“Breaking the ice” is a phrase we’re all familiar with, but did you know its origins go WAY back?

According to The Phrase Finder, it was first used in a figurative sense (that is, not literally about breaking ice) by Sir Thomas North in 1579.  Many years later, Mark Twain employed the saying in Life on Mississippi in 1883:

They closed up the inundation with a few words – having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder – then they dropped into business.”

Nowadays, we all know it to be a casual (and kind of corny) way to refer to an opening statement or conversation-starter to put people at ease.  If you’ve ever gone to summer camp or attended a team building meeting, you’ve probably had to go around the room and say an interesting fact about yourself.

These games can be trite at their best, and anxiety-inducing at their worst.  Who wants to be put on the spot like that?

As awkward as ice-breakers may sometimes be, when introducing new employees to your company, it’s a needed way to…well, break the ice.

And I’ve seen them all.  A ball printed with thought-provoking questions that you toss around the room and answer at random.   Two truths and a lie.  That game where you have to recite everyone’s name that went before you (god help whoever goes last).

Throughout the years of coordinating my company’s recurring on-boarding event, I’ve realized that this important aspect is not rocket science.  Some time ago I added a fun element to the welcome session that allows people to introduce themselves in a way that is silly enough to provide a relaxed atmosphere, but still does the job of allowing everyone to become acquainted.

Here’s how it goes down:

Each person says their name, title, location, and how long they have been at the company (it varies since we host this event every month or so).  Then, they are to answer a question taken at random from a bowl.

That’s it!  It’s ridiculously simple and ridiculously silly, and gets everyone giggling. Each person looks forward to what mysterious question awaits them.

Here are my five tips on how to create a fun, non-awkward ice-breaker:

Keep it simple

As I stated in my Ode to the Photobooth post, one of the best rules of thumb for almost anything is to keep it simple.  It’s best not to include questions that require a lot of thinking and planning, especially if you’re putting someone on the spot.  Questions should be straightforward and able to be answered quickly.

Bad question example: What is a lesson you learned the hard way and would like to pass on to younger generations?

Good question example: If you could be on any reality TV show, which would it be?

When someone gets a question that’s too tough or requires a bit of thinking, you can literally sense their anxiety growing, and it creates an awkward situation, which you don’t want!

Stay Friends With HR

It’s easier than you think to seed questions that might evolve into something not very…HR-friendly.  You might THINK you’re asking a harmless question about someone’s parents, when it comes up that their mother recently passed away.

Think about what the worst possible situation would be in response to a prompt; if it makes you cringe, probably good to avoid it or reframe the question.

The Sillier the Better

I like to mix straightforward questions with sillier ones to keep people on their toes.  The point of this exercise is to loosen people up and get people laughing and relaxed, after all!  Some humorous questions I’ve asked in the past:

Who is your celebrity crush?

Aliens landed, and you can miraculously understand each other.  What do you ask them?

What’s your favorite smell?

If you were in the Miss America competition, what would your talent be?  (If you’re a guy, then Mister America.)

Would you rather go to Europe, all expenses paid for a year, or go to the moon for one hour?

Make it Open-Ended

The best part of ice-breakers is getting to know people better.  Never ask a yes or no question, at least without asking “why?”.

Some questions might surprise you by organically provoking follow-up discussion.  One person, when asked “What is your favorite smell” answered, “the top of my baby’s head.”  That opened up conversation about his family and how many children he had.

Never let anyone get off the hook with a one-word answer. 🙂

Mix it Up

Depending on what type of meeting in which you’re including this ice-breaker exercise, you may want to change up your questions regularly.  For example, our company on-boarding event includes the entire People team during the welcome session, and people would sometimes get the same questions from previous meetings.  That’s no fun!

For your own amusement/the sanity of your team, take a few moments to continually change up the questions.  It also may be a good idea to include seasonal or timely ones, like “What are you doing for New Year’s?”.

I get my questions from a number of sources; sometimes I’ll simply google funny or interesting ice-breaker questions (here’s a page with a ton of them, and some more funny ones here) to get my wheels turning.  I never fail to take a pass through Ask Reddit for inspiration.


Header photo credit: @robslifka