Icebreaker questions help us melt the walls between us, bring us closer, connect. Yet sometimes they stump me. Especially in transitions. How do I relate to you?
I moved from Philadelphia to the Bay Area on January 5, 2013. Changed coasts, changed jobs, changed the people around me.
I spent a few days around Christmas before that in Arizona, then flew to San Diego for a tango festival. Took a red eye flight back to Philly in the evening of New Year’s Day. Went to work straight from the airport, said some last good byes, neglected to say other last good byes, turned in my laptop and badge. Finished packing on the 3rd, watched the movers on the 4th. Got on the plane on the 5th.
At the first milonga of the tango festival, Scott, a leader whom I hadn’t met before, asked me between songs: “Where are you from?”.
As I wrote before, in many situations, I resent that as an icebreaker question. Because of my accent, I often perceive in it a hint of xenophobia. I feel being outed as an outsider, incongruent with the implied intent to get closer.
Not in a tango festival situation though. At a tango festival, the main meaning of “Where are you from?” question is “What tango community do you belong to? Where did you travel from to be here now?” Since most of the attendees are travelers, this is congruent with establishing connection.
Except now I was stumped. I did not quite feel like I belonged to Philadelphia any more. On the other hand, even though I was currently in California, I hadn’t moved there yet, not for another week or so. I did not belong there either. Having not prepared for the question, I just stared back at Scott. After a couple of seconds of awkward silence, he asked a follow up question: “Do you speak English?” Right.
Almost 6 years have passed. Two weeks ago, I started working full time again after a nine month sabbatical. Last weekend, at San Francisco Tango Marathon, Randy asked “So, what do you do around here?”
Ah, another common icebreaker. One that I answered with ease so many times before.
Except now. During the sabbatical, I successfully untangled my identity from what I do to make living.
Now that Randy asked me that, my heart sank. I liked Randy and wanted to connect with him. On the other hand, until just a week prior, I would have answered the question with “Nothing!” followed by an enigmatic smile. I loved that! I did not want to go back to defining myself with how I make money.
So I mumbled something that was neither friendly not impressive, “Many things… I like yoga.” During the next break between songs, I told Randy: “You know, in February, I quit my job…” and the rest of it, a synopsis of the last nine months. Including the answer “nothing”. Randy laughed and shared he wasn’t a huge fan of dwelling on how the money comes either. Connection established, I guess.
The problem remains though: now I dislike two common icebreaker questions!
What to do? Fortunately, as I was reflecting on this predicament, New York Times published an article titled “How to Talk to People, According to Terry Gross“. The capture under Terry’s photo: “Terry Gross says that ‘Tell me about yourself’ is the only ice-breaker you’ll ever need.”
Dear readers: problem solved! Next time, whatever awkward icebreaker I get, I am answering Terry’s question instead, and we all save each other lots of trouble, if we ask it to begin with!
The featured image is snow and ice covered wall of Rocky Mountains, between East and West Coasts, as seen on January 5, 2013. And here is a picture of a wild burrow in Arizona on Christmas Day in 2012. I recommend apples to break the ice with wild burrows.