To break the ice is to help lessen the awkwardness of a first meeting or otherwise aid in encouraging the initiation of conversation and other forms of interaction in a social setting. The idiom is sometimes used to describe efforts by one or both parties on a first date to initiate a conversation that helps to calm some of the nervous jitters that one or both feel early in the evening. It is not unusual for facilitators of larger group meetings to also employ different strategies to help break the ice during the opening period of some sort of gathering or conference, using different strategies to encourage group participants to begin interacting with one another. In any setting, this type of activity is designed to help people get over shyness, relax, and begin to enjoy themselves.
The process used to break the ice will vary, depending on the setting. On a date, one party may attempt to get those first awkward minutes by asking questions that help to draw the other person into conversation. With a little luck, those questions in turn lead to the discovery of a topic that is of interest to both parties. That topic then serves as what is known as an icebreaker, allowing both people to relax and talk freely with one another. As they continue to talk, they are likely to discover other points of common interest and the date begins to move forward with both parties at ease and actively engaged in the conversation.
At larger gatherings, silly games and activities are sometimes used to break the ice between people who do not know one another. Games that call for people to ask each other questions and share information with one another often serve to motivate attendees who would otherwise hang back an watch to get involved with others and slowly begin to feel more like a part of the group. Employers will sometimes used these so-called icebreaker activities when training groups of new employees, while teachers will sometimes used similar methods to become more familiar with children in their classes as well as promote interaction between the students.
The goal behind any strategy used to break the ice is to put people at ease and encourage them to participate freely in whatever is happening around them. Games, activities and other means of breaking the ice can often open the door for involvement that would be hard to accomplish in any other way, since the process is usually non-threatening and does allow people to take small and relatively safe steps into social interaction. Typically, icebreakers are simple, fun, and capable of putting people at ease in a short period of time, allowing them a means of becoming comfortable with themselves and what is going on around them.