A complete guide to icebreaker questions for every situation, from college to corporate

Shutterstock

Imagine nailing a job interview within the first five seconds of meeting your interviewer—that’s the power of a good icebreaker question. The icebreaker, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “something that is done or said to get through the first difficulties in starting a conversation or discussion.” It’s a tool that’s beyond essential for discourse. After all, no one likes uncomfortable encounters—or an interviewee who’s not prepared to save the day with some smart inquiries or remarks.

To give you a competitive edge, we’ve come up with a guide on great icebreaker questions for every situation, where we’ll touch on how to use icebreaker questions in everything from job interviews to first dates and parties. So grab your verbal piolet and let’s start carving up the conversational ice standing between you and your next big success.

Icebreaker questions primer

Before we dive into tactics for specific situations, it’s important to quickly cover some useful umbrella tips for icebreaker usage in general.

  • Is it the right time? If you’re meeting with someone who radiates no-nonsense vibes and doesn’t dilly-dally with language, you may want to forego icebreaker questions.  
  • Read the room. Don’t crack edgy icebreaker questions, jokes, or anything resembling “dangerous” dialogue if you’re not 100% sure of the type of people you’re meeting. If it’s a politically charged or deathly serious work environment, don’t risk offending anyone unnecessarily. On the opposite end, don’t be a stone wall if you’re trying to break the ice with laid-back folks.
  • Show personality. With respect to the last tip, understand that rules are occasionally meant to be broken, and if you’re a naturally bold person, consider using that to your advantage. If you’re meeting with a high-strung person or company and they’re looking to loosen up and modernize, be the change you want to see. “Fake it ’til you make it” is never a bad strategy, but don’t underestimate the value of being authentic.


In addition to these core tips, there are many others to keep in mind. Paulwels Consulting mentions a few key strategies for optimizing icebreaker questions: Keep them short (1-2 minutes, max), avoid awkward silences by coming prepared, and practice your questions beforehand. This last one is especially useful. Try sparking up a conversation with a random person at the bus stop or with a stranger in line with you at the grocery store checkout. Observe them and see if you can figure out good common-ground ways to start a conversation! This’ll strengthen your icebreaker skills for when you actually need them—such as in the following situations.

 

Situation 1: Icebreaker questions for job interviews


Though there will always be exceptions, a few icebreaker strategies are good for just about any job interview. The first is opening with compliment-infused observational questions, such as complimenting the interviewer’s establishment and asking something about what it’s like to work there. Be careful, though: Flattery requires a careful balance—never sound so impressed that you seem unqualified, and avoid coming off as a brown noser.

I reached out to Michael Andronico, the managing editor of Tom’s Guide, for his firsthand tips on how to handle icebreakers in an interview situation.

“Keep it casual,” he said, though he stressed that personality should still be present—within reason. “Don’t be ultra sarcastic,” he warned, giving an example of a particular trait that can backfire when tackling icebreaker questions.

Regarding the questions themselves, Andronico advised keeping them relevant. In his field, that means keeping inquiries related to technology. However, he did offer two icebreaker questions that’d work with any field: “Ask the interviewer how long they’ve been working [at the company], how they like it.”

One key to being a good interviewee, Andronico mentioned, is to be laid back. And, at the same time, it’s a good idea for the interviewer to work on disarming their conversation partner if they’re not. An example Andronico gave for a good disarming icebreaker question was one his former boss used to ask: “What superpower would you choose?” Since most everyone fantasizes about one, this is a great question to ease the tension of an interview right off the bat. Plus, it reveals a bit of the responder’s personality, which is vital. “What class are you in World of Warcraft?” Andronico rhetorically asked, giving us both a laugh as he showed that displaying personality, passion, and interest in your specific field results in killer icebreaker questions.

A specific item Andronico mentioned to avoid above all else, his biggest turnoff when it came to interview subjects, was giving off a vibe of disinterest. So when you ask your questions, be sure to look, sound, and feel like you care.

Rachel Gillet, an editor at Business Insider, shared similar sentiments to Michael Andronico in an article she wrote about icebreaker questions, seconding that candidates should consider asking interviewers how long they’ve been with the company and what they like about it. Another good idea Gillet proposed is congratulating your interviewer on an accomplishment of the company’s that’s related to them and then asking how they achieved it. This icebreaker question shows you’re paying attention to relevant developments and are eager to learn.

One icebreaker suggestion of Gillet’s that might not fare so well in a real-world situation is the age-old “how was your weekend” question. Three components make it an unsavory opener: It’s a tired cliché, it can often devolve into meaningless small talk if you answer anything but the generic “it went well” you run the risk of over-sharing or appearing overly emotional. Avoid this one and open with a more interesting inquiry, if at all possible.

Situation 2: Icebreaker questions for meetings

When it comes to fields with business-casual dress codes, be they website editorial teams in big-city offices or film casts and crews assembling for their first roundtable, first meetings usually involve icebreaker questions. After all, learning to get comfy with the people you’ll be working with 24/7/365 is the key to any successful team.

Elise Keith, CEO of Lucid Meetings, shared some good icebreaker questions with Inc. Here are a few of her meeting-specific suggestions: “What’s one thing you hope to accomplish in this meeting?” “Do you think to talk or talk to think?” “What has been the best team experience for you and why?” These are all good questions to throw out to a group early on since they can shape the course of a meeting.

Keith also suggests some more risky questions, like the darkly humorous but somewhat cruel “If it were up to you, what are your ideal working hours?” The utility here is figuring out when your team’s optimal work hours would be, though the “if it were up to you” part makes this potentially dangerous since it reminds each individual of the ultimate irrelevance of their individual wants.

For less focused meetings that are more about developing rapport and getting to know one another, good questions might take the form of asking people what their favorite piece of entertainment is, what their personal hobbies are, or what background goals and passions led them to the meeting.

When it comes to icebreaker activities for meetings, Vanessa Van Edwards, the author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, recommends games, including one where a bowl of candies with differently colored wrappers is passed around. Each person can take a couple of candies as long as they’re different colors, but for every color they take, they have to answer a question. People with the same colored candies and corresponding questions might discover commonalities via their answers.

Another game Van Edwards proposes is “Year of the Coin,” where you pass around a bowl with coins and each person has to say something they were doing the year the coin they picked was minted. This is another clever way to organically formulate icebreaker questions.


Situation 3: Icebreaker questions for academia

Whether you’re having a sitdown with a college admissions board, about to perform a monologue to get into a performing arts school, or are just meeting a new faculty member for the first time, there are plenty of ways to smartly employ icebreaker questions. Just remember: keep your personality in check. Colleges and schools, in general, are for academics first and foremost, so keep your icebreaker questions in-line and inoffensive. Let the other person set the tone.

To get more info on academic icebreaker questions, I hopped on a call with Bradley Fuster, Provost & Vice President of Academic Affairs at Keuka College, to discuss how students can make the best first impressions.

The first piece of advice Fuster gave was that students should use one of their opening icebreaker questions to determine how the faculty member in question likes to be addressed. “Determine what to call them. Faculty can get particular about titles. Doctor, Professor, Mr, Ms, Joe, etc.,” he said with a light laugh, before boiling it down to the core icebreaker question. “What should I be calling you?”


Though some schools have specific protocols for address, there are no universal rules, just preferences, meaning this tip is a golden way to show respect and get the ice melting right out of the gate. 

Another tip Fuster gave was that students should be observant of faculty members’ boundaries when asking icebreaker questions. Self-awareness is key here, Fuster reiterated, providing a question that can help scope out a faculty member’s degree of comfortability with sharing: “Do you have any plans this weekend?” This general inquiry enables the asker to subtly gauge how much the other party is willing to open up without boxing them into a corner.

On the flip side, Fuster also offered advice for teachers in need of icebreaker questions to use with their students, based on his personal experience.

“For me to initially assess where students are in their mindset and their development, I like to ask future-looking, forward-looking questions. At the beginning of an academic year, as opposed to what [the student] did last summer, I might ask what are [they] planning to do next summer. The goal is to not live in the past. If they’re in the present, that tells me something else about a student and where they are.”

 

As for student-centric icebreaker question do’s and dont’s, Fuster encouraged questions that display curiosity. “When a student shows a growth mindset and can demonstrate a growth mindset, that is very exciting to a faculty member.” He provided an example in which a student could say they’ve read a professor’s dissertation and then follow that up with a question about wanting to learn more.

Fuster also encouraged humor, if the situation allows for it and it feels organic. However, he stressed not to force jokes. Similarly, he warned against showing disinterest or bragging during icebreaker comments. And on a quirky note, he stressed it’s a bad idea to couple icebreakers with gifts, giving me a quick anecdote about a student who would bring him food whenever they interacted.

“You can almost be, in some cases, so over-the-top in your breaking of the ice in a new relationship that it actually becomes awkward. The analogy would be, say you went on a first date and you bought them a piece of diamond jewelry.”

The takeaway is: if you’re thinking about showering a faculty member in donuts to help supplement your icebreakers, don’t. Put the cakes and cookies down, and rely on your wits rather than your baked goods to make the conversation worthwhile for the faculty member.

Go See Campus’ article on making good impressions during college interviews aligns closely with the advice Fuster gave, encouraging students to ask faculty members how they’d like to be addressed and to show curiosity and interest in the interviewer as well as the school. In short: the tips presented here are safe bets for upping your academic icebreaker game.

Situation 4: Icebreaker questions for dates and one-on-ones

Dates and 1-on-1 icebreaker questions are tricky since the rules are entirely subjective. Still, some basic strategies are worth keeping in mind.

Let’s start with icebreakers for online dating. Think Tinder, Bumble, and those sorts of apps. Though there’s no sure-fire way to lure in someone you’d actually like to date, there are a couple of lowest-common-denominator icebreaker questions that are sure to get you the attention of more than a few fish in the sea. As Mashable‘s Rachel Thompson discovered, some of the most successful icebreaker questions are the banalest and unoriginal. “Pineapple on pizza, yay or nay,” “Cats or dogs?”—these are just some of the bland yet surprisingly capable lines often used to get conversations going.

However, what happens if you’re a champ who’s managed to escape the Tinder abyss and score a date in real life? What do you ask when you’re physically sitting across from someone? A great icebreaker question and game to kick off with is “Let’s play two truths and one lie. Can you guess the lie?” This will help you and the other person share info in a fun and creative way, making it a triply effective icebreaker.

Other good dating and 1-on-1 icebreaker questions include straightforward, subtly humorous remarks like “What brings you here today?” and “Anything major I should know about you before we start chatting?” And, when in doubt, ask the other person about themselves. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so it’s a great way to get your conversation partner comfortable.

If you’re feeling a little riskier, go bold. A personal invention of mine is “If you had to let one continent sink, which would it be?” I use this only with confident, outspoken folks. Their response tells me a lot about them, including how honest they’re willing to be. If you want zany icebreaker questions in this style, check out this peculiar Daily Mail article about a Twitter bot that comes up with similarly entertaining prompts designed to keep the conversation going.

Situation 5: Icebreaker questions for parties and informal gatherings

Just be salty; that will melt the ice.” These are the famous words of /u/Mechasteel, a random Redditor who left their two cents on a loaded thread dedicated to crafting icebreakers. Throughout the thread’s multitude of socially awkward, endearing, and charming comments are plenty of gems—perfect icebreaker questions to use with strangers at your next party.

One suggestion from /u/BiteYourAsp is “Hi, I’m so and so. How do you know [insert host’s name here]?” It’s polite, succinct, and does an incredibly swift job of finding a commonality between two people (in this case, the party’s host). Though this remark is a little on the bland side, it’s certainly a safe and speedy way to get a conversation off the ground.

Another Redditor, whose NSFW username shall remain untyped for sake of keeping this guide on-brand, gets a bit more creative and suggests the following: “Have any good icebreakers?” This meta approach to an icebreaker question does more than just start a conversation; it says a lot about you—how clever you are, what your sense of humor is, etc. This icebreaker is only likely to work well with quick thinkers, though, so target it accordingly.

If you’re feeling uncreative, you could always go with a quote ripped straight from The Office: “What type of bear is best?” Icebreaker questions that are plucked from pop culture not only help establish your type of humor but also offer a chance to find an instant commonality with the person you’re talking to.

If you need fun and informal icebreaker questions built for groups of people, here’s an option: “Does anyone have any weird talents?” This idea comes from Leigh-Ann Allaire Perrault, who presented the pitch—and many more—when she was on the talk show CityLine. If you want a more personality-based crowdsourcing icebreaker question, here’s another idea: “How long can food be on the floor before it’s inedible to you?” Though it’s risky because it’s a hygiene-adjacent question, a sticky area indeed, it’s certainly an intriguing query for the right crowd of folks.

Icebreaker Questions, In Summary

No matter what the situation, three core icebreaker truths persist: Be personable, be interested, and always be on the lookout for ways to connect with the person you’re chatting up. Experts and common folk agree that these are the key pillars of good icebreakers.

It’s not important where the icebreaker questions are born from, be it party games or cold-open interview kickoff comments; all that matters is where they lead—and if you angle them correctly by following the advice in this guide, your icebreaker questions will sport a good chance of nabbing you your desired outcome. So stay frosty, keep your cool, and break that ice until there’s nothing standing between you and the person you’re conversing with.