The icebreaker is doomed. Global warming has arrived. No more are heroic efforts needed to free thousand foot freighters or stranded National Geographic tourist boats in Antarctica imperiled by stalking bergs and crushing ice floes. The days of ice augers and chisels on Lake Bemidji are numbered. Soon we will nurture palm trees on Lake Plantagenet and harvest pineapples on the streets of Cohasset. What a life! – – – But wait! The icebreaker has not died. Rest assured it will be resurrected in the next staff training, workshop or board meeting.
Icebreakers to relax social discourse emerged in the 17th century. Mark Twain also used the term in Life on the Mississippi. Since that time, they have become the stock in trade of many HR efforts at stimulating good feeling and cooperation. Seems like a beer or a little wine and hors d’oeuvres have fallen by the wayside.
We are social by nature. Why else would 99% of us live in communities? Yet it seems efforts to engender a false intimacy in an attempt to establish communication persist. What happened to a handshake, introduction and exchange of pleasantries?
Icebreakers fall on a continuum, from relatively benign to invasive, with dozens of books on Amazon for your enlightenment. The trust fall. Not a bad idea, unless you are to catch a 300 pounder. It might also be appropriate to have a block and tackle available for lifting their carcass off your expired self.
Then the cringe directive. “Turn to the person next to you and share a special moment from today.” Are you kidding? I don’t know if a flat tire, the surly adolescent I transported to school this morning or the fight about money over an early cup of coffee with the spouse count, but I guess I could “share” that. They were moments all right!
It is very hard to relate to another person what your shoes would say about you if you are of a literal mind. I know metaphor enriches our lives, but shoes speaking? I just want the darn things to fit well and provide a degree of comfort for Pete’s sake. Or the two truths and one lie spoken in one exercise. So do I say, “Your tie is cool,” or “I like your hair,” or tell them, “I can’t stand close to you because you smell?”
The problem with icebreakers is that they are awkward, put a reticent person on the defensive, and frequently have no purpose related to the reason for the meeting. Did these presenters ever think that the guy in the chair in the back row leaning against the wall half asleep is just there for the CEUs?
The risk in resisting these activities is that one might be branded a curmudgeon. Most people labeled this way have come by it honestly, having been ignored, not listened to or used by systems that really don’t care; the window dressing of soliciting input when decisions are already made.
So when icebreakers are called for in the waning days of an ice age as the earth warms, or discussion falters at the next workshop, wouldn’t it be more honest to leave one small cube in the bottom of a glass of Jameson 12 and munch a little brie on a cracker to oil the wheels of conversation?
More of Doug’s writings and intro to his book Woman River, can be seen at http://www.douglewandowski.com/