Kathryn Lester-Bacon: In defense of 'icebreakers'

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Icebreakers are about more than small talk, says a Presbyterian pastor. In a world of increasing social isolation, they lay the groundwork for hospitality and welcome, creating common ground where community can take root and grow.

“What new thing did you learn in the past week?”

“What was your favorite childhood Halloween costume?”

“What is your favorite animal, and why?”

Yes, that’s right. They’re “icebreakers,” those dreaded conversation starters that can make even extroverts break out in a sweat. “Icemakers,” one acquaintance calls them, for how they make his entire being freeze up.

Yet I am not here to bury icebreaker questions but to praise them. Ten years into ministry, five years into ordained pastoral ministry, I have grown to appreciate the work these questions do in group gatherings.

I know that many people consider icebreakers banal and boring. Young adults in my church’s 20/30-something group regularly dismiss them as useless chitchat. After all, if you’ve taken the time to show up for something meaningful, why spend time sharing silly tidbits? Who wants to talk about Halloween costumes when you’ve come to work in a soup kitchen or study the Bible?

I understand. Icebreaker questions are intentionally lightweight. The topics avoid depth, happy to stay in the shallow end. Answering them doesn’t require much work. Responses don’t have to be witty or memorable. People don’t have to reveal anything personal if they don’t want to.

Again, I understand the resistance to icebreakers -- truly, I do. I am an introvert who would rather hide in the church office than play name games. Yet I am also a pastor who believes in building community. Over the years, I’ve learned that icebreakers are about more than small talk. In a world of increasing social isolation, these questions lay the groundwork for hospitality and welcome. In a group gathering, they create a patch of common ground where community can take root and grow.

So whenever people who aren’t close friends gather at my church -- folks who recognize faces but aren’t quite sure about names -- I eagerly break out the icebreaker question. Then I step back and watch connections blossom.

My conversion to the Icebreaker Fan Club began back in my mid-20s, when I met two nonchurchgoers, Jenna and Dave. These two were great at having a group of strangers over for a meal, helping them connect with each other and then sending them on their way. They built community around the table so effortlessly that I started taking notes.

The church could use some of what Jenna and Dave were serving. They didn’t believe in organized religion, but they did believe in hospitality. And they believed in icebreakers. Jenna would ask questions of everyone in the room. Dave would lay out activities.

Once, we played the game where a card with the name of a famous person is stuck on your forehead and you have to ask yes/no questions to figure out who it is. Another time, we had to write super-short stories, using an assigned cast of silly characters, and then read them out loud dramatically.

Both times, we all looked and sounded ridiculous. But our shared silliness created common ground, which led to good laughs and the start of some memorable relationships. Common ground -- even when it’s only our shared foolishness -- is fundamental to community building. It’s where community starts.

Common ground doesn’t form easily or naturally in our world today. Making connections in real time, with real people who are physically present in the same space, each person deciding in an instant what to share of themselves, can lead to a lot of awkward pauses and stuttering jokes.

But that’s OK. That’s how we’ve always connected with each other –-- until now, when connections of a sort can be made with no risk of missteps. With the internet, knowledge of others is readily available at our convenience, on our own terms. We can hide in a room and still learn a lot about people. We do not have to work hard to learn what someone does for a living. We can easily discover whether someone is a cat or dog person, or how they dressed for Halloween 20 years ago. We can share knowledge about ourselves in a variety of ways, under a variety of privacy settings. A simple Google search tells us what we want to know, quickly, conveniently, with no awkward pauses.

Yet community is built when we, together, work the terrain of our gathered experience, when we decide in the moment what to share of ourselves with others. Icebreakers are not deep, but they work; they seed the ground of conversation with collective knowledge, shared in the same moment with people who are present in the same space. Even when our brains freeze, we’ve still shared something of ourselves in real time and asked others to share something in return.

Icebreakers are like those internet personality quizzes we can’t resist. No, they don’t reveal the full depth of one’s character or spirit, but they can offer a piece of self-expression, a glimpse into the life of a human, shared within a community that is being embodied in the moment.

The key to icebreakers is not to stop with the answers but to let them lead to other questions that might dig a little deeper: “You went as Wonder Woman for Halloween? Me too! What made you choose that? Here’s what I loved about her ...”

This digging happens on ground already tilled by the icebreaker.

So break ice at your next group gathering. Here’s how:

Just do it. Claim what you’re doing. Admit that the questions are a way to start conversation. “Let’s first go around and share X as a way to get to know each other.” Don’t apologize. Don’t be sheepish, even if people groan. If someone isn’t ready to answer, move on to the next person and then check back in later. Ultimately, have fun with it.

Always get people to share their names first (unless you do nametags). Yes, everyone might have met each other before, but how often have you immediately forgotten the name of someone you just met? Exactly. Always get people to restate their names.

Ask an icebreaker question that has limitations on time or place. For example, ask people to name an event of the past week, or something from their childhood. Keep it focused and concrete. People aren't expected to sum up their entire lives in a few words, so no need to groan. Again, have fun with it.

In the end, we gather because there is One who gathers us. We ask questions, because of the One who came among us and asked far more questions than he answered.

Now, please take a moment and then share: What’s your name, and when was the last time you were pleasantly surprised by a religious person?