First Lecture

Day one of specialized courses on human awkwardness and uncomfortable situations.

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Good morning, everybody!

Why are you whispering? I said, good MORNING, everybody!

That was better—for a commune of monks in a library. Don’t be scared to use those voices! One more time, GOOD MORNING, EVERYBODY!

I guess that will have to do. I have a shy group on my hands this time, don’t I? Well, don’t worry. Before this semester is over, I’ll crack those introverted shells, tug out the emaciated extroverts inside you and toss them, wriggling, onto the cold floor.

Welcome, class, to your first lecture of “Introduction to Leading Strangers Through an Icebreaker Exercise.” I’m your professor, Dr. Trish Extra, and for those of you who don’t know me—who am I kidding, everyone knows me. It’s why I lead icebreaker exercises to begin with. I am the most obliviously extroverted person within fifty miles, and I desperately seek every opportunity to draw attention to myself.

In fact, like all icebreaker maestros, if you have ever been near me, you noticed me. Whether it was my brightly colored business casual, my hyena-like laugh or the inappropriate volume of my every superfluous word—you noticed. And you probably thought “please shut up, lady” at least once.

If you’re in this course, you want to lead icebreaker exercises of your own one day, with your own groups of complete strangers. Whatever the occasion—workshops, employee retreats, H.R. presentations or extracurricular club meetings—you must, above all else, have the proper social attitude. You must be LOUD and OBLIVIOUS, in every possible sense. You may even need a little help, chemically speaking, to get there. I recommend a cocktail of Valium, Red Bull, and upper-middle-class privilege. It's done wonders for me.

Everybody stand up! Come on now, stand up! I can hear you groaning, by the way. I know you don’t want to do this. You want to stay nice and snug in those teensy little comfort zones, safe from any new experiences. Well not on my watch! Get your bashful butts out of those seats!

Notice that mix of fear and resentment swirling in your gut? That’s how every icebreaker exercise should feel. You want your group to absolutely hate it. In fact, that’s rule number 1.

Rule #1: Make your group do something they will hate.

Contrary to popular belief, getting to know each other is not the point of an icebreaker exercise. The point of an icebreaker is to drag helpless strangers through a gauntlet of their worst social nightmares. The point is human suffering. Statistically speaking, at least 10% of your group will have diagnosable social anxiety, meaning you will even have the chance to scar some of them for life.

As icebreaking MC, you must find your group’s healthiest social boundaries and tear them down. For example:

  • Remove their right to comfort by asking them to stand up.
  • Annex their personal space with ludicrous, coordinated physical motions, like windmilling their arms or shaking their bodies like a pack of wet dogs.
  • Shatter their verbal filter by making them shout platitudes, either together or individually. (Individually is more horrifying for them, and therefore, better.)
  • Strip away their dignity by forcing them to reveal shameful, deeply personal information about themselves.

But what, you’re asking yourselves, if they don’t do what I say? What if they simply refuse? It’s true, most of your group will not want any part of your icebreaker. Their brains will initiate a primitive, unconscious defense mechanism and shut down into a catatonic stupor, which you will recognize by the PTSD-like stare into the middle distance as they slump in their chairs, passively waiting for the nightmare to end. That’s why we have rules two and three.

Rule #2: Repeat each demand three times.

Rule #3: Shame anyone who shows signs of reluctance.

Call them shy. Label their hesitance, which is entirely reasonable, as introversion. Make it clear there is something wrong with them for failing to be as pathologically extroverted as you are. Your whole life, everyone has told you that you lack a filter, but now you can finally release that lifetime of resentment onto your captive audience by shaming them for healthy inhibitions.

So—let’s put it all together into a practice icebreaker!

Get into circles of four, hold hands, and make intense eye contact with the person across from you. Next, describe your own naked body. Come on, everybody, chop chop! Don’t be so shy! Your classmates won’t bite, you scaredy-cats! Just hold hands with the stranger to either side of you, make horrifying eye contact with a third stranger and then delineate the flaws of your unclothed topography. That so hard? You guys sure are bashful. Get out of those itty-bitty comfort zones, you introverts! Go on and lace your fingers into strange, clammy hands and then detail the contours of your nude form into the gaze of unfamiliar eyes, everybody!

Let’s break out of those shells!