5 Really Dumb Interview Gaffes
Everybody makes mistakes, even dumb ones, which are generally among the worst kind and create some of the worst interview impressions.
After all, don’t you have to be dumb to make a dumb mistake? Maybe not. But tell that to the interviewer who thinks, “Dumb is as dumb does” (or as Forrest Gump put it, “Stupid is as stupid does!”).
I’ve worked as a recruiter—but only on an ad hoc assignment basis, screening and interviewing executive-level applicants for a Japanese educational foundation and in hiring writers for the Tokyo business magazine of which I was the editor-in-chief.
During that experience, at least two of the dumb mistakes identified and discussed below were committed by short-listed candidates with otherwise very impressive credentials. Because of their blunders, I could not recommend hiring either—including the journalist with Newsweek credentials to his credit. Neither got a job offer from management.
5 Dumb Gaffes
If you want to, unlike those guys, make it to a short list and past short circuiting yourself, be sure not to screw things up with any of the following five blunders:
1. Getting too cocky and familiar: Creating a relaxed atmosphere is a worthwhile objective for an interviewer. However, forcing and overdoing it, when you are the candidate, is likely to amount to interview suicide— or, “Interviewicide, R.I.P.”, to express it as a catchy professional epitaph. It’s bad, but worse, if that familiarity becomes cocky, or stupidly crude, as it did at almost the very beginning of my interview with a journalist exploring writing for our Tokyo-based international magazine, Business Insight Japan.
When I offered him a coffee, he asked whether we had real creamer or “crap”. My intuition that things were about to plunge downhill was bang on: The rest of his performance merely rang the same alarm bells over and over again.
My one-word summary: “arrogant”. My more charitable summary: He confused collegiality with presumption and some “divine right” of a Newsweek-published writer. My most charitable assessment: “overly familiar, pushy and casual”. Next!
2. Inflating your creds and getting caught: In interviewing for the Kyoiku Zaidan Group (The Educational Foundation Group of Japan), a sprawling enterprise with multiple foundations, several branch colleges and universities, and early childhood through lifelong education programs, with about 30,000 students, I was tasked with interviewing shortlisted executive candidates for key tertiary-education administrative posts.
One of the candidates was a fortyish, English-capable graduate of the most elite university in Japan—Tokyo University (“Todai”, as the Japanese half-reverently, half-affectionately call it). In Japan, you tell people you’re a Todai graduate, they’ll bow deeper than for the Emperor, while expiring a sustained “Oooooooo!” or “Soooooooo, desu ka!” (Equivalent to “Wow!” and “Wow! Really!”)
OK. So he’s a Todai graduate. But what piqued my interest was his degree in economics. So, given his work in the business field and his degree, I asked, “What was the last book related to economics that you read?” Answer: “I don’t read much.”….or something equivalent to that. (Not even a Sarah Palin “I read ‘em all.”)
Fair enough. So, I segue to other interests: He says, “Mathematics.” That should have been fun, since I’ve taught math—nothing too high-powered; nothing past Taylor series expansions of polynomials with Lagrange remainders, Markov chains, abstract algebra and integral tests for convergence. So, I asked: “What in particular are you interested in?” –and offered some examples, e.g., probability and statistics. Then, a long pause, some squirming…His answer? “Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division”.
He might as well have impaled himself on lunchbox chopsticks. Was his expressed interest in “mathematics” a “minor” exaggeration? Perhaps, if you are inclined to be as generous as Santa Claus.
Or, you think, “Ah, no exaggeration; he simply confused ‘mathematics’ and ‘arithmetic’; he meant to say ‘arithmetic’.” Really? An English-capable Todai economics graduate unaware of the difference and also apparently fascinated, if not challenged, by 3rd-grade math?
Either way, he put himself into a lose-lose situation: Either he was exaggerating the sophistication of his interests or his intellectual interests were like those of a 9-year-old elementary school kid (in the U.S; probably a 7-year-old in math-mastering Japan). Not the best university administrator role model when the name of the game to be played is (adult, lifelong) “learning”.
The moral of the story, however ambiguous that story may seem, is don’t exaggerate (or fabricate) anything that can be investigated on the spot with follow-up questioning—as another candidate in the same round of interviews did. When I asked him for details about his “Ph.D.”, he actually said, “Oh…a ‘Ph.D. Failed’, from the University of Bombay.” (Yes, a “Ph.D. Failed”—that’s what he said. He may have gone on to do a post-doc failed after we passed him…over.)
If you must exaggerate, you’d better be certain that the interviewer knows nothing about what you are overstating (or misrepresenting) and is otherwise unlikely to follow up with an embarrassing probing question.
This gaffe can inflict a double-whammy, as it was in the Todai grad’s case: Not only do you get caught, but in having raised expectations and inflated perceptions, when you finally admit the truth, it will seem paltry by comparison with the higher standard of accomplishment you were trying to fob off.
In English, we call this getting “hoisted by one’s own petards”.
3. Leaning forward: Unless you have to share a look at a computer screen, pick up the pen you’ve dropped or duck a bullet, don’t lean forward in your seat—especially when anywhere in front of the interviewer’s space. That posture can easily convey over-eagerness, a lack of confidence or invasiveness (if the recruiter is sitting close to you and not behind a desk), not to mention possible premature deafness.
A very long time ago, I sat in on a trial in California, just from curiosity. My attendance having been determined purely by my holiday itinerary, I randomly chose a courtroom and watched for part of an afternoon. Although I can’t remember what the trial was about, I do recall watching the defense counsel maintain a rather peculiar posture: leaning forward over his table, shoulders hunched, palms on the table top (much like the man in the photo shown above).
That struck me as odd; it seemed somehow too submissive, like a borderline bow or kowtow (the ancient Chinese practice of prostrating oneself, forehead on the ground).
When I asked a Canadian lawyer friend of mine about that—a very senior attorney who has won at least one $1 billion judgment, he said that, indeed, it is a very risky posture to assume in a courtroom, apart from its overly casual appearance, and that it can reveal (or create the impression of) a lack of confidence in one’s case, which may adversely sway a judge or jury.
Ironically and paradoxically, exactly the same posture can convey the diametrically opposite impression: If the judge at that trial stood up and struck the pose shown in the photo above, (s)he would be conveying or expressing dominance and extreme confidence.
This is an example of “dual-purpose” postures. Another is that of a general strutting past his troops in review, hands confidently behind his back, while they stand stiff at unblinking ramrod attention, with their identically linked hands behind their obedient backs.
Same posture different message: In the general’s case, it means, “I’m so dominant, I know you wouldn’t dare touch me; so I can strike this otherwise vulnerable pose.” In the platoon’s case, the message is “No need to fear us; we cannot and would never attempt to strike you—because we love and/or fear you.”
Ditto for interviews. The interviewer leaning forward may mean one thing, e.g., alpha-(fe)male invasion of your personal space. When you do it, the best you can expect is to be seen as a fawning wimp.
So, sit some other way; but just don’t make the following mistake instead.
4. Deer-in-the-headlights expression and posture: No matter how nervous you may feel, it’s OK. Just don’t be nervous, i.e., don’t behave nervously. In particular, don’t seize up with fear, confusion, self-doubt or diffuse anxiety.If you must maintain a rigid, petrified expression, make it petrified in the Clint Eastwood way: a steely Texas-gunfighter high-noon squint. In other words, a “Squint Eastwood” look.
Deer-fear is an especially big no-no in North American business culture. Elsewhere, it can be another story. In the years I was in Japan, the “deer-in-the-headlights” expression was acceptable, maybe even “en-deering”—if the candidate was a woman, as a sign of extreme deference and humility (when the job in question required those traits, e.g., office clerical staff).
But in America, (and maybe in Canada, too), even Rambo (toned down a tad) is better than Bambi.
5. Imagine that “because” is an explanation or justification: When I was six and caught doing something when I shouldn’t have (done it or been caught doing it), I recall being sternly asked, “Why did you do that!”—to which I replied, “because”.
Because what? Just “because”. I had figured out that, when you say “because”, everything becomes OK, often even completely forgiven or forgivable. Alas, that was a delusion.
Likewise, even though you would never answer a question like a six-year-old, you may be tempted to think like one and answer an interview question in a very similar, although deceptively adult way.
For example, if you respond to “Why are you interested in a career in financial management?” with “I guess it’s just in my blood” or “It’s just so me!” or “I just like it”, “It’s fun!”, or “My uncle is in the business”, you might as well say “because” instead.
I know—you just hit the pause button. Your uncle is in the business—isn’t that a good reason?
Unfortunately, it is neither a good reason nor a good response, since it seems to imply that if your uncle were serving 5 to 10 in San Quentin, you’d be explaining, with equally bad logic, why you’ve been stealing BMWs for a living, while also suggesting that you are a sheep, even ifnot a family black sheep, blindly following in the hoof-steps of someone else.
That kind of explanation is in the same league as “because”—no explanation at all (or at best a hint of a better one).
Still, even “because” would be better than “my uncle”, if only because “because” won’t get you into that kind of trouble, even if it won’t do you any good.