Well, at least not for those of us with social anxiety.
As far back as I can remember, I had always feared my ‘first days’ — whether that was my first day of second-grade, first day of a college lecture, or even first days in a new team at work. Sure, they’re exciting and highlight a new beginning with new challenges and opportunity, but for some reason they tend to always involve the dreaded ice-breaker.
I understand the concept, I really do. I even appreciate its effort. It is wonderful to use the start of something new to level the playing field and make sure everyone participating becomes acquainted with one another. It is a great way to foster inclusion and reduce the fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, one of the most common ways of doing this includes the ever-daunting ‘fun fact.’
Not that this needs any context, but the concept here is to go around the room and while everyone introduces themselves, they also include a random, open-ended fun fact.
For those of us with social anxiety, it is already a miserable chilling experience to stand up and announce our name in front of others, but to add in an open ended question that could allow judgement is plain cruel.
Even typing this, I’m realizing how delicate I sound, but hear me out — if the point of this ice breaker is to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable, why aren’t we doing our absolute best to make that happen?
If you are thinking ‘I don’t know anyone with social anxiety, so this is irrelevant’ you’re probably wrong. In fact, the Social Anxiety Association estimates that over half a billion (with a b!) people have some form of social anxiety. This nonprofit also lists the many hallmark features of social anxiety and if you review the list, you’ll notice the seemingly harmless introduction triggers a myriad of anxiety inducing scenarios for those of us with social anxiety including general anxiety around:
- being introduced to other people
- being teased or criticized
- being the center of attention
- being watched or observed while doing something
- having to say something in a formal, public situation
- meeting people in authority (“important people/authority figures”)
- feeling insecure and out of place in social situations (“I don’t know what to say.”)
This list of the many scenarios that cause distress for socially anxious people seem to almost directly describe an introduction/ice-breaker type scenario!
Personally, when I am asked to give a fun fact, my mind races as I spiral, worried about what type of ‘fun fact’ to share. Will people judge mine? Should I make it funny? Should I just say something bland and hope everyone forgets? Do I even have fun facts? How are people doing this so confidently? Even worse, social anxiety has very physical manifestations for many people, including voice changes like shaky voice, stuttering, and/or quietness.
So, I am proposing a simple modification. Forget your open-ended fun fact question and help some people with social anxiety have a better first day. I mean, in these times, it is the least we can do. I’ve even come up with some alternatives for you other busy teachers or managers likely leading these.
If you want to do a fun-fact type of prompt, that is understandable. It is a super quick way to make introductions seem more fun. But, try making them categorized to reduce the overall anxiety of having to think about the type of fact one would share, such as “When you introduce yourself, please also share the name of your favorite movie.” This category limits the amount of thinking someone has to do to come up with something and reduces the range of possibilities, thus eliminating the fear that their fun fact will be judged or laughed at. If everyone’s saying movies, my movie won’t seem so different.
Now that I am helping to manage some staff (what!? who let me do that!?), I’ve had to come up with some new ways to break the ice and build our team rapport. Luckily, there are no shortage of good suggestions here on Medium already:
For those of you without social anxiety, you might think this is crazy, which I understand. The fun fact seems so harmless. But, if a super simple modification will help one of your staff members or students feel more comfortable, it is at least worth a shot! There are no shortages of anxiety triggers in the age of COVID, let’s do our part as leaders to help in the little, yet meaningful ways that we can.