Small Talk and Complaining About the Weather

Yesterday, after my dental cleaning, the hygienist set up my next appointment, which would fall in August. She laughed and said, “By then, we’ll be complaining about the heat instead of the cold.”

I laughed with her, but I cringed a bit inside. Complaining about the weather seems to be reaching Olympic heights this year, with the Polar Vortex affecting so much of the nation, more and more schools closing due to extreme weather conditions, and peoples’ general obsession with griping about the current conditions.

As someone who has cultivated the skill of small talk over the years, I’ve always known weather is a part of it. Weather is something that everyone experiences so it is quick and easy common ground, readily available fodder for small talk. I’ve prided myself on coming up with small-talk-based discussion revolving around other things – when I fall back on the weather, I consider it a weakness in my own social skills.

Yet people seem obsessed with weather! It’s too hot, it’s too cold, there’s too much snow. Is it small talk, or do they really hate the weather outside? I don’t quite get it.

I love weather. It fascinates me. Living in Wisconsin, I get all the extremes. The newly named Polar Vortex, frankly, is normal for us. We expect high temperatures below zero for a period of time each winter. We expect an average of 55 inches of snow per year. In the summer, we are a bit cooler than other places, but we still have days that settle in the mid-90s and the humidity is intense.

When a storm is poised to hit, I turn into a weather geek – I’m watching for the severe weather bulletins, I move the pets and important papers and such to the basement if tornadoes are threatening. If it’s snow, I work ahead if I can, so I can take a day off and enjoy it with the kids if school gets canceled.  

You’d think I’d LOVE talking about the weather! But discussing what is actually happening isn’t on most people’s agendas. They just gripe about the cold and snow, or complain about the heat and humidity. And I’m at a loss to explain why they do that. Is it just small talk, or is it something more?

I know some people do suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where they are depressed during the winter months. There are places where the unusual winter weather causes genuine problems for people – like the horrific traffic jams in Atlanta last month where ice and snow coated the twelve-lane highways while too many people were trying to use them. And I always feel great compassion for anyone whose life is upended by a tornado or a hurricane. But that’s all different from griping about another day of cold weather.

I suppose I should consider the weather a gift, an easy tool to use for small talk, but sometimes I wish there was a bit more substance behind it all.

How’s the weather by you these days?

Theory of Mind: Why It’s A Two Way Street

In my novel, Asperger Sunset, Russ prepares a nice homemade meal for his sister, Misty, to thank her for taking care of him over several recent difficult days. But he is beginning to seethe with anger because she’s late returning home from work. He takes it personally – doesn’t she understand he’s put all this work into dinner for her? Why is she snubbing him by being late?

Then he remembers what he’s read about people with Asperger’s having trouble with Theory of Mind – he knows he’s put in a lot of time cooking, but his sister has no way of knowing that. She’s not late on purpose – any number of things could be holding her up. His anger fades as he reasons his way through the situation.

I believe people with Asperger’s don’t actually lack Theory of Mind, they just need to think through situations more methodically than most people, and they often find it difficult to truly understand something that has happened to someone else until they have experienced it themselves. That doesn’t make them broken or unable to empathize with other people, it means they take a different route to get there.

In the 2009 movie “Adam,” a character with Asperger’s Syndrome develops an intimate relationship with a woman named Beth. At one point Beth is describing one of the deficiencies in the relationship and she says she yearns to be with someone who can look into her eyes and know exactly how she’s feeling. Adam, of course, can’t.

What angered me about Beth’s comment is that while Adam can’t read her thoughts or emotions, quite frankly, she can’t read his, either! She doesn’t understand him any better than he understands her. The Theory of Mind “deficiency” seems to only apply when dealing with “normal” folk, and that’s unfair.

I have a vivid memory of my own first encounter with Theory of Mind. I was nine years old, and my grandmother called during the day – this was unusual. From my mother’s side of the conversation, I was able to figure out the call was reporting the death of my great-aunt, a distant relative who had recently suffered a stroke. After a couple of minutes my mother gave me the phone and my grandmother and I chatted about the usual kid stuff – school, activities, and so on. I returned the phone to my mother and she hung it up.

I remember feeling uneasy, sensing I should say something, but I didn’t know what. The call had come at an unusual time of the day, and hearing from my grandparents was usually a pleasant thing, so to break the tension, I said, “that was a nice little phone call, wasn’t it?” As you can imagine, I was met with a very angry response as my mother was processing the grief of my aunt’s death and found my comment profoundly insensitive.

From my point of view a very distant relative died, I had little understanding of death, and I did, in fact, have a nice conversation with my grandmother. I had no clue that I needed to incorporate my mother’s feelings before I tried to engage her with the comment about the “nice little phone call.”

When dealing with someone who is socially challenged and they say something that seems inappropriate or out of character, take a moment to see if there is, in fact, an extra step that’s missing. People with Asperger’s rarely intend to hurt other people’s feelings, but the Theory of Mind roadblock often leads to comments that are perceived as insensitive. A little more understanding from both sides can go a long way.