Even though it took place a good many years ago, I still remember my first interview in Norway. I had answered a newspaper ad posting a teaching job at a newly started school in the area. The student body was made up of adults (as in age 19 and over) who were either going back to school to improve their grades or those who hadn’t taken certain subjects at all while in high school; both groups needed these credits in order to be accepted into college or university. The job I had applied for was teaching different levels of English to these students, some of whom really wanted to be there and all of whom had been forced to attend because of the educational system’s rules. At the same time, they were not regular public school students, but rather ‘private candidates’ (a UK term, still haven’t found a good equivalent in the US, not that it’s relevant here) whose ultimate goal was to pass/do well on their oral/written exams at the end of the semester/year (depending on the subject). This school was therefore private in the sense that these students paid a lot of money in tuition to go there. And was therefore pressurized from the teachers’ viewpoint in that since the school was a business, their teaching would be evaluated by students and used as a criteria for either renewing their contract or not at the end of the term (am not really digressing here, as this comes up later in a big way).
Back to the interview, my first in Norway and my first in a foreign language. I remember practicing answers at home the week before so that when I went in I would be prepared to give thoughtful, insightful answers to the principal’s questions. And rehearsing the short version of the story of my life and how I had come to end up living in southern Norway. And then being surprised upon having the day come, arriving at the principal’s office and seeing that he looked to be about 15 years old (an irrelevant but startling fact that put me a bit mentally off balance in the first few minutes, as in ‘How did I get here? How did you get here?’ is more like it). As usually happens with interviews, I remembered the beginning and the ending quite well, and could recall them later in detail – while the middle and all that was said was something of a blur. Had I given my rehearsed answers in any kind of understandable form? Had I asked relevant questions? Had I given the appearance of being a solid teacher who would perform well in the classroom? Had I smiled – or worse, had I laughed my peculiarly nasal Midwestern non-laugh that more resembled a combined gasp and snort?
None of which mattered in the end, as the letter that arrived in the mail a week later (yes, this was a while ago) stated something vaguely polite in Norwegian about thanking me for my time, but that the position had gone to someone else. Sort of one of those letters full of business speak that don’t really say anything at all.
And after reading it, I did something which at the time seemed unusual (or so people told me) – I picked up the phone and called the boy-principal, explained who I was, then asked point blank why I hadn’t gotten the job. Why, specifically? Was it lack of qualifications? Experience? My references? No, he replied, actually it was because you weren’t bubbly enough (this is a direct translation: for those of you who speak Norwegian, I wasn’t sprudlende nok). That one set me back even more than when I had first seen him on my interview day, and I was struck silent for a moment. Seriously?, I asked. Yes, he explained, the woman who had interviewed after me had apparently been – in addition to her similar background as mine – sufficiently bubbly to guarantee her being offered the job, and accepting it – so over and out for non-bubbly me. I remember stammering something about how this had been my first interview ever in Norwegian, and that it had made me extra nervous and that was why I might have seemed a bit flat during our talk. Can’t recall his reply, but as that job train had left the station and I had my answer, there really wasn’t any point in prolonging the conversation. We hung up, and I sat by the phone thinking about what, if anything, I had gained from calling him in the first place. My first reaction was to put the blame on his apparent lack of maturity – did he really take interviewing seriously? – but then I thought, no, his honesty was actually refreshing, and a standard answer from him would’ve made me think he was being, well, sort of smooth and fake while really wanting to avoid any conflict or unpleasantness. And silently thanked him for that, as while I still didn’t quite agree with that being a valid reason for not hiring an otherwise qualified person to teach adult students, I had at least gotten a wake-up call about how I came off being towards others during an interview situation. Though the criteria for hiring seems arbitrary to me – this particular personality trait (warmth and liveliness = bubbliciousness?) was important to this particular principal, and so I had unwittingly failed his test.
Contrary to expectations, there is a happy ending to this sad interview story: after several months when the holidays were approaching, I got a call out of the blue from this same principal. It turned out that while the previously successful interviewee did indeed have a vivacious and friendly personality, this quality in no way gave her the organizational skills necessary for effective teaching – in the classroom, she was according to students (remember what I wrote in the first paragraph?) a bit of a disaster on the structural side of things, to put it mildly. Resulting in the fact that they hadn’t gotten through half their syllabus even after several months of class three times a week. So said person had ‘bubbled herself’ out of a job, and would I like to give it a try? This time I had no problem giving an appropriately bubbly answer in return – and went on to have one of the most rewarding teaching ‘gigs’ of my working life in Norway. Any moral here? Well, several – foreign speakers at an interview: don’t be so nervous that your inner bubble doesn’t come to the surface – express it freely! And find the courage and take the time to call and ask why if you didn’t get hired. And never give up until the job you really want is yours.