Zemanek: Let’s talk about the weather?

“We think old man winter is going toreturn. It’s going to be downright cold.”

Zemanek: Let’s talk about the weather?

Most adults do it but it’s nothing to be shamed of.

Whether rich or poor, smart or not-so-smart, a brain surgeon or a fry cook, talking about the weather ranks high in the study of human interactions.

And if this year’s Farmers’ Almanac’s doomsday prediction for the impending winter is correct, Central Albertans will have plenty of weather talk on their plate over the next few months. The Almanac says we are facing an icy cold and snowy blast this time around, unlike last winter’s friendly handshake extended by El Nino.

Brace yourself, the Almanac’s editor Peter Geiger recently cautioned in an interview with CBC radio. “We think old man winter is going to return. It’s going to be downright cold,” said Geiger. And already coffee clutches have twigged onto the prediction, making it a hot topic for discussion.

So why do we talk so much about the weather? Studies claim that, on average, we spend six to 10 months of our adult lives talking only about weather. Brilliant London playwright Oscar Wilde frowned on weather chat, saying: “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

A bit snobbish, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps Wilde should have engaged in more weather talk as opposed to sex scandals that earned him two years of hard labour in a British prison. Not to mention Brits love talking weather. The 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson once penned: “When two Englishman meet, their first talk is of the weather.”

Undeniably, talking weather is the universal door-opener to starting up a conversation with a complete stranger. Central Albertans embrace the topic because weather plays an important role in our every-day activities – be it recreational or occupational. Our area farmers watch and talk weather. Those planning a camping trip study and talk weather. Golfers talk about it all the time. And if you’re in an elevator going to the top floor with only one other person, weather talk breaks the ice and kills the time.

There’s no getting around it. We’re all exposed to the elements and talking weather is as much Canadian as maple syrup and hockey.

Diane Pacom, a professor of sociology at University of Ottawa, told CBC that talking about the weather is a key element of the Canadian identity … because we talk about it so much. “The way that you create a collective ethos is through this constant preoccupation with weather, which is not imaginary. It’s tangible, it’s real,” she said.

David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, says weather is “a safe topic” of conversation. “It’s not as if you’re going to get that faraway look when you bring up sex or politics or religion, and people are wondering where you’re going with it.”

An American study claims that an average adult person talks about the weather four times a day, for an average of eight minutes and 21 seconds. That adds up to 3,047 minutes and 45 seconds per year – or, more than five full days. So assuming you survive 60 adult years – starting from age 18 – you spend more than 10 full months of your life with your eyes on the skies and your heads in the clouds.

The U.S. study also found that people ranked weather as the top ice-breaker for chatting with a stranger, ahead of work, vacations and sports. Further, about two-thirds of the people studied say they find weather an interesting topic.

Canadians aren’t alone in their weather infatuations. The British Broadcasting Corporation notes that a recent survey of 5,000 people found weather talk was identified as the top British trait.

And when it comes to the news, some of the most-read or watched stories are those that detail extreme weather conditions in Canada and around the globe, according to CBC.

Getting back to the doomsday winter, the Farmers’ Almanac recommends breaking out the winter gear as early as October. That’s when the real cold weather will start and stick around, says Geiger. (The Almanac has been 80-85 per cent on the button in non-El Nino years.)

Mid-January and all of February will be the worst. Big snow storms are predicated for the second week in December.

Now whether or not all those predictions will apply to Central Alberta is anybody’s guess, given the diverse geographical features of Canada. But it’s still going to be a big topic over a ‘cup of joe’ or in the elevators.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.