Article

How Not to Break the Ice

Critical advice for the new college student

By Burke Nixon | August 29, 2022
Ryan Smithright (Flickr/ryantylersmith)
Ryan Smithright (Flickr/ryantylersmith)

During the very first class of my freshman year, I made a mistake that I’ve been thinking about for a couple decades now. The class was an English seminar, with maybe 20 students total, desks arranged in a circle. The professor, a youngish guy with a blond ponytail, wore sandals and cargo shorts. He told us to call him by his first name. And then he said the dreaded word: icebreaker. All of us had to say our names and give one interesting fact about ourselves. In a panic, I reviewed all the facts about myself. There were no interesting facts about myself. I wasn’t born anywhere interesting, didn’t have any interesting talents or hobbies, couldn’t juggle or ride a unicycle or sing opera. I had nothing.

The professor started on the opposite end of the circle. My new college classmates began to share their interesting facts, but I paid them little attention. It’s not that I didn’t hear them. I was half-listening, but only with myself in mind: What kind of facts were other people sharing? How interesting did mine have to be? Finally I decided I would say this: My name is Burke, and one interesting fact about me is that there are no interesting facts about me. I thought this might convey my personality more than an actual fact. I also hoped it would make me seem clever, although I worried it would just sound sad.

As it got closer and closer to my turn, it became more and more difficult for me to breathe. Then it was time for the young woman next to me to speak. After sharing her name, she said, “One interesting thing about me is that I skipped a grade when I was younger. I just turned 17.”

People nodded, appreciating this fact. I waited a second. Then, as I was about to open my mouth to speak, another student spoke up instead, out of turn.

“I actually just turned 16,” she said.

This caused a minor commotion.

“Wow,” the ponytailed professor said.

“You can’t even watch rated R movies!” someone else said.

The entire class was genuinely interested, and the murmuring in the classroom made it hard to know when I was supposed to speak. At some point I’d have to burst in with my uninteresting self, ruining all the fun.

But then I had a genius idea: I could make a joke. On this, the first day of my first semester of college, I could establish myself as the Funny Guy. My new peers would love me.

When everyone finally stopped talking, I said, “My name is Burke and one interesting thing about me is that I just turned 12.”

I kept a straight face, as all great comedians do, but no laughter erupted. Nobody smiled. Nobody chuckled politely. Nobody even groaned. They all just stared at me, including the professor. And then I heard one of my classmates, possibly the 16-year-old, whisper these words to someone next to her: “Is he really?

For the record, I did not look 12 at the time. If anything, I looked a bit old for my age. I’m pretty sure I had a beard. But that didn’t mean anything to these people. After another beat of painful silence, my professor said, “Okay …” And as my classmates continued with their own interesting facts, my face maintained a warm shade of red.

I never spoke in that class again. Not once. Or in any of my other classes, pretty much, for the next four years. I’m not kidding.

Now that I’m a college professor myself, teaching mostly first-year students, I’ve vowed never to inflict any icebreakers on my new classes. It’s easy for teachers to forget what it actually feels like to be a student—I forget it too often myself—but one thing I haven’t forgotten is how that icebreaker sent me into a self-obsessed panic. Plus, in most cases, icebreakers don’t actually break the ice. They just make everyone freeze up.

But that’s not why I’m telling you this story. I’m telling you this story because if you happen to be starting out in college this month, I don’t want you to make the same mistake as me. I’m not talking about making a dumb joke. My real mistake was beginning the first class of my first semester of college focused almost entirely on myself. I responded to my professor’s prompt in terms of my own ego: What can I say that won’t seem dumb or boring? How can I stand out? What can I do to make people like me?

These are very natural things to worry about, especially when you’re 18 (or 17 or 16) and in a new place. And, unfortunately, these questions never entirely leave you, even well into adulthood. There’s no easy way to dismiss your runaway thoughts and fears about how you’re coming across to others. But that doesn’t mean that you have to passively accept those thoughts and fears, either. We may not have perfect control over our minds or our actions, but we do have some control, right?

I should’ve paid better attention to everyone’s interesting facts. Yes, I was almost hyperventilating at that moment, but focusing on what my classmates said would have likely made me less nervous, not more. And throughout that icebreaker, it never once occurred to me that everyone else in the classroom might be nervous too. Even the professor, despite his sandals and shorts. Not to mention the two new classmates of mine who were younger than everyone else. I could’ve listened, nodded, smiled, made eye contact, and helped my classmates feel a little less awkward, a little less isolated.

Instead, I established a disastrous precedent for myself: every time I entered a classroom, I turned inward, keeping as quiet as possible so that no one could have a negative opinion of me. I developed tricks for whenever I arrived early to my classes. This was the pre-smartphone era, so I’d bring a copy of the student newspaper to class and pretend to be absorbed in its pages. Or I’d bring my Discman and keep my headphones in until right before class started. Or I’d feign interest in a textbook. Or I’d write random stuff in my notebook. Anything to avoid actual conversation.

You can imagine how rarely I got to know anyone in my classes. You can imagine how draining it was to live under the false assumption that everyone was noticing and judging me all the time. And you might even be able to imagine how it affected my education: If I was too self-conscious to learn about my classmates, I couldn’t really learn from them either.

In “Of the Education of Children,” Montaigne observes that “wonderful brilliance” can be gained by getting to know others. But he adds that most of us do the opposite: “We are all huddled and concentrated in ourselves, and our vision is reduced to the length of our nose.” Getting to know other people allows us to expand our vision of the world. But that can’t happen if we remain huddled and concentrated in ourselves throughout our days. And when the promise of digital distraction is always near at hand, this becomes even more relevant.

I wish someone would’ve warned me about all this, so I’m warning you instead. I hope you won’t miss out on everything I missed out on. I hope you won’t allow yourself to be an anonymous, inward-facing presence in all your classes. I hope you’ll spend less time thinking about what other people think of you and more time actually thinking about other people.

Stepping into a new classroom full of new peers (and some strange professor standing at the front, possibly in cargo shorts) can be uncomfortable and intimidating. I get that. And the experience might feel especially awkward these days, if you’ve spent a significant portion of the past few years learning online. But here’s a simple challenge for you: whenever you enter a classroom, talk to someone. Don’t look at your phone. Don’t open up your laptop. Even if it feels uncomfortable, talk to someone. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask questions. See how someone’s day is going. Ask people what they intend to major in or where they’re from. Try to discover the passions they keep just below the surface. (And if you happen to be the first student to arrive, see if you can do the same with your professor. You’ll discover that we’re human, too, and that most of us enjoy talking about ourselves.) Resist the urge to hide. Show some interest in the folks around you, and you’ll get to release yourself, at least for a moment, from the utterly exhausting and often pointless work of worrying about how you’re coming across to others.

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