Nothing is less fun than a fun fact. The mandate to share one about yourself, typically posed as an icebreaker in schools, offices, and other formal settings, is deeply constraining. The form demands a tidbit that’s honest without being overly revealing, interesting but never indecent, unique but not weird. Within such parameters, it’s virtually impossible not to come off as either hopelessly boring or a complete fool. And the stakes for striking the right balance are high, given that the fact someone shares may very well be the most personal information their co-workers (or fellow students or teammates) ever learn about them.
The goals of such an exercise may be noble, aiming to let group members get to know one another in a more human way before they have to work or study together. But rather than putting people at ease, too often these prompts only create more discomfort. Work and school are already stressful, and the pressure to make a good impression is high. When it’s required, fun just isn’t that fun anymore.
Psychology can lend some insight into why such activities can feel so painful. For one, people typically aren’t given much time to prepare. Having something sprung upon you—especially something that you might be judged for—without warning can incite stress and perhaps trigger the fight-or-flight response. Even after you’ve decided what you’ll say, the act of sharing is essentially an instance of public speaking: a major source of anxiety for many people. When we meet a new person, we’re constantly trying to gauge how they’re reacting to us, Erica Boothby, a lecturer in the operations, information, and decisions department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told me. Introducing yourself to a group demands that you evaluate how every single member responds to you—an overwhelming task. You’re unlikely to come to positive conclusions. “When people have a conversation with someone new, they tend to overestimate, basically, how harshly they’re being judged by those people,” Boothby explained. This phenomenon is known as the liking gap, and it’s even stronger in shy people.
Seen another way, the liking gap can be comforting: People like you more than you suspect they will. This means your listeners probably didn’t find your fun fact as inane as you feared, and likely enjoyed getting to know you. “We’re the most social of all primates,” Nick Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told me—but still, “people tend to underestimate just how social others are.” Epley pointed out that even basic self-disclosures through fun facts could facilitate bonding.
Indeed, liking one’s co-workers does enhance career satisfaction; people who have friends at work tend to enjoy their role more. But trying to make connections while under the boss’s eye has a way of stripping all of the enjoyment out of the process. As the management scholar Stephen Fineman wrote, “Fun typically gains its ‘funness’ from its spontaneity, surprise, and often subversion of the extant order”—the exact opposite of following your manager’s orders, in other words.
Although icebreakers might not always be pleasurable, some research does indicate that they can be good for workplace productivity. One 2000 study found that playing name games actually helps people remember others’ names, which makes working together easier. Another showed that sharing embarrassing stories about oneself led to more creative brainstorming—perhaps because the activity preemptively alleviated any fears of humiliation that might have kept people from sharing their most daring ideas.
Turning forced humiliation into something employees actually enjoy might be unrealistic, but, under the right conditions, it is possible to have a good time with office games. Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard, two professors at Wharton, found that when employees consent to an activity, partaking in it does make them happier—something that has been true in my own experience as well. A colleague I used to work closely with loves starting meetings with inventive ice-breaking prompts—the weirder, the better. But I actually enjoyed her icebreakers, for a few reasons. For one, she wasn’t my boss, and she used these in small groups where we all already knew one another—so the pressure to perform was low. She also always ran a couple of ideas past the group; we’d settle on one together. In response to her prompts, I’ve revealed my Starbucks order and argued the case for which pasta shape I most embody and why. Never once did she dare suggest that we merely share a bland fun fact about ourselves.
The idea that requiring each member of a group to volunteer a fun fact about themselves is the only way to kick off a class or corporate retreat or sports practice is a delusion. We need to dispense with these awkward, forced personal disclosures. I doubt anyone would mind simply sharing their name, saving themselves the pressure of coming up with something extra to say and instead just getting their work done more quickly. Research shows that the single most important factor driving employee morale is making meaningful progress, and if skipping an icebreaker means ending the day a bit early, no one would complain.
But after we liberate ourselves from fun facts, there might be some room to get to know one another in a way that’s more genuine and comfortable for all involved. When I asked Mollick, who teaches at Wharton, whether he’d ever opened a course with an icebreaker, he admitted that he does use them—reluctantly. But he likes more creative prompts, such as asking what item a student would bring to a desert island; sometimes he even has his class play a video game together. Similarly, although Boothby and Epley both eschew traditional icebreakers, they encourage their students to get to know one another. Boothby tends to open her courses by arranging one-on-one conversations between seat neighbors; she gives few instructions, allowing them to talk about whatever they want. During a business-school orientation, Epley paired off classmates to discuss three or four intimate questions, based on the evidence that people much prefer deep talk to small talk.
I wouldn’t mind a game like Mollick’s, and I genuinely enjoy one-on-one conversations with someone new. Beyond the confines of the fun fact, which demands that you be interesting without offering any appeal of its own, I’m not a complete grinch. People are wonderful and weird, and I love getting to know them—especially when it’s on our terms.