I have never liked icebreaker questions. My fear of them stems from my school years where the activity always came up as the teacher’s method of making everyone “get to know each other”. Icebreaker questions are meant to be non-threatening and a casual, fun way for people to interact with one another, but being that I was anxious over a multitude of things in this kind of social situation, any question I had to answer made me feel threatened and on-guard. My two worst fears are of being stared at by many people at once and of giving a dumb answer to the question.
A few weeks back I signed up for a workday on an outdoor urban farm. This was the last place I expected to be prompted with an icebreaker question. As it happened, I was the only volunteer who RVSPed for the workday who actually made it to the event, while the two others had canceled at the last minute, making me the sole “new face” amongst the farm staff members. Talk about intimidating. Had I known it was going to be like that, I don’t think I would have shown up. With the staff gathering around, I waited for what I assumed to be a quick introduction and explanations about which farm tasks would be designated for whom. One of the members said good morning to everyone collectively and began to ad-lib about the surprise birthday party his friends threw for him yesterday. He remarked that it was one of his happiest birthdays ever and then asked the icebreaker question: “What was your happiest birthday memory?”
One of the slots in my brain clicked into place as I comprehended his words, accompanied by the horror that hit me like the cold edge of a blade, in that instant. Within half a second I calculating the fact I would be fourth to answer the question based on where I stood around the circle of people. I barely absorbed what the people who went before we said. Vaguely, I recall someone else also spoke about having a surprise party thrown for her while she was in another country, and rather than a high-end European restaurant, she and her friends had gone out for Chinese food. That last part of the story drew a lot of laughs from everyone. This only increased my nerves. I thought, Goodness, whatever I have for my own story won’t sound even half as good. It’ll be so lame that it’ll be boring. I might as well be invisible. By the time all eyes went on me, I made a sorry attempt at delaying the inevitable by smiling nervously and saying, “Oh, I have to do this too?” I totally would have asked to be skipped over if the staff had given me the option.
Unable to escape the situation, I did a fair amount of pretending to get through the next part. I began talking, but I was also disassociating from myself in a way that caused me to feel as if I was half in my body and half floating above watching someone else in control of my body. I kept thinking my “happiest birthday memory” was not worth telling because it would not be interesting to hear. So for every word that came out of my mouth, I hated that I could only be honest about my experiences because I didn’t have a funny or cool story. The jist of what I said was that I haven’t really celebrated my birthday in recent years but the happiest one was a few years ago with my family, particularly with the cousins who I grew up being close to, as nowadays it is difficult to get everyone together for celebrations nowadays.
After my turn was done, I silently reprimanded myself for telling such a cheesy and stupid experience. I would compare it to mentally hurling rocks at myself. Over and over again. My mindset of “I suck, no one can relate to me” can often feel so true and absolute, especially with my own insecurities working against me. I answered the icebreaker question 100% convinced I gave the worst answer EVER and that I would surely die from my own internalized humiliation. But, it was in the aftermath of getting the chance to listen to other people’s varied answers that I saw I wasn’t so different from them.
The next person who went after me spoke about spending one of her birthdays with her parents and because of that experience, she made it a tradition for herself to be with her parents for every birthday. Her story was similar to mine, with the common theme of being around family. The very last person who shared her story said something I had been thinking of saying earlier but I was too insecure to actually say. She stated that, when she was younger, she never liked her own birthday, yet it was in her early 20’s she learned to appreciate it after realizing she had hated it because she was afraid of not meeting other people’s expectations for how she should celebrate it.
Featured Image by Alexas Fotos.