I remember when I was young and my mother mentioned that grownups talked about the weather to make small talk.
“What about the weather?”
“Oh, just what it was doing, what it might do later.”
It seemed… unfathomable. As a child, my hobbies were completing jigsaw puzzles, reading books, eating vast amounts of nutella, and being fat. It’s raining? So what? The only downside to rain was that the cat would smell kind of weird after she came inside. Have you ever hugged a damp cat? It’s horrible. You end up wearing the pong on your stripey polar fleece for the next week until your mother finally calls you a piglet and puts it in the wash.
When I was 11, our Intermediate school offered Japanese language lessons for a few terms (before you ask, the only thing I’ve held on to is “genki desu”, and no, I don’t remember what it means). After teaching us that we already spoke some Japanese—mitt-soo-bish-ee, kam-ee-car-zee—our teacher asked, “now, what’s the most common thing that people discuss, just to chat?”
We sat there and looked at her, blankly.
“You know, perhaps if you’re meeting someone for the first time, and conversation is a bit awkward?”.
The group of 11 year olds stayed silent. What did she mean, awkward? If you meet someone for the first time your mum tells them what your name is, then you both just stand there. Maybe you ask if they can giz some chips, but only if they have chips to giz. Conversation isn’t awkward, it’s absent.
Our teacher looked at us suspiciously, like we were playing a trick on her. After a pause she said, exasperatedly, “well, you’d talk about the weather!”
We all looked around at each other, baffled, and I realised that maybe I wasn’t alone in my lack of interest in what was going on in the sky.
Mrs Abernethy handed out A4 sheets of paper with suns and rainclouds and 14pt text. As a result, the first conversation I ever had with another human being about the weather was in Japanese. We were paired up and sat across from each other, awkwardly playing at being awkward grownups.
“My name is Kate. It is raining.”
“My name is Amy. It is sunny.”
The first few times I ever talked about the weather as an actual awkward grownup, I remembered my conversations in Japanese, and felt doubly self-conscious. A voice in my head would say “is this it? Are we doing it? We’re talking about the weather, this is small talk, you’re an adult now? Act natural!”
This monologue of confusion naturally spilled over into my speech, and made me sound affected and strange. I couldn’t do it casually like other people could. Wide-eyed, everything as a question, I’d stutter through “um, yes? It’s… raining? Yes?”
I yearned for other small talk topics.
Why weather, anyway? It seemed so… arbitrary. At some point, of course, I clicked that it’s one of the few universal things that we all experience, even if as an 11 year old I didn’t notice it. Generally, too, it’s inoffensive. Saying “oh dear, it’s windy” won’t make people feel uncomfortable, whereas if you try to bond over the looming spectre of death that hangs over us all, you might have less luck.
Of course, none of this is a problem after a few drinks. Aside from girlish giggling about our skirts blowing up in the wind, I don’t think I’ve ever engaged in weather-related small talk with a fellow drunk person. No. You force big talk down to small talk’s level. Last weekend I started a conversation in a pub bathroom with, “Can you teach me how to rock and roll?”
I didn’t catch her name, but apparently it’s all about swishing your frock about and spinning on your toes while cackling manically. Because that’s what we did.
After a few drinks my small talk turns into some sort of public service where I try to boost the self-esteem of drunk Wellingtonian women. Not only have I complimented stranger’s outfits with the enthusiasm of a puppy with a new chew toy (“ohmygod that colour and where did you GET IT and can I try it on I don’t have head lice I promise”), I’ve tried ice breakers like “your face, my god, you should be a model!” and “that lipstick, ok, I don’t ever say this, but that lipstick is the best shade I have ever seen.”
I’ve tried impersonations of Canadian accents that have morphed into cockney halfway through (eh, how’s aboot you let me do yer accent eh guvnah?), I’ve argued about the best gum flavour (green, obviously), I’ve shared a popsicle with a stranger lying on the street (ok, yes, maybe not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I didn’t catch anything or get hit by a car, so let’s just call it a learning experience, and move on).
Taxi drivers bear the biggest brunt of it. I’ll hug the passenger seat from the back (sometimes I like being the big spoon, alright?) and will ask them about where they’re from and what do you think this text message REALLY means and what is the food like, in Somalia?
“I’ve had three drinks” is a fantastic excuse to get to leapfrog over the introductions and get straight into friendship. I’ve tried translating my approach into sobriety and it just doesn’t work.
Once logic is in play, appearance-based compliments come out just as awkwardly as my thoughts on the rain. Given that my wardrobe is stocked almost entirely with items that were on sale at Glassons three years ago, I feel like a fraud if I tell someone their skirt is cute.
I also suffer from the unshakeable conviction that during the daytime, sober compliments will make people will think I’m hitting on them. Panic about this will make me blush—something I am very good at. Other people get cute little flushed cheeks, little girlish rosebuds of innocence. Not me. My face ramps it up to 11. It starts in the cheeks, and it usually isn’t long before I feel it pushing through my eyeballs and spreading like an ink stain down my neck. Once I start thinking about the fact I’m blushing, I blush harder, turning scarlet. No, not scarlet. Wrong word. Now I’ve given you the mental image of O’Hara or Johansson, and this is definitely not as pretty as those ladies. Let’s go with, I turn the colour of a… turkey whattle.
Then I think about how weird it must be for this woman I’ve accosted with my compliment. She’s out shopping, minding her own business, and she’s interrupted from her daydreams by this increasingly reddening tomato, mumbling something about her coat before scuttling away.
Despite this, I continue. Surely it beats the alternative—where I clear my throat uncomfortably, raise my eyebrows in confusion, and question, “Genki desu, my name is Kate, it is raining?”