The job interview. One of life’s most terrifying appointments. To your racing mind, the interviewer is as menacing as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” To you, it may seem as though they’re carving a hole between your eyebrows with an unblinking stare, when in actuality, they’re probably just thinking about what to have for lunch come one o’clock.
Interviewing is an unavoidable part of your job search. The 2013 Job Interview Anxiety Survey conducted by Harris Interactive found that 92% of American adults fear job interviews. Countless articles on the Web portray job interviews as petrifying, sensitive encounters that take place on a knife-edge. In the unspoken standoff between interviewer and interviewee, only the infinitely calm and collected survive.
The whole ordeal carries many of the symptoms of classic fear: clammy palms, weak knees, your heart engaged in an Olympic sprint. It’s certainly understandable why any self-respecting candidate would be tripping over his or her own shadow at this point. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t need to be that terrifying.
Recognize the Arrows in Your Quiver
As the interviewee, you have several distinct advantages that you probably never realized you had. Firstly, you can read your interviewer just as well as they can read you. Secondly, unless you’ve met them previously, you’re a total stranger to your interviewer.
For all they know, you could be Moon Unit Zappa or a former ghostwriter for a president or famous politician. Use this air of mystery to your advantage. Don’t reveal too much too quickly. Keep them guessing, but only enough to keep them interested. I’m not suggesting you talk in riddles.
Call Their Bluff
In any interview, you’re bound to be evaluated, summed up and driven mad by your interviewers’ expert poker faces. Chances are they’ll be neutral, or even friendly. This will make you even madder. In this case, raise them. You can put on a poker face that is equally as infuriating, and it’ll make you feel more in control.
You will be nervous, that’s guaranteed, but never make this obvious. The interviewer is in a position of power, but, unless they’re some kind of role-playing, power-tripping lunatic, they’re not going to sit on an elevated throne with a crown and sceptre. They are more likely to greet you amiably, shake your hand and offer you a seat.
Make a cursory comment about the weather and begin the game. As much as you’re trying to impress the interviewer, he or she wants to find out as much about your character as possible without digging uncomfortably deep. Also, take it for granted that they've already Googled you, and, if you have a Facebook profile, they’re likely to have checked it out, too.
The good news is that there’s no rule that says you can’t do the same. If you know the name of your interviewer, run them through the search engine mill, and make sure your (public) cover and profile photos are fitting of a hire-worthy candidate in the days leading up to your appointment.
Let Them Think They’re Smart
Human resources folk like to use unsuspecting interviewees as test subjects in the delicate psychological landscape of recruitment. They have well-tested repertoire of tricks in their tool-kits, including psychometric and aptitude tests which are among the most common measures used in personnel selection. These tests try to measure your personality, abilities, views and reactions and determine how well you’ll cope in a position.
Recruiters may not be well versed in advanced interrogation methods, but they are likely to try to stump you. All you have to do is simply play along. They have no idea who you are, so they’re going to prod and probe until they’re convinced you’re not a fraudster, sociopath or Celine Dion fan.
Don’t Try to Read Their Minds
If you fix your attention on trying to figure out what they’re thinking, to interpret every flared nostril or eyebrow maneuver, you may appear to be staring. And staring is rude, particularly in an interview. It is probably best to accept that you’ll never be a mind reader. If it makes you feel any better, research their astrological sign beforehand.
Accept Their Hospitality
Business courtesies can do wonders for your composure. If they offer you tea or coffee, accept it. A brief exchange of niceties makes everyone feel more human, despite the professional environment. Interviewers realize how nerve-wracking the interview process is. They’ve been in your shoes. During the interview, think back to the last catch-up session you had with an old friend.
Remember how it went, and the tone and manner you used. Using this discreet mental note, you’ll find yourself playing this role once again in real time, and the dialogue will steer towards conversational. Just make sure you don’t put your feet up on the table. You can’t get too comfortable in these situations, but at least take sugar in your tea.
Make Small Talk, Not Tiny Talk
Always remember that a job interview is not an interrogation in a holding cell in Alcatraz. It is, more often than not, a chat session that ideally forms the start of a successful working relationship. While perhaps I’d be going too far by saying an interview is a good place to start a casual conversation, which it isn’t, it certainly shouldn’t be made out to be a bigger deal than it really is. It’s perfectly acceptable to comment on the weather, or crack a measured joke about YouTube’s latest viral hit, if the moment presents itself.
It’s Okay to be Unsure
Alan Scoboria, associate professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, found that responding to interview questions with, “I don’t know” was a more sincere and straightforward mode of answering than elaborate guesswork. Of course, Scoboria’s research does not suggest that a candidate should simply answer that he or she doesn’t know, and then fall silent.
It is important to use your lack of immediate knowledge to your advantage. Admitting that you’re unsure is an honest answer, but make sure you use this as a launch pad to further your engagement with the interviewer. Tell him or her why you don’t know the answer to the question that was asked.
Next, clarify how you plan on answering it in the future. “It’s okay to take a couple of seconds and try to cue yourself for additional information because the context might be narrowing what you remember,” says Scoboria. Saying ‘I don’t know’ acts as a momentary pause, which, as Scoboria found, helps you to collect yourself and reorganize your thoughts before answering.
A Side Note About Stress Interviews
If you’re very unlucky, you may be the victim of a cruel event known as the stress interview. Some mean-spirited interviewers will intentionally simulate a stressful environment in the interview room in an attempt to get the interviewee hot under the collar.
Though unlikely, this anomaly is widely considered the horror of the recruitment process, and it’s better if you’re prepared for the possibility of it rearing its monstrous head. As with all high-pressure situations, staying calm is the most surefire way of passing through without becoming mentally unhinged.
Rise above the present moment by zooming out and surveying the bigger picture. If you step outside yourself for a moment and become objective, you’ll have a clearer path ahead of you as well as the best answers to difficult questions.
Top photo courtesy of The Devil Wears Prada