Shucking Oysters: Chatter

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Things do go so contrary-like with me. I wanted to hit upon an especially novel, unique subject this week. “I will write about something altogether new,” I thought to myself; “something that nobody else has ever written or talked about before.” And I went for days, trying to think of something; and I couldn’t. 

And then days later I met up with a neighbour — I said: “I am trying to think of a subject upon which no previous human being has ever said a word—some subject that will attract by its novelty, invigorate by its surprising freshness.” She pondered a long while, and at last suggested the weather, which she was sure had been most trying of late.

And ever since that idiotic suggestion I have been unable to get the weather out of my thoughts or anything else in. It certainly is the most wretched weather — at the time I am writing, and if it isn’t particularly unpleasant when I come to be read, it soon will be.

It always is wretched weather. The weather is like the youngest sibling — always in the wrong. In summer-time we say it is too hot; in winter that it is freezing; in spring and fall we find fault with it for being neither one thing nor the other and wish it would make up its bloody mind. If it is dry we say we are desperate for rain; if it does rain we pray for dry weather. If December passes without snow, we indignantly demand to know what has become of our good old-fashioned winters, and talk as if we had been cheated out of something we had bought and paid for; and when it does snow, my gawd, the uproar. We shall never be content until we make our own weather and keep it to ourselves. If that cannot be arranged, we would rather do without it altogether.

Are we a little obsessive about the weather? Is it a Canadian gene? We’re not the only ones to constantly bring up the weather, but we do it a lot, from everyday banter to media coverage. The Weather Network reported that compared to the averages of 160 countries, the topic of weather in Canada took up 229% more places in the media.

In a CBC story, Diane Pacom, a social professor at the University of Ottawa, commented that weather is a critical aspect of the Canadian identity. “The way you create a collective ethos is through this constant preoccupation with weather,” she said. When we talk about the weather, we’re often talking about much more. It isn’t just a “rhetorical throwaway.” It’s also a shortcut to interpersonal connections. 

A study on conversations in the UK, revealed that 94% of respondents had talked about the weather in the past six hours, and 38% had done so in the past 60 minutes. British social anthropologist Kate Fox, said: “This means at almost any moment in this country, at least a third of the population is either talking about the weather, has already done so or is about to do so.”

Based on her research, Fox argues that this type of conversation is less about the weather. “Weather talk is a kind of code that we have evolved to help us overcome social inhibitions and actually talk to one another.” She means that some use weather chatter as an icebreaker, and others to fill those awkward silences or divert the conversation. Depending on their response to your weather greeting (which should always be in the form of a question), we can tell if someone is in the mood for a chat, or is feeling grumpy and negative. “Pretty cold, eh?” “You talking to me!?”

We all know about atmospheric rivers. Now, we’re learning about the “polar vortex.” Both are recent weather terms. The polar vortex is a swirling weather system that circles, like Santa on Christmas eve, in the atmosphere high above the North Pole. Normally, this chilly air is held back by the jet stream, keeping the vortex circling aimlessly over the far north. Instead, scientists think that climate change is pushing them away from the pole, moving a bomb cyclone of polar weather south. 

Have you noted that Environment Canada has more types of winter warnings than ever before? Today, we have: Arctic air, blowing snow, blizzard, extreme cold (including wind chill), flash freeze, freezing rain/drizzle, snowfall, snow squall, and winter storm. In the media, “snowmageddon,” “snowpocalypse,” and “snowzilla.” David Phillips, senior meteorologist at Environment Canada says these terms have traction. “People remember them and use them — and it sometimes scares the ‘bejesus’ out of people.” 

And “wind chill.” Phillips shared that most meteorologists hate wind chill “because it’s not a perfect measure of coldness, but Canadians love it because it really exaggerates the worst.” If it’s -25° C outside with a minus -35° C wind chill factor, “by the end of the day, it’s -35° C outside.” It’s all about making it sound more spectacularly cold than it really is. 

Not the most scintillating conversation-starter, but here’s an icebreaker: Did your pipes survive the blizzaster?