“Icebreaker of the Week” is a recurring feature of the newsletter The Art of Noticing (robwalker.substack.com). Some are icebreakers I made up or experienced or found somewhere; many are submitted by TAoN readers. After many requests, I am collecting & sharing all the icebreakers here.
If you find this useful or enjoyable, consider buying a copy of the book that spawned the newsletter, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways To Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, And Discover Joy In The Everyday. There's a whole section of the book with exercises designed to help you converse with, listen to, and connect with others! Plus it makes a great gift :) But if that’s not your kind of thing, maybe just consider subscribing to the free newsletter spinoff of TAoN (robwalker.substack.com). Either way: Thanks!
My name is Rob Walker. I appreciate your interest. → Please submit your icebreakers (whether you made them up or heard/read them somewhere), or your experiences trying these, to [email protected]
[NOTE: This is a read-only document, please do not ask for editing access! But feel free to just copy and paste the whole thing, and put it in a new document that you can edit per your needs.]
May 17, 2021, TAoN No. 70
This week’s icebreaker is modified and adapted from a post some months back on the blog Marginal Revolution.
What is your most trivial, useless, or flat-out counter-productive superpower?
In the post, writer Tyler Cowen mentions his own prior assertion that “extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.”
One of Cowen’s readers picked up on this and referred to such skills as “useless superpowers,” offering the personal example of an “ability to pour nearly identical amounts of liquid [splitting up a bottle of wine, for instance] without thought or effort.” Cowen asked his readers for their examples.
Many aren’t actually that useless, but the train of thought interests me: Why not push a little further and think about, in effect, negative super powers? I, for example, have learned that I am capable of being completely invisible to bartenders. You?
May 3, 2021, TAoN No. 69
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Caleb Wright.
If you were a boat, what kind of boat would you be? And why?
“A manager asked me this one time,” Caleb writes. “I’ve thought about the question a lot and I use it all the time and get the most interesting answers. It could be a historical boat or just the kind of boat. I said I wanted to be a speed boat because it would be fun to be really fast. My manager said a pontoon so he could be the hangout spot for friends.”
Well I like this one because it seems really weird to me! And I love a weird icebreaker. (My instinct is to say I’d be a container ship? Actually, maybe a junk — because that’s such a great name.)
April 19, 2021, TAoN No. 68
This week’s icebreaker comes from me:
What’s your favorite-ever celebrity siting? (And related follow-up: Have you ever been truly star-struck?)
Inspired by this review of ex-Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz’s recent memoir Remain In Love; Frantz has apparently had a lot of fun ones, including bumping into a startled Patti Smith on a beach in the Bahamas: “I said, ‘It’s me, Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. Good to see you.’ ” Something about that makes me chuckle.
April 5, 2021, TAoN No. 67
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Doug Fawcett:
What is your most vivid memory of a historical event that occurred during your childhood?
This one is easier for me to answer if the age range includes adolescence — I was a teenager when The Challenger blew up, and have a very strong memory of learning about that from my friend whose locker was next to mine. His class had actually been watching the launch live. That said, Doug’s answer is kind of the standard-setter: the Kennedy assassination. But this is a great suggestion — thanks, Doug!
March 22, 2021, TAoN No. 66
This week’s icebreaker comes from a Twitter thread from Dr. Amber Spry, brought to my attention by reader Anna Martino, in São Paolo:
“Every year when I teach identity politics I ask the same question on the first day of class. Rather than the usual icebreakers, I ask: ‘How does your family / your culture cook rice?’”
The thread (which is worth reading) goes on to explain how Spry uses “this little question about rice to transition to a more substantive discussion about how the same topic can mean many things to different people, and the way we engage with difference matters.”
Anna adds: “I liked [the question] so much, I use it all the time in my creative writing classes.” Indeed, it is a great question — and the way Spry uses it is invaluable. Her spirit is worth emulating, perhaps more than ever.
March 9, 2021, TAoN No. 65
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Tammy Hunter:
What was your favorite activity as a 10-year-old?
“I have always had great responses to this when I have led meetings,” Tammy says. It’s a fun one! Thanks so much, Tammy!
February 22, 2021, TAoN No. 64
This week’s icebreaker comes from friend of TAoN Jenna Sherry.
What activities, realizations, or new ways of doing things will you (try to) keep from this past year?
“It's a question you could ask any year, but it is particularly interesting now when there is so much focus on things we are missing being able to do,” Jenna writes. “It seems to spark a moment of reflection about what we have learned about ourselves in a challenging time, and as well as a reflection that some new habits might have come out of necessity, but contributed to better quality of life.”
It’s such a valuable thought; thanks so much, Jenna!
Feb 8, 2021, TAoN No. 63
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Vedika.
What is the dumbest thing you made your parents buy for you as a kid?
Actually, Vedika sent my ten icebreakers. So many of them were fun that I am going to add two more this week. (No charge!) I really like this one:
What topic do you wish was a college major but isn't?
And then there’s:
Have you ever had an Internet friend?
I would modify that one — because I assume everyone would answer yes, right? — to ask who is the best Internet friend you’ve ever made. (Could be someone you later met IRL, or an Internet-only friend. At this point I can think of lots.)
Thanks so much Vedika!!
January 25, 2021, TAoN No. 62
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Jessica:
What is your earliest childhood memory? If it’s something "mundane," why do you think it stuck in your memory? If it’s something unusual/unique, what do you remember most vividly about it?
Jessica explains that this came up in a “reunion with my mates” a few months back that stretched into an eight-and-half-hour hangout. This question stood out because “I got to peek into a part of them from way before we even met.” Fun one — I especially like those add-on questions that encourage the conversation to get a bit deeper. Thanks Jessica!
January 11, 2021, TAoN No. 61
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Karla Strambini:
What is your favorite compliment of all the compliments you've ever received?
Karla adds: “It's too easy to hoard hurtful insults, so as an antidote, I try to collect compliments instead. (I'm thinking of turning them into labels & stitching them into my clothes.)” I love it. And what a nice note to start the new year!
December 28, 2020, TAoN No. 60
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Mikah.
What are you looking forward to right now?
This suggestion came in a few months ago, but you can imagine why it jumped out now. The question “seems to center the conversation on hope,” Mikah wrote. “It's a good way to find things to celebrate and move toward in our lives.” That seems particularly salient now.
If you use this icebreaker, push beyond the obvious — of course we’re all looking forward to the pandemic ending, so seek specifics about what your icebreakee (just coined that) most looks forward to when that happens. Thanks Mikah!
December 16, 2020, TAoN No. 59
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Prado.
What would you write on a gigantic billboard?
Responses that Prado got on Twitter are here. As a side note, I can’t remember the exact details, but this reminded of reading a piece that asked various artists what space they’d most like to work with, and one of them said “all the billboards between two towns.” I think about that on every road trip I take, to this day. Thanks for sending this one my way, Prado!
November 30, 2020, TAoN No. 58
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Clare Robinson, in Belfast:
What random stranger from your life do you think about or (even talk about) regularly?
“Mine is a guy on a street in Tokyo who grimaced with his entire face and did the most dramatic, overblown sneeze I've ever heard, and then two more after it,” Clare says. “Whatever you are imagining, I promise it was even more ridiculous. He was walking with his partner (I guess?) and she didn't even blink.”
There are several prompts in the book that have to do with strangers, so naturally I’m very into this one. And as Clare added in subsequent correspondence: “I always wonder if I've ended up the stranger in someone else's story!” Indeed; we are all someone else’s random stranger, are we not? Thank you, Clare!
November 16, 2020, TAoN No. 57
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Candice Serafino.
What famous masterpiece painting or sculpture would you like to own?
“I am a career advisor/administrator at a university and sometimes we use various icebreakers in workshops or staff meetings/retreat,” Candice explains. That includes questions about your little-kid career dream, and the famous person you’d most like to have lunch with. She hasn’t used this quetion above, but I think it’s pretty great! Thanks, Candice!
November 2, 2020, TAoN No. 56
This week’s ic