Proudly describing a career accomplishment, only to back off by saying, “Actually, it was no big deal” is an example of what can be called a “meta-level response” to, or a “meta-level message” about, your own message—hereafter, “meta-message”.
Your Messages About Your Messages
In many instances, the message about the message can and will count more than the primary message, often completely nullifying it or transforming it in very positive or negative ways. Understanding the forms and implications of meta-messages is crucial to avoiding blunders and maximizing your chances of success when using them in interviews and other communications.
The existence of meta-messages should come as a surprise to no one. Everybody knows that when answering an applicant’s or interviewer’s questions, information is being provided at more than one level.
In addition to “semantic” (word-based information), e.g., a verbal description of your company’s mission and resources, there are
- postural, gestural and facial body-language messages
- information conveyed by tone of voice
- “proxemic” information (e.g., where someone sits relative to another)
- information that can be gleaned and inferred about attitudes, traits and skills (for example, command of grammar, politeness, logical thinking, openness and breadth of knowledge)
- other “semiotic” messages, including non-verbal coded signs and symbols that convey messages accompanying the semantic information, such as glancing at and thereby displaying a status-symbol Rolex watch in response to being asked the time (which is supposed to send a clear status message).
Of particular interest to the other party are the signals you transmit about your own responses—the meta-messages.
Fidgeting, stammering, crossing arms, “steepling” (pressing the fingertips of both hands together to form a pyramid or steeple) and other physical signals convey information about the information you are conveying in other channels—including, on occasion, information contradicting the primary information, in the way that perspiring or twitching does while describing oneself as being confident.
The combined meta-level information and message communicated by “confident” twitching is, “Don’t believe both what I’ve said and my body language.”
Notice that in this instance the body language by itself is not the meta-message, if it is simultaneous with the spoken message.
However, if it immediately follows something you say, it may be functioning as a meta-message about what you’ve just said. In any case, and as a minimum, the combination of body language and spoken language in the foregoing example conveys the meta-message that contradictory signals are being sent.
The “Duplex” Meta-Message
I call a single meta-message conveyed by a pair of one’s own other messages (which may be congruent, rather than contradictory) a “duplex meta-message”.
This distinction between a single message as a meta-message and a duplex meta-message, i.e., a combination of messages functioning as one meta-message, is as important as the fundamental distinction between “object-level” and “meta-level” itself.
(NOTE for the masochistically curious: That distinction, which logicians, mathematicians and linguists use in connection with natural and “formal” languages, e.g., the language of abstract set theory, is comparably captured by the distinctions between “language” and “meta-language”, and that between “use” and “mention”, discussed immediately below.)
If you say, “We really like Gecko’s track record!”, you’ve used that sentence (object-level, talking about Gecko’s track record); but, if you are quoting yourself in an emailed report and say, “I was really sincere when I said, ‘We really like Gecko’s track record!’”, you are mentioning and characterizing your assessment (at the meta-level).
Clearly, in communications, the meta-level message can dramatically affect the impact of the primary, object-level message, e.g., by strongly emphasizing the original message’s sincerity. (In this context, more natural indirect self-quotation also counts as a meta-message, e.g., “I was sincere when I said that we really like Gecko’s track record.”)
If you overlook the impact of the duplex combination of messages as a meta-message, you may imagine you are doing very well, when in fact you are botching the communication.
For example, imagine a job candidate who says, “I’m really excited about the prospect of joining your team!”, but immediately worries that (s)he sounds over-eager or too effusive and follows up at the meta-level with, “Sometimes I get excited when I’m really nervous!”, as a direct, explicit comment about her first remark, in an attempt to deflect or shift attention from off-putting over-eagerness to endearing vulnerability.
(S)he thinks that worked; but the interviewer may think that the candidate is more nervous than interested, is too apologetic or that (s)he lacks self-awareness and self-control.
Their impressions are discrepant because the candidate is focusing on just his or her “corrective” meta-response to the primary message, whereas the interviewer is focusing on the pair of responses as a combined, negative duplex meta-message.
Three Ways to Meta-Message
Meta-messages can take various forms. Here are three:
1. Modifications of the primary, initial object-level message: Explicitly commenting on one’s own response is one form of modification of one’s primary, object-level response.
Example: (after failing to recall a project supervisor’s name) “I’m sorry….I guess I’m just nervous. Now I remember it.” Or, after getting an employment period wrong, “On second thought, it was a year and a half, not a year and four months.”
Modifications can include corrections, like the foregoing; outright retractions; qualifications and limitations; reinforcement and amplification; and deflections of the sort illustrated by the case of the over-eager candidate, described above.
2. Reiteration of the object-level message: Simply repeating the primary message and prefixing it with, “I said”, “I really meant it when I said” or the like is a quasi-modification to the extent that it is designed only to confirm the sincerity, meaning or truth of the initial message and thereby increase the odds of its acceptance.
It may or may not work, depending on whether or not the listener thinks that the speaker “doth insist too much”.
General meta-message agreement with the primary message can function the same way, as recent research suggests: Apparently, more than any other phrase, “yeah” prefixed to a proposal increases the likelihood that it will be accepted in a meeting, e.g., “Yeah, expanding operations into Tuscon is a good idea”, just after doing that is proposed by oneself or someone else.
(My guess is it works best as a response to or reiteration of something said by oneself or someone of lower or equal rank and power. When addressing superiors, a more formal “yes” is likely to be advisable.)
3. 3. Paradoxical combination of object-level and meta-level messages: Consider the initial hiring manager’s remark, “If you want to work here, you will have to fill in this form” followed by the implicitly meta message, “These forms are stacked so high on my desk, I dread having to look at even one more (said with a spooky, ominous half-smile).”
Although the second remark is not explicitly about the first one, it is implicitly about the implicit message of the initial comment. The implicit initial message was “Filling in this form will help you get the job.” However, the second comment creates a Catch-22 duplex combination by implying, “Having to go over your form is going to make me hate you and all of your very numerous, well-qualified competitors.”
In other words, the resulting duplex meta-message is, “You’ll jeopardize your shot at this job if you do what you must to get it.”
Whether you are interviewing or not, take care not to send such paradoxical duplex messages, unless of course, you want to create confusion, ambiguity or mischief. In fact, the lesson is broader than this.
Irrespective of whatever form of meta-messaging you attempt or are exposed to in an interview, be alert not only to the meta-message being sent, but also to the meta-message received.
As examples have shown, these are often not the same, with actual consequences frequently being very different from those intended.
That said, and having, I hope, gotten my message across, I must add one meta-message about it.
I like it a lot.
Image: “Meta-message” by Michael Moffa (2013)