You’re in the CoHo and you see a pretty girl sitting alone; or maybe it’s your English class and you want that smart kid for a study buddy. Either way, it’s time to break the ice.
Though learned and memorized social skills may not seem like the smoothest thing to practice, breaking the ice has a few definite dos and don’ts. When it comes to talking to a girl in the CoHo, meeting people in your classes and getting to know your professors, two UC Davis faculty members with doctorates in communication have revealed when it’s appropriate to approach someone and provide tips on how to do it.
“Be authentic, so you’re not putting on a show using some old line or something you were taught, like ‘the five best pick-up lines,’” said communication lecturer Catherine Puckering. “That means you might be rejected, but at least you’re getting rejected for who you are.”
In the face of possible rejection, breaking the ice can seem unfortunately risky. Icebreakers have their merits, though.
“It’s an initial attempt to open the lines of communication so that everybody feels comfortable,” Puckering said. “It’s what you need to do to get the conversation started.”
Puckering said you don’t want pick-up lines, however — what you need is commonality.
“Every single piece of research, social science, communications, psychology, that goes into how relationships actually get started — they all start from common context,” said Virginia Hamilton, a professor in the communication department.
But even with common context, it can be difficult to know when it’s appropriate to break the ice.
Keith Siegel, a second-year music major from a smaller school, is currently taking classes at UC Davis and has offered some insight from his sudden environmental change.
“The difference between the school that I go to, which has about 16,000 students, and this school, is there’s a lot more autonomy [here], and people tend to stick with themselves more than I’m used to,” Siegel said. “People are definitely friendly enough, but I feel like they have their own schedules and their own group of friends.”
This large-university mentality is exhibited in Lawrence Mendoza, fourth-year pharmaceutical chemistry major, who described approaching and speaking to strangers.
“[It’s] creepy and weird, because it goes against the social norm of everything,” Mendoza said. “People usually stick to themselves or stick to people that they know.”
However, if you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to tell when a person you approach doesn’t want to talk to you, according to Mendoza.
“When somebody is very distracted or they’re really focused on their reading — that would obviously not be a good time to break the ice,” Puckering said. “You need to be paying attention to their nonverbal cues.”
Hamilton agreed, adding that those who are not sensitive to body language may be perceived as creeps.
In “now-or-never” situations, like talking to a pretty girl in the CoHo, Hamilton also said that establishing a prolonged contact is basically hopeless.
“It’s sort of a dumb thing to want,” Hamilton said. “So you think the person’s attractive? That’s not going to go anywhere.”
Hamilton claims that most relationships, platonic or otherwise, all grow out of having a common context. However, meeting strangers isn’t always fruitless, and there are some guidelines we can follow.
“To break the ice, you really can’t just go up and approach a person in a classroom, you’ve got to sit next to the person, move closer to them,” Hamilton said.
Puckering suggested leading with a question or a compliment as a way to break the ice.
“You want to approach them looking them in the eye and with a nice warm smile,” Puckering said. “And show interest, ask them questions.”
Hamilton warned that real connections take time, though, and that the more you try to speed things along, the less likely it is to work.
“Now if you’re sitting next to someone in class and something funny happens, the context is carrying the burden,” Hamilton said. “The thing that is going on there is what you can comment off of what you have in common, and then [that] is what you build off of.”
Classrooms can lead to limited friendships, however.
“If the only thing you ever do is exchange notes or talk about what’s happening in that classroom, then the friendship will probably die at the end of that course,” Puckering said.
The way around this roadblock is, naturally, finding connections that transcend the course.
“Things like [being] English-major friends, that’s a great place to start,” Puckering said. “But you do need to move beyond and start talking about yourself and your interests and exploring whether or not you have commonalities outside that.”
Trouble moving contacts out of the classroom is also a barrier in advisory relationships between students and professors. Nevertheless, there are simple ways around this.
Both Puckering and Hamilton agree that most student-professor relations ride on the premise that the student is interested in the professor’s work. Moreover, it’s all up to the student.
“I have about 600 students per quarter,” Hamilton said. “And there are probably about 10 students that get 80 percent of my time.”
This is likely because people can only handle so many relations at a time, therefore making some rejection inevitable.
“People need to realize that it’s not personal,” Hamilton said.
Sometimes when rejection is too subtle, the result is the “creep.” There are some basic rules for avoiding this.
“If she’s indicating that she doesn’t want to have a conversation, respect that and walk away,” Puckering said.
Generally speaking, if someone wants to pursue a conversation there will be some kind of reciprocal self-disclosure. If there is, the first layer of ice is broken. There are more to break, though. Puckering said that maintaining a relationship is an investment.
In order to build a relationship that’s worth all the energy, you’ve got to break the ice again and again, changing your relationship continually as you grow toward intimacy.
“It’s an issue of expanding the context and extending time,” Hamilton said. “So we’ve sat in class as English majors, let’s study together. We’re finished studying, do you want to get a drink? You get a drink, you start talking about other things, so now the topics have spread out in breadth.”
In every conversation you reveal something about yourself, and if they like that, they’ll reveal something too. It’s all about changing the context and expanding time together.
“I tell everyone the reason why my current husband is my husband is because his office was next to mine,” Hamilton said. “Every time you have an opportunity to communicate, that communication has redefined the relationship and it keeps getting more and more personal. It has to do with getting in front of that person. You have to be with them.”
NAOMI NISHIHARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.