The Best Summer Party Icebreaker (Next to Alcohol)

Efficient fun under the sun.
Aug. 26 2014 11:47 PM

Get Smashed

Badminton is the best party icebreaker (well, next to alcohol).

Badminton
Anybody can play. Almost nobody plays that well.

Courtesy of Andrew Malone/Flickr/Creative Commons

Throwing big parties, as many Americans will do this Labor Day weekend, is a great way to express affection for your friends, discharge multiple social obligations at once, get to know your co-workers better, and indulge in match-making (romantic or professional). It’s a real treat to see people from different parts of your life mingling and laughing together—but first you have to break the ice.

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

Most of the people who come to my parties are scientists or journalists or other bookish types. Lovely, fascinating people once you get them going, but attending parties can be a real chore for the introverts among them. Many of them bring children who are shy about playing with strange kids, or irritated teenagers who keep getting told how much they’ve grown.

The best way to cut through all the intergenerational awkwardness, I’ve found, is lawn games. And the best summer party lawn game of all is badminton.

Advertisement

Lawn games draw people outside and away from your crowded kitchen. (It helps if you set up your bar, and a cooler full of Sunkist and Hawaiian Punch for the kids, outside as well.) They keep poorly supervised children from tipping over your tomato plants. And they give everybody something to do or watch or talk about while they’re finding common interests.

The beautiful thing about badminton is that anybody can play, but almost nobody plays that well. Even people who have never picked up a racquet can get the hang of it after whiffing on the first few tries. Badminton is disarmingly silly; people naturally make sound effects and yell at the birdie. The game is engaging enough that people forget their self-consciousness, but not so much that they take it seriously. (With the exception of my colleague Will Saletan, who at one of my parties hit smash shots at middle school kids.)

The only rule in badminton is that you have to hit the birdie over the net. (Oh, sure, there are real rules, but don’t let people who know them enforce them.) You don’t need to bother marking the court boundaries or limiting how many people can play at once. Just set out a bunch of racquets and encourage anybody to jump in.

Logistically, badminton sets are easy to set up, and they roll up into a small bundle for storage when the party’s over. You don’t need much lawn space at all—you can buy sets with 30-feet-wide, 20-feet-wide, or even 7-feet-wide nets. Most of the sets are flimsy but good enough for backyard use, or you can get a little fancier with a pro set. (Buy extra shuttlecocks because they will get snagged in trees or on roofs; glow-in-the-dark birdies are great for night games.)

It’s hard to hurt oneself or others playing badminton. You can hit the birdie as hard as you like and probably not do any damage. You can make heroic lunges, but it’s also perfectly possible to play badminton with a racquet in one hand and a beer in the other.

There are plenty of other reasons to enjoy the game. Badminton is the only sport I know in which top players who are not paid off by some mafia betting ring still try to throw their own matches. (We’d share video of the “oopsie missed again” badminton debacle at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but as Business Insider points out, the International Olympic Committee is run by world-class jerks.)

Other lawn games make decent icebreakers, of course, but they’re no badminton. Whiffle ball is safe and easy, but it has fewer active players at any given time. Bocce takes a lot of explanation for young kids to catch on. With Frisbee, it’s just a matter of time before somebody gets hit in the back of the head. (I was guilty of a wild throw at a party years ago and still feel awful about it.) Ping-pong is a great crowd-pleaser, but you need space to store a table and have to haul it outside during a party.

Best of all, it’s impossible not to laugh while playing badminton.

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.