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The Intercultural Interview Dating Game: Us vs Them?

The Intercultural Interview Dating Game: Us vs Them?

Sometimes the best thing to come out of a training course for students is not what they learn from the instructor but rather what they remember from talking with their classmates about work-related experiences they’ve gone through that have been both painful and humbling. And then leaving the classroom knowing that they’re not the only ones who’ve felt this way.

For example, in the arena of international business, job interviews taking place between people whose first languages differ from one another occur every day all over the world. You might say that during their time together, the individual sitting in the ‘hot seat’ has willingly embarked on a type of relationship with the individual(s) on the other side of the table. From the moment the interviewee has walked into the room to make his/her initial greeting to the moment he/she walks out again, there is a space of time filled with questions and answers, as both parties try to get to know one another in order for them to decide if they want to take their new relationship to the next level. Most often, it seems like interviewees are ready for this development, eager as they are to enter into the state of a new job at a new organization.

After it’s all over and they’ve returned home once more filled with nervous apprehension if they’ll get ‘the call’ or not, they might have the idea that things went very well during their job date and so expect that their cell phone will ring within the next couple of days. Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t; when the latter happens, the jilted job suitor feels a mix of emotions – disappointment, frustration, sadness, anger. They might not understand why they failed to make a connection, and if the same thing happens to them again and again, they might begin to feel resentful of those same people across the table, starting to refer to them using the collective, anonymous term ‘HR’ (Human Resources).

Having not played the interview game myself for awhile, I began to notice this attitude among some of my foreign-born participants who were attending my interview technique course in order to learn how to put their best interview dating foot forward. It has often turned out that beyond getting tips about what to say and what not to say, what people have really wanted to talk about is the way they’ve felt after not getting a call back for a second interview and/or a job offer. This after they felt they had truly given a good performance, made a positive impression and, most importantly, that their skills and background were a perfect match for the position for which they were being interviewed in the first place. Even worse, several people told of having never received any response after having laid themselves open on the ‘interview operating table’ and bared their ‘job-seeking souls’ to strangers (actual quotes from upset students).

Certain phases began to repeat themselves: ‘I thought I had given them what they wanted’… ‘they didn’t even bother to send me an e-mail’… ‘I believed that I had all the qualifications they were looking for, and yet I never heard from them again’… ‘what in the world do they want, anyway?’ It struck me from listening to these thoughts how so many of these disappointed interviewees had begun to form a ‘me against them’ feeling with regard to ‘HR’(I wondered later why I had been at all surprised by this reaction; after all, an interview training course will most likely have several participants who’ve gone at least a couple of rounds in the interview game and come up disappointed). It would be an exaggeration to say that there were two opposing sides in a conflict, and yet there was a definite feeling of being left a bit mystified by what ‘HR’ wanted from them in order to succeed and be awarded with another interview date/a job offer.

Initially, I made the mistake of trying to squelch this pessimistic talk when it started up, thinking that it was important to keep a positive atmosphere in the classroom no matter what. But realized that I wasn’t helping anyone by doing so – why shouldn’t these frustrated people be allowed to express themselves in this setting? Where else would they meet people who empathized with what they had been through?

So I let them get these negative feelings out, and when the last person had had their say, I acknowledged their experiences and said that they were perfectly entitled to feel the way they did…and then asked them what they could do to make themselves feel better. After all, they would have to keep going on interviews in order to get hired somewhere, and having a negative attitude towards this process and the HR people involved in it wouldn’t help their cause at all. What to do? I made the suggestion that they mentally revisit their last interview and talk through it with their classroom partner – this time looking at it from the point of view from the interviewer. Was there anything this HR person might have misunderstood about them from something they said or didn’t say?

It was interesting to walk around the classroom listening to what came out of this exercise. The main point was often that although they initially blamed their not being called back on their lack of perfect English skills (‘It was my accent that put them off…I messed up my grammar in a couple of sentences’), this wasn’t the real reason when they dug deeper and recognized what might have gone wrong. Rather, it had more to do with their basic lack of preparation for handling the standard questions that they more or less expected to be asked. And in some cases their failure to adapt to the cultural nuances of their interviewer’s cultural background: for instance, it wasn’t always what they said, but perhaps how they said it that made a bad impression (flat intonation that was perceived negatively). Or the fact that they hadn’t thought of any questions to ask themselves once they had answered the ones put to them (a lack of curiosity about the job/organization). Or that they were so unprepared and therefore nervous that they forgot to smile (unfriendly and/or hard to get along with). Or had sat with their arms crossed (the same). Or didn’t look the interviewer in the eye when speaking to them (untrustworthy).

All of this reflection seemed to pay off a bit in the end, as several people commented that they had learned some tips that they could use in future interview situations. More importantly, talking over what they themselves had done/not done during what to them was a very tense situation seemed to help them get over the self-defeating idea that ‘HR’ was ‘they’ and ‘them’ and all the negative consequences this belief could ultimately cause for their landing a new position. Instead, by sharing all of these thoughts over the course of an evening, these foreign-born interviewees could get a bit of their interview optimism back, something they would need when getting back out there and jumping into the job-seeking scene once more the following morning.

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