Why Talking About the Weather May Be a Bad Idea
It’s midwinter and Jane’s flight from Phoenix to New York has landed. She grabs her luggage and rushes to attend a client meeting in preparation for the first day of market research. As she deplanes and walks through the jet ramp, she’s greeted by a burst of frigid air. She shivers and stops to unpack her winter coat, scarf and gloves from her carry-on bag before leaving the terminal to catch her 30-minute Uber ride into downtown Manhattan.
Jane’s tired from a long flight, cold from waiting in the steady snowfall and anxious to arrive at the fielding facility. She is also excited to meet her new client team in person and to finally talk to physicians about a forthcoming oncology treatment. She has so much on her mind that she can’t wait to get settled and brief with the client team before diving into a few long days of research.
Upon closing the car door, Jane’s greeted by John, her welcoming and talkative driver. As she removes her scarf and gloves, he smiles and asks where she is from and if it is her first time visiting this city. Despite carving out time in her schedule to refresh and prep during the commute, Jane spends the next 30 minutes talking about the weather and exploring the pros and cons of living in Phoenix and New York. When they arrive at the facility, Jane thanks John for the ride and eagerly heads inside to meet the client team. However, she experiences deja vu as she introduces herself and the conversation turns to the topic of weather. Her anxiety intensifies as she realizes that she has less than an hour until her first interview and she has not gleaned relevant insights into her clients’ personalities or expectations for the project.
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Why do we so often default to banal topics like the weather when we meet someone or join a meeting? Let’s face it: These subjects are trite and mundane, yet we share a certain comfort level about discussing the weather because we presume it’s relatable and opens the door for more personal and meaningful discussions. But do these conversations actually happen, and are they truly enabled by the “weather discussion”? Instead, what if you greeted a team or client with a conversation about whether Siri is smarter than Alexa, whether flamingo eggs have pink yolks or whether anyone has actually broken his jaw eating a jawbreaker? It would certainly spice up a meeting if the boss came in and asked employees to tell a story about their most memorable travel fails or to share how they received their nicknames.
These unexpected conversation starters are not only memorable, but they simultaneously allow others to learn quickly about what makes people tick and to minimize nonverbal biases. For example, colleagues might learn that Greg, the perceived aloof employee who always sits in the back row, might in fact be the wittiest and most philanthropic person in the room. He is the one who dressed casually while traveling for his very first business trip and arrived at his destination only to discover that he forgot to pack dress shoes. He ended up wearing flip-flops to his sales presentation, and his now long-time client sends him a pair of shoelaces every holiday season. He has 14 of the craziest shoelaces you’ve ever seen hanging in his office. His colleagues might be equally surprised to learn that he is affectionately called Goofy Greg by his basketball and baseball teams at the Boys & Girls Club where he spends every weekend volunteering. Greg’s stories illustrate that although he is physically on the periphery at work, he is personable and dedicated to making a positive impact in the field and in the community.
A discussion about the weather doesn’t really open the door for profound conversations. I think it does the exact opposite: It makes having a thoughtful, more interesting conversation less likely. Transitioning from the weather to something deeper is difficult. The weather may be an acceptable topic for a cursory encounter similar to that of Jane and John during the Uber ride, but it could be unproductive in a professional environment where interactions and time are of the essence. Who knows what Jane could have learned about her team in a short time had she circumvented the weather discussion and instead steered the conversation to a more pertinent topic, such as the most memorable physician interview.
We know from psychological studies that first impressions are important. They are made quickly and are not easy to change later. Recent research has informed us that when meeting new people, we make two immediate decisions. First, we form a judgment about how competent the person is, and then we decide how trustworthy he is. How does a weather conversation help you improve the perception people have when meeting you for the first time?
The next time you meet someone or join a conversation that matters, challenge yourself to start a discussion with a topic or question that is either relevant, unexpected, unique or, on select occasions, plain ridiculous. Honestly, are you going to remember the person who asked how you fared on that 117-degree day or are you going to remember the person who asked what you would do if you came face-to-face with a jackalope or a unicorn? And what would you think of the person who started a conversation with, “I’m told the three words that best describe me are [ … ]. Now tell me about yourself,” as opposed to the person who began a conversation with, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
What are your favorite conversation starters and how do you use them personally and professionally?