times when we’d talk about something less surface-level. He’d tell me a story I hadn’t heard before about his time in Vietnam or I’d share my worries about my daughter Em’s disability. To his credit, he did become more emotionally vulnerable after his cancer diagnosis and even more so after he started reading my writing. But he usually had to be in the right mood for it. I’m not sure what I wanted from these talks, exactly. Over time, I came to peace with it. At least I could have a conversation with him at the time.
Trying to force conversations to get more philosophical or intimate or controversial usually doesn’t work. Small talk is the way into them. It’s how you gauge how others want to engage.
Does the weather really matter? No. But it’s something we all have in common so it’s an easy go-to.
About a decade ago, when I managed a small sales team that sold lab equipment, I constantly heard my team talking to their clients about the weather. It would’ve been easy to be cynical about it and make light of its banality. But it’s actually really effective at getting people talking about themselves. And that’s key to making someone feel comfortable, as long as you’re actually interested in what they have to say.
Two quick examples:
There was this guy who was based at a cobalt mine way up in the frozen tundra of northern Alaska. I looked it up on Google Maps before I called him and saw it was easily 100 miles from any semblance of normal civilization. I had so many questions.
“So what’s the weather like way up there?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t really go outside here,” he said. “It’s about 60 below zero right now. If I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, I could walk outside, hold it at arm’s length to pour it out, and it would freeze before it hits the ground.”
What an amazing answer!
I went on to learn that he lives in Oklahoma with his family and flies to Anchorage before catching a small prop plane to get to his three-week-long shifts up at the remote lab. Three weeks on in Alaska, then three weeks off in Oklahoma. Fascinating.
I don’t even remember if he bought the thing I was trying to sell him.
There was a woman who owned a lab in Kansas. I was trying to get her to purchase a larger-ticket item. She was resistant to and almost snarky about the typical weather small talk.
But then I used the word gnarly.
“Wow, I haven’t heard that word in ages,” she said. “Are you a surfer?”
“I’ve lived in California my whole life and I even lived about a five-minute drive from a decent surf spot once and I’ve never surfed in my life,” I replied.
“Wait, so you’re saying that me, someone born and raised in Kansas, nowhere near the ocean, has surfed more times than you?”
She was blown away by this fact. It completely changed her tone. She opened up and went on to tell me about how she went on an epic surfing trip to Australia once and how catching one of the big waves in Hawaii was on her bucket list.
After we got off the phone, I emailed her a link to this video and wrote “At least I don’t talk like this guy.”
I ended up selling her the thing.
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Don’t be afraid of small talk. It’s a way to learn about someone and get a feel for how they’re feeling. It’s the door that’s cracked open and leads to unexpected places. Be curious and see where it leads.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, let’s make some small talk in the comments.
What’s the weather like wherever you’re reading this?
What do you do for a living?
What’s your favorite book or movie?
What have you been up to lately?
I really want to know.
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This is a fascinating subject because I often try to steer conversation toward a more meaningful place, only to find that few want to go there. There are so many who want to keep things at the surface, and I find it challenging to connect with people there. I won’t remember them at all if we haven’t at least gotten to emotional first base lol.
And the note about your dad staying at the surface really struck me. With family, I’m often asking myself “are they just not opening up to me?” or “are they really only interested in the weather?” Which leads me to wonder whether I should stop trying to learn more about them and their ideas about the world, and just talk about the weather?
This piece resonates with me on an incredibly deep level, especially the part about small talk being the gauge for the trajectory of a convo. There’s just so much meaty information in that small talk and I think people too often overlook the importance of what could be considered an unimportant component of human interaction. I too use words like “gnarly” and “stoked” and, as a psychologist, I’ve found this casual vernacular to be very disarming to others…it somehow communicates “safety” in a weird way that I haven’t figured out yet but it works and that’s pretty rad! Love your writing Lyle! Miss you amigo!