Make the First Move

What determines whether you hit it off with someone? It’s not circumstantial; rather, it’s a matter of you taking charge and setting the tone to be friendly and open. Most people treat others like strangers and thus won’t become friends. So change that script from the very beginning, put people at ease and let them be comfortable around you.

The first way to set the tone is to speak like friends: topic-wise, tone-wise, and even privacy-wise. People will go along with the tone you set as long as you aren’t outright offensive. A powerful aspect of this is showing emotion as friends do, instead of filtering yourself and putting up a wall for the literal purpose of keeping people insulated at a distance. And stop being so darned literal and serious. A conversation does not have to be about sharing facts, and some comments can be used solely for the purpose of seeing how the other person will react.

Another aspect of setting the right tone is to search for similarities and also allow the opportunity to create them. When people observe similarity, they instantly open up and embrace it because it is a reflection of themselves. There are only good assumptions and connotations, so we should actively seek them out. You can do this by digging more deeply into people’s lives and asking questions to find seemingly unrelated similarities, divulging more information yourself, and also mirroring them physically. Also, don’t discount the value of mutual dislike—it’s not negative to talk about negative things, per se.

Make the First Move

We’re ready to start chatting. Of course, I’m talking about breaking the ice. For most of us, this is what we imagine when we are trying to create an initial impression.

To be frank, it’s not that we don’t know what to say—just like with when we forget someone’s name, we know the most direct path to getting what we want. We should just ask. And so the easiest and most direct way of breaking the ice is to just say hello and introduce your name. But this isn’t helpful for most of us because we typically feel too uncomfortable to be so direct. Thus arises the need for sly tactics to accomplish what we want through indirect means.

Our discomfort happens for a multitude of reasons, summed up by the feeling that we are interrupting people or otherwise inconveniencing them. We have trouble breaking the ice with strangers, even though it’s such a simple thing, because we create a “they’ll think” or “what if” feedback loop in our brains.

What can I say to avoid being awkward? What if I’m interrupting them? Will they think I’m stupid? What if they are busy? What should I say? What can I say?

For instance, if we chat up a stranger or barge into two people already having a conversation, we are afraid:

• They’ll think I’m a weirdo.
• They’ll think I’m a creep.
• They’ll think I’m rude.
• They’ll be annoyed.
• What if they want to speak in private?
• What if they hate my face already?

It doesn’t matter that these aren’t true—we think they are true, so they block us from easy solutions to the problem of breaking the ice. In the matter of making introductions, we need to find tactics to undercut the judgments and assumptions we make of ourselves.

So how can you feel okay about breaking the ice? By doing it indirectly. In other words, having some sort of excuse or justification to speak to someone—when we have come up with a reason, suddenly it’s easy to interrupt people or walk up to a stranger.

For instance, suppose that you are intensely shy and nervous. You eschew most forms of social interaction. But if you were utterly lost and on the verge of exhaustion, would you have a problem walking up to someone and asking for directions? Doubtful, and not just because of necessity. You’d feel that you have a compelling reason to speak, and that would override your fear of judgment. That’s the meaning of indirect in this context: you have an actual reason to approach someone, and when we can create one for ourselves, we can convince ourselves to take action more easily. In other instances, you might refer to this as the feeling of plausible deniability—where you have a plausible reason to walk up and start a conversation in a way that no one can think you’re rude or weird. Actually, if they think you’re rude or weird, they’re the rude or weird ones.

Therefore, I want to present three indirect methods of breaking the ice that help you feel safe because you aren’t necessarily walking up to someone just for the sake of starting a conversation. The biggest part of the battle is making breaking the ice feel acceptable—it’s an “I don’t feel confident or comfortable” issue more than an “I don’t know what to say” issue. Recall that asking for directions on the verge of exhaustion makes all of those worries secondary.

The first, indirect method of breaking the ice is to ask people for objective information or a subjective opinion. These can be very legitimate and important questions that would necessitate speaking to a stranger. It doesn’t necessarily matter that the person you are asking knows the answer; it’s just a way to begin a dialogue. For that matter, it doesn’t even matter that you don’t know the answer.

• Excuse me, do you know what time the speeches begin?
• Do you know where the closest Starbucks is?
• What did you think of the CEO’s speech?
• Do you like the food here?

The first two examples are inquiring about objective information, while the latter two are asking for a subjective opinion.

The second, indirect method of breaking the ice is to comment on something in the environment, context, or specific situation. It can be as simple as an observation. Imagine you are thinking out loud and prompting people to answer.

• Did you see that piece of art on the wall? What a crazy concept.
• The lighting in here is beautiful. I think it’s worth more than my house.
• This is an amazing DJ. All the rock ballads of the ’80s.

Notice how these are all statements and not direct questions. You are inviting someone to comment on your statement instead of asking them to engage. If they don’t choose to engage, no harm no foul. You are not putting any pressure on them to respond, and you don’t necessarily need to expect an answer.

The third and final indirect method of breaking the ice is to comment on a commonality you both share. For instance, why are you both at your friend Jack’s apartment? What business brings you both to this networking conference in Tallahassee? What stroke of misfortune brought you to the DMV this morning?

• So who do you know here?
• So how do you know Jack?
• Has Jack told you about the time he went skiing with his dog?

The idea with these commonalities is that they are instant topics of conversation because there will be a clear answer behind them. These indirect icebreakers aren’t rocket science, but their main value is to make you feel okay with engaging someone in conversation, which is the real problem. Eventually you may get to the point where you feel comfortable just walking up to someone and shaking their hand, but in the meantime, you can get started here.

Find Similarity

Think back to the last time you met someone new at a networking event or party. What was the first topic out of your mouth? It was probably one of the following:

• Where are you from?
• Who do you know here?
• How was your weekend?
• Where did you go to school?
• What do you do?
• Do you live far from here?

While these are normal small-talk questions, we ask them instinctively not because they are great at breaking the ice. In fact, as you well know, they are usually terrible for breaking the ice and can make people feel immediately bored. You may have had a negative physical reaction at reading those prompts.

We actually ask these questions instinctively because we are searching for commonalities. We are searching for the “me too!” moment that can spark a deeper discussion, and thus improve the first impression. For instance, if we ask the question “Where did you go to school?” we are hoping they attended the same university as us or a university where we have mutual friends. The next natural question is a variation of “Oh wow! What a small world. Do you know James Taylor? He also went there around your time.”

While you may not realize it, you are always hunting for similarities, and similarities are another way of setting a tone of friendship, familiarity, comfort, and openness. It’s the type of feeling you share with your friends, and the same feeling that can instantly skyrocket your rapport.

As much as we would like to think that we are open-minded and can get along with people from every background and origin, the reality is that we usually get along best with people who we think are like us. In fact, we seek them out.

This trait is why places like Little Italy, Chinatown, and Koreatown exist. But I’m not just talking about race, skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. I’m talking about people who share our values, look at the world the same way we do, and have the same take on things as we do. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. This is a common human tendency that is rooted in how our species developed. Walking out on the tundra or in a forest, you would be conditioned to avoid that which is unfamiliar or foreign because there is a high likelihood it would be interested in killing you.

Similarities make us relate better to other people because we think they’ll understand us on a deeper level. If we share at least one significant similarity, then all sorts of positive traits follow, because we see them as our contemporary, essentially an extension of ourselves. When you think someone is on your level, you want to connect with them because they will probably understand you better than most.

Suppose you were born in a small village in South Africa. The population of the village ranges from 900 to 1000 people. You now live in London and you are attending a party at a friend’s home. You meet someone that also happens to be from that small village in South Africa, just eight years older so you never encountered each other.

What warm feelings will you immediately have toward this other person, and what assumptions will you make about them? How interested will you be in connecting with them and spending more time together in the future? What inside jokes or specialized points of reference can you discuss that you haven’t been able to with anyone else, ever?

Hopefully that illustration drives home the value of similarity and how it drives conversational connection. So as mentioned, we typically use small-talk questions to find similarity, but there are better, more effective ways to discover commonalities with people. For instance, we should always be searching for similarities or creating opportunities for them. They both take effort and initiative. Let’s talk about searching for similarities first.

We can search for similarities by asking probing questions of people and using their answers as the basis to show connections, no matter how small. Ask questions to figure out what people are about, what they like, and how they think. Then dig deep into yourself to find small commonalities at first, such as favorite baseball teams or alcoholic drinks. Through those smaller commonalities, you’ll be able to figure out what makes them tick and find deeper similarities to instantly bond over. Just as you’d be thrilled to meet someone from that small South African town, you’d be ecstatic to meet someone who shared a love of the same obscure hobby as you.

It doesn’t take months or years, and it doesn’t take a special circumstance like going through military boot camp together. It just requires you to look outside of yourself and realize that people share common attitudes, experiences, and emotions—you just have to find them. Get comfortable asking questions and digging deeper than you naturally would. (Is it odd for you to ask five questions in a row? It shouldn’t be.) It might even feel a little invasive at first. Find the shared experiences and use them.

For each topic, you can find some part to relate to and connect on, instead of digging around a variety of shallow topics like a job interview. Don’t stop at the initial topic—if someone says they love baseball, for instance, you could try to understand why that is and what makes them such a fanatic for a game involving hitting a ball with an oversized stick. Suppose their love for baseball came from their father, to whom they are particularly close—well, you have (or had) a father at some point, also with a relationship (hopefully good). That’s quite a powerful similarity. Searching for similarities will come more easily in most cases.

In addition to searching out what is already there, we can create opportunities for similarities in a few ways—first physically by mimicking people’s body language, voice tonality, rate of speech, and overall manner of appearance. This is known as mirroring, and it has also been shown to produce feelings of positivity when tested (Anderson, 1998). All you have to do is arrange yourself to resemble others in order to benefit from feelings of similarity, from how they are posed to how they gesture.

You can mirror their words, their tone of voice, and their mannerisms. Keep in mind that mirroring is not just about reflecting the person on a wholesale basis. Instead, it is all about communicating to them that you share similar values and have the potential to connect intimately.

You can mirror physical signals, gestures, tics, and mannerisms. For example, if you notice that someone uses a lot of gestures when talking, you should do the same. Similarly, if you notice that someone’s body language involves a lot of leaning and crossing of arms, you should follow their lead. You can mirror their verbal expressions and expressiveness—tone of voice, inflection, word choice, slang and vocabulary, emotional intonation, and excitement and energy. This has the overall effect of making people feel more heard, feel more subconsciously comfortable and familiar with you, and fostering feelings of closeness relatively quickly.