I was looking for images to include in this post and happened to come upon this tweet exchange with the late Matt Parker. His wisdom continues to influence myself and hopefully many others.
If there’s one thing meteorologists like more than the weather…. It’s commenting on how people react and respond to the weather. I’m guilty of it. You’re guilty of it. We’ve all taken some pleasure in joining in a group condemnation of some poor soul who drove their car around barriers and into flood waters, ultimately ending up sitting on top of their vehicle, shamefully waiting to be rescued. And that’s one of the better case scenarios.
The action, reaction, or lack of action that probably bothers meteorologists the most is when people choose to not evacuate during hurricanes. It’s likely the most bothersome because we understand how great the consequences of that decision can be. “They aren’t just putting themselves in danger! They’re also endangering the lives of the first responders who have to rescue them,” we’ll say in justified judgement. Unless you are a first responder, I don’t think that judgement is yours to make. It’s extremely difficult to sit back and watch people disregard vital information because they think they know what’s best for them, despite dire warnings. What’s possibly more difficult is to accept that perhaps those people DO know what’s best for them. Indeed, it’s their life to live how they see fit. Placing judgement on them is firstly not our judgement to place, and secondly, a significant waste of emotional energy during an already stressful time.
To be clear, this kind of judgement is very different than the anguish meteorologists feel when weather events unfortunately and inevitably claim lives. We never want anyone to be injured or have their life taken as a result of the weather. That’s why we do what we do. Why we chose to become meteorologists. Our mantra is “to save lives.” We pour blood, sweat, and tears into our forecasts, anguish over how to best communicate a weather event & its impacts in a way that will trigger action from those we are trying to reach. It’s natural, then, to feel frustration, irritation, maybe even anger or sadness, when the news media reports on the consequences of those people who did not act on the information we provided.
In and after those situations occur, when emotions are high, it’s easy to default to judgement. It’s even easier to pile on judgement that’s already spreading like wildfire on social media. But truly ask yourself this: “What does this judgement accomplish?” Aside from a tiny bit of weird satisfaction of knowing you were right and if they’d only just listened(!), does anything positive ever come from that judgement? Do those people who found themselves in a dangerous situation because they did not heed the words of the meteorologist ever reach out to that meteorologist to say, “you were right, and I should have listened!” (if that’s ever actually happened, I would love to hear that story). Judgement is, at its core, self-serving, and as meteorologists, that’s completely counter to what we are actually aiming to be. What people deserve in that moment is our compassion and empathy as people who truly care about their safety and well-being.
We serve the public because we care deeply about their safety. Yes, it’s hard to grasp why people make decisions that jeopardize their safety and the safety of others, but we have to remember we are not in their shoes. We do not know what things factored into their decision-making process. We do not what past experiences might be influencing their thinking. We do not know anything about them except that a single decision or series of decisions resulted in finding themselves in a dangerous situation. Take all other factors out of the situation and take a moment to put yourself in their shoes in that very moment, when the realization hits that the choice they made was not the right one. The overwhelming emotion is fear, followed closely by regret. Would you want to be judged when overwhelmed by fear and regret?
Now think about how you would feel if you knew this judgement was occurring. How would you feel about those people, judging, sometimes mocking you for your error in judgement?
Social media is a public forum. I don’t know how much of the #wxtwitter chatter makes its way into the public sphere, but the point is that it can and does. The very people whom we expect to trust us unconditionally are also able to see our harsh judgements when they don’t react exactly as we expect them to in a weather situation. We also often fail to take into account that the vast majority of people do not think about the weather like we do. We’re meteorologists. It’s ingrained into every fiber of our being to care intensely about what the weather does, which makes it hard to understand how anyone else can care so little about the thing that drives our every thought. Another reason why it’s important to put ourselves in their shoes. Take a giant step back and away from our meteorological brain and focus on the human aspect for just a few minutes. Humans are not perfect. They do not make the right decision all the time. We can do our very best and it still might not reach every single person in the way we intend it to. And sometimes, in the worst of situations, it will reach them, and they will take action and it won’t matter because the storm will be too powerful and deadly.
This is one of the hardest lessons to learn as a meteorologist. It’s one we often have to relearn. But it’s also part of what drives us to continually re-evaluate, iterate, and change our approach in communication. It’s the lesson that will help us improve in a way that judgement never will.
Becky DePodwin specializes in crisis and risk communication. She holds a bachelor of science degree in meteorology and a master of science degree in emergency management. An advocate for mental health, Becky is also a podcast host, loves the outdoors and animals!