Conversation starters: How much do you really learn from ice breakers?

Photo of icebreakers on sticky notes
Brianna Luna/Senior Staff

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I attended an interview for a work-study program during my first semester at UC Berkeley. The interview went along very professionally and without proverbial hiccups until it came to the “ice breaker.” The interviewer explained that she asked this same question of everyone — it was her most useful tool in getting to know the interviewee’s personality. The question was abstract: “Imagine you’re in a beautiful meadow with beautiful weather and cute little furry animals and bright flowers all around you. In the middle of the meadow is an incredibly majestic, gigantic tree with beautiful branches and leaves. At the bottom of this tree is a beautiful gold-embroidered box, but it is locked. What is in that box, Morgan?”

While I would like to believe I am articulate and confident in an interview setting, I have a stubborn, no-nonsense attitude that has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to first impressions. I am completely comfortable answering questions regarding my capabilities, my work history, my reasons for being a good fit and so on. But I am completely stumped when I am asked abstract questions that are supposed to be a brief insight into my character and bond me with my interviewers and/or fellow colleagues in a work or classroom environment. I have a somewhat inherent disdain for these questions, yet I do my best to answer honestly in order to avoid insulting my potential future employers.

I took an uncomfortable amount of time fighting my sarcasm and hostility before answering. “That box has nothing to do with me. I’m from Oakland. You don’t touch something that doesn’t belong to you, what’s wrong with you? That’s how you get your a— kicked. As a matter of fact, call the police for an unattended baggage report; that thing seems sketchy. Ain’t nobody got time for a bomb in my meadow.”

After a raucous laugh from the interviewer, I was told it was the most original answer she had ever heard. It got me thinking: So, what did she deduce about my personality from my answer? I ended up getting hired, so I must have done something right.

What are the key aspects of these ice breakers or hypothetical questions? What are we attempting to learn? Are they actually helpful for their intended purpose? Some say that ice breakers create a more relaxed environment, but personally, I am immediately put on edge. When I know my answer should relay information about my personality, my mind begins to race to answer in a way that truly captures the complexities and contradictions of my essence, leading me to feel panicked.

For example: “What are your favorite TV shows of all time?” OK, I need to answer with television shows that say I’m funny but not corny, dark in a nonderivative and offbeat kind of way and intellectual without being pretentious. Instead, I say “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Do my employers, colleagues or classmates now suspect I may be a sexual predator? Good job, Morgan. Nailed it.

I would be interested in an observational, cultural studies approach to the idea of “ice breakers” and the attitudes about them, both from the people presenting the ice breaker and those who are asked to answer. Do they make most people feel more comfortable and social? Am I in the minority with my response of crippling anxiety and urge to overthink?

If you are ever in a position to give or answer ice breakers, it may be worth your time to think about creative questions and responses. By doing so, you may actually gain something a little more useful than a feeling of mediocrity out of the exercise!

Contact Morgan Saltz at [email protected].