How to Break the Ice


Looking back on this past holiday season, it’s safe to assume most of us have attended a couple of business events, Christmas dinners, New Year’s Eve parties, or any other type of social gatherings inspired by the festive spirit. Such occasions often entail having to interact with people you don’t necessarily know very well, and breaking the ice in a group of strangers can be a challenging feat. What are the most common crowd pleasers, safe conversation blankets? Having attended a couple of get-togethers myself in the recent weeks, I present to you a rundown of the most prominent topics anyone and everyone tends to talk about:

1. Booze

Since the very first moment any alcoholic drink has crossed their lips, every person out there has engaged in at least a couple of booze-inspired conversations. Grand stories of mischievous pursuits in teenage years, followed by the glorious college experience we don’t really need to get into, followed by (early) adulthood and social gatherings that come hand in hand with a bit of social awkwardness. Conversation topics don’t fall into your lap just as easily as when you were 20 – you have to put some effort into breaking the ice and coming off as likeable. (In case that’s what you aim for. If you don’t care, respect. Do your own thing.)

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G&T? Never again.

Fortunately, there’s always that social lubricant we all know and love – love to consume, love to chat about. Approach any bar (a.k.a. bottle-covered table) at a house party, and you’ll find plenty of aforementioned conversation topics laid out before you to pick up and employ. What’s your poison of choice? That one? Oh no, can’t stand it since the nightmare-inducing experience it caused a couple of years ago. Can’t even stand the smell anymore. Haha, yeah, I guess we all have that one drink. Ooh, what’s that one? Haven’t seen that brand before – ever tried it? And you discuss, and you commiserate, and suddenly everyone in the room is adolescent again. Not exactly a noble choice of subject, but it does lead to camaraderie. Instant friends!

Sister-topic for the more refined crowds: wine and the complex intricacies of oenology. The best red you’ve ever had. Pairs perfectly with xy. Man, that was a good year. Bouquet something-something. I’m not refined.

2. Food

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The expected follow-up to no.1. Everyone loves food, everyone loves to talk about it. The best scenario entails getting invited to a dinner party – shower the host(ess) with praise and encourage them to break into a monologue on the menu, then praise some more. While you’re at it, you can always ask the person next to you for a restaurant recommendation; in a span of a few minutes, you’ll have everyone at the table fiercely advocating for their favourite venues. This works best if you’re new to the city/country, as everyone likes to pitch in with ideas to educate the newcomer.

3. Cats

Pets in general, really, but I ended up engaging in hour-long debates on cats on four separate occasions in December alone, even though I don’t have one. (I’m a cat lady, though, so I didn’t mind. Have a couple more years before I add the ‘crazy’ denominator in front of the title.) When it comes to cats, there’s no middle ground: no one in the history of the world has ever said ‘ah, cats. They’re okay, I guess.’ You either adore them or despise them, and both teams are quick to disclose their arguments, be it in favour of felines or against. There’s a good chance any bunch will include at least one cat owner who will provide the backbone of the upcoming discussion, and others will join in to cite their experiences.

The aforementioned four occasions included the following bullet-points: cat adoption, cat food, the quality of cat food, the possibility of cat food having an acceptable taste to humans, ripped curtains, getting peed on (shout-out to Newton), having cat hair eternally stuck in every item of clothing you own, horny cats, cats mating, cat pregnancy, and last but not least, getting down to business with cats present. Just to be clear, I don’t mean getting frisky with cats, but having cats casually walk into your bedroom and catch you in flagranti with your partner. Would you mind? Could you go on? Would you rate the quality of your carnal encounter in relation to how perturbed you were by the cat’s presence? Discuss.

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The conversation doesn’t stop at cats, however, but instead leads to many a memorable story. Childhood trauma after getting halfway violated by a gigantic dog, mean birds, tiny hamsters escaping your watchful eye and consequentially getting crushed by a piece of furniture you moved in order to pinpoint their location, less tiny hamsters eating their young, having fifteen fish then waking up to find seven fish because one of them belongs to a carnivore species with cannibalistic tendencies, etc, etc.

Once in a blue moon, you’ll have a rare breed present – that one person who will courageously dare to state they don’t really like animals. Not dogs, not cats, but animals in general. Silence will descend on the room. Proceed with caution.

4. Politics

I’m really sorry to have to include this, but there’s no escaping the daily grind, the current affairs, the political turmoil that doesn’t cease to loom over our heads at any given moment. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Thanksgiving dinners in the US – every party in Croatia will have at least one person come out with a political statement and get a heated debate in motion. In a similar vein, at least one person will meekly try to stop a vicious chain of events from unrolling with a classic ‘haha let’s not get into politics tonight’. Sadly, they will fail.

The scenario will heavily depend on the type of crowd you’re in – if it’s all Croats, it’ll involve HDZ, SDP, and the futility of elections. If the group is predominantly Croatian with you as a foreigner, you’ll walk away with extensive (questionable) knowledge on the Homeland War, war criminals, and the Hague tribunal. If it’s a mixed crowd, you’ll advance to Brexit and Trump in no time. The tone will also be affected by the collective mindset at hand – if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in an echo-chamber, you’ll all eagerly agree and pat yourselves on the back. If you get the partisans of the left and the right in one place, chaos will ensue. And then, you’ll quickly get on to…

5. The abysmal pit of despair that is daily life in Croatia

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For a reason I can’t properly pin down, this topic always makes me think of Richard Hamilton’s iconic work of pop-art, titled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (See above.) What is it that makes life in Croatia so different, so unappealing? Any of the following conversation starters: Agrokor, taxes, annoyed clerks at public offices, banks, various fees, the unemployment rate, the emigration rate, criminally low salaries, employers exploiting their workers, and the (nonexistent) separation of Church and state, to name just a few. Without a doubt, someone will mention at least one of the listed topics – and none of us will be able to resist indulging in the following pity-party. Ha, the expression has ‘party’ in it. How fitting.

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