I feel an urge to talk about climate change bubbling up within me at social gatherings if people talk about trivial things like food or sports for too long. But it is always such a downer and I know people need a certain amount of time to feel safe and ordinary and relaxed.
Any advice on how to handle this and break through the “tyranny of politeness” that makes talking about climate – and many other serious issues – so awkward?
– Matt in Toronto
So you want to avoid being this lady:
Debbie Downer, the Saturday Night Live character played by comedian Rachel Dratch, can ruin anyone’s fun with just a few facts.
In a skit set at Disney World, for example, she announces to her family that she’s given up eating steak. “Ever since they found mad cow disease in the U.S., I’m not taking any chances,” she says. “It can live in your body for years before it ravages your brain.”
Then, she further fouls the mood by reminding everyone that “if this greenhouse effect keeps up, we’ll all be living underwater.”
Debbie’s not wrong for wanting to talk about climate change with loved ones, but the way she brings it up is utterly demoralizing. For guidance on what you can do differently, look to Peterson Toscano, a Pennsylvania-based performance artist who leads workshops on climate communication.
Comedy can help
Toscano said in a recent interview that comedy can be an effective strategy for engaging people in difficult topics. Toscano, who is gay, spent nearly two decades undergoing conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to alter a person’s sexual orientation. After abandoning the therapy and coming out, he struggled to talk about the harm he had experienced.
“I needed to tell that story, but telling it directly was too overwhelming for me and my audience,” he said. “It was too heavy, and it was bringing in hot-topic issues of faith and sexuality that provoked people. I realized I needed a different way.”
He tried comedy, eventually writing and starring in a 90-minute satirical play called “Doin’ Time In The Homo No Mo’ Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement!”
Toscano said sharing his experiences in this way made the topic more approachable.
“The problem is, when people are tense, particularly when they’re afraid or ashamed or angry, they don’t think as clearly,” he said. “So comedy helps, because it can address a lot of those things. It relaxes the audience physically and mentally so they can hear what you’re saying.”
What if you’re not a trained comedian?
Even if you’ve never taken an improv class, you can still look to comedy for lessons on speaking up about difficult topics.
The first step is to learn from Debbie Downer’s most crucial mistake: She doesn’t listen. Other people’s interests aren’t meaningful in their own right, only as cues for spouting dismal facts.
Instead, consider Toscano’s approach to chatting with others during his regular visits to the YMCA: “It’s me and about 35 incredibly conservative senior citizens paddling about the pool,” he said. “This is not a crowd that really probably wants to hear anything about climate change, particularly from a gay activist.”
So rather than launching into a one-sided rant about climate change, Toscano listens carefully to his fellow aquatics enthusiasts, often asking them questions about beloved pets.
Once Toscano is familiar with people’s interests, he begins seeding his conversations with small comments designed to make them curious. He might mention in passing, for instance, that he’s concerned that climate change could harm pets.
Then – crucially – he waits.
If no one takes the bait, the conversation moves on. But often, someone will bite.
“I don’t tell them until they ask, because they need to want that information,” Toscano said. “Then we have a much deeper conversation, and then they own that information.”
DEBBIE DOWNER: Feline AIDS is the No. 1 killer of domestic cats.
YOU: That’s not actually true. But I do worry about the impact of climate change on cats.
DEBBIE DOWNER: Wait, what does climate change have to do with cats?
YOU: Most emergency shelters don’t accept pets. So as weather disasters become more frequent, more people might be forced to abandon their pets when they flee to safety.
DEBBIE DOWNER: Are you … are you my soul mate?
Tackle the topic from a surprising direction
Once you’re engaged in a conversation about climate change, avoid another of Debbie Downer’s flaws: She is boring. Take her to a wedding, and she’ll bring up divorce rates. At Thanksgiving, she’ll point out that cooking the stuffing inside a turkey creates a breeding ground for bacteria. These dangers are familiar, and her comments are predictable.
Conversations about climate change can fall into the same trap. Most people, Toscano points out, think of climate change as an environmental, scientific, or political issue, which limits the ways they talk about it.
To break out of that pattern, Toscano encourages people to consider why they care about climate change, beyond typical concerns about the environment and future generations. Ask yourself, how does climate change affect something that you feel personally passionate about?
Once you have a topic in mind, try mentioning it when acquaintances ask you about climate change. As Toscano put it, you might say, “It’s strange, you know, I’m concerned about climate change but not for all the traditional reasons. I’m also concerned about it because I’m a runner, or because I have a child with autism.” Talking about the topic in an unexpected, relatable way will help you hold more fruitful conversations.
The bottom line? Listen more than you talk, don’t be afraid to mention climate change from time to time, and be ready to say something true and interesting when people ask you questions. Happy chatting.
Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Explore the “Ask Sara” archive.