Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Hi. You're looking a touch tired today. 

Is it last night? Or the last three nights?

Anyway, thank you for coming, as there's something I really want your opinion on.

We're both independent thinkers, you and I, so we like to think we do things our own way, right?

There are times, though, when some people insist things should be done just-so. I stare, as my eyeballs express a desperation to fall into my open mouth.

I hope the feeling is mutual.

Today, you see, we're gathered to talk about the best first thing you can say to a stranger.

In an interview with the New York Times, celebrated NPR host Terry Gross insisted she most certainly knows the answer.

You'd think she should.

As someone who's interviewed so many of the great, the good, the bad and the ugly, Gross can get people to talk.

And she's sure that the best icebreaker of all is "Tell me about yourself."

It's the only one you'll ever need, she says, whether it's a blind date or a cocktail party. 

The article asserts: 

The beauty in opening with 'tell me about yourself' is that it allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you're going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are.

I'm currently banging my head very hard against a café table. 

How can saying "tell me about yourself" not make the person self-conscious? You're asking them to articulate their very selves?

Every time someone has tried this "Tell me about yourself" line, I've wanted to ululate to the gods. I've wanted to plead their forgiveness for whatever it is that caused this line to be rained down upon me.

Please, I know I'm not supposed to disagree with Gross, but why on earth should I answer such a broad, lazy, self-important question?

What right do you have, oh questioner, that I should immediately tell you about myself? 

Who are you to demand my personal information? Mark Zuckerberg?

Of course the greatest joy of life is to be curious about others. But if the best way you can show your curiosity is to regurgitate such a vacuous, formulaic question, perhaps you're not curious enough.

It's only slightly more exalted, tonally speaking, than the Uh-huh many Americans utter when you thank them for doing something kind.

My problem here is partly cultural. Americans like to talk about themselves. So when you give them the opportunity, off they go. Ergo, "tell me about yourself" is likely their favorite question in the world.

However, I grew up in one culture (Polish), surrounded by another (English) and then lived in quite a few places around the world.

Much as I now love being American, some of the nation's personal quirks are still a touch peculiar.

This is one.

I don't believe there exists a perfect, pre-rehearsed icebreaker. I don't believe anyone should think there is.

Conversations can begin from all sorts of angles with all sorts of words, phrases and even looks.

If you're at a cocktail party or a networking event, it's often someone else's eyes that tell you their owner might want to talk to you.

Would you really walk up to them and begin: "Tell me about yourself"? 

Or might you choose to say something like: "Are you here voluntarily or is this part of your witness protection program?"

Or, perhaps: "Is that your first drink or your fifth?"

Oddly, I was just sitting at a bar upon which a card was perched. It offered some icebreakers from dating app Bumble.

Among these: "If you could heighten one of your senses, which would it be?"

And: "What's your go-to karaoke song?"

At least those feel slightly original.

I'm not convinced you learn about others by trying to engage them with a cliché. And "tell me about yourself" is surely that.

I know this because people have tried to create new versions of it. For example: "Tell me your story."


Because you're supposed to have a ready-made set of words that sum up your whole life in a neat two minutes of torrid, self-elevating twaddle.

My story is that I like to get people to tell me about themselves. Without, you know, them thinking that's what they're doing. 

Published on: Nov 24, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.