In Search of the Transcendent Icebreaker

Tino Mori, Columnist


Illustration by Catalina Burch.

Starting conversations is an uncomfortable business. Enunciating words requires a concerted effort, while excessive eye contact with the wrong fellow is liable to result in unwanted fisticuffs. Worst of all, conversations always open with the scripted agony of small talk.

“How are you?”

“Fine. You?”

“Not bad. We should hang out some time!”

“Yeah. Text me!”

We are all guilty of small talk. Social butterflies and awkward butterflies both occasionally reach to trite expressions of politeness … but that doesn’t have to be the case. If we approach our everyday interactions with friends, acquaintances, and strangers with the intent to learn something about who they are and what they’re feeling, create something with them, we will be well on the road to meaningful human interaction.

To start a meaningful conversation, you need to start with a perfect question, a quick enquiry that pierces the above mentioned formulaic conversational structure without excessive prying. The goal is to make a connection, not to glance off our defensive little cocoons! So: what are the criteria of one such question?

1) Novelty: If the question is predictable, or recycled, it will receive an unthinking answer.

2) Interest: The question must reveal a desire to learn about the other person, a sign that the asker cares.

3) Respect: You don’t want your question to make the recipient uncomfortable; merely surprised and engaged. The question can only be so personal.

There’s a sliding scale of what the third criterion means, depending if it’s your best friend, a classmate, or a complete stranger. You must be willing to adapt your icebreaker to any situation.

My current placeholder question is quite simple:

“What’s your favorite sandwich?”

Maybe the question’s genius isn’t obvious on the surface, but it works on several levels.

First, it challenges the receivers to contemplate themselves, to examine their lives and reveal something.

Second, the question gives the receiver has lots of leeway. They can share a memory of their favorite sandwich, where it comes from, who made it, and so forth, or they can stay at the surface and reply politely; ham sandwich, PB&J, turkey sandwich. Just kidding, no one likes turkey lunch meat, it’s literally an abomination, has no flavor, and offers no nutritional value.

Third, a question about sandwiches tells you a lot about someone; we define ourselves constantly by what we eat and how we eat it. You’ll learn quickly what you have in common, and where you can disagree and debate. Often follow-up questions will be merited: Why do you like whole wheat? Do you go with mayo or butter? A burrito, really? You consider a burrito a sandwich? Finally, the receiver can easily return the question. You can start a dialogue. And I think that’s a lovely thing.

The sandwich question is not for everyone of course. Perhaps you’d rather ask:

*What’s the last thing you remember that made you laugh?

*Is there a place, object, or person you consider to be overhyped and not such a big deal?

*If you were called into court as an expert witness, on what subject would you be giving your expertise?

*If you had to choose, would you go into cattle rustling or white collar crime?

Please don’t squander these precious questions as quirky pickup lines. Use them to make a lifetime friend. This plan is so crazy it might just work.