When and Why Job Candidates Don’t Ask Questions [Part I]

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Curiosity may have “killed the cat”, but a candidate’s lack of it can kill a job interview and crush the odds of being hired.

You’d think that even if it has to be faked, some curiosity would be displayed—if only because it is expected and tactical in an interview and even if only as a fleeting “state”, rather than a permanent “trait”.

Such a curious lack of curiosity cries out for explanation, if not also intervention.

So, why would anyone being interviewed for a job or being given an orientation tour display no curiosity about it? When that lack of curiosity is an entrenched general character trait and therefore even more pervasive, e.g., when meeting new people or even while on a once-in-a-lifetime African safari, it becomes all the more puzzling.

[On a hike during my once-in-a-lifetime 2006 safari in Tanzania, a baffled local guide complained to me about the rest of the first-timer group’s utter lack of curiosity about anything—except when the next meal would be served.]

At what point do the incurious lose the innate curiosity of a child? Most babies, inclined to taste-test and pry open everything, are the equals of cats. As for adults, we have a special term for those who retain or develop boundless, bold feline or childlike curiosity: We call them “Nobel Laureates”.

The most extreme opposite manifestation is someone with a total lack of curiosity about anything at all, to which the understandable first response is probably to call a coroner, or, if there is still time, to call first-responder paramedics to perform resuscitation CPR.

“Randy”: a Paradigm Case of “Curiosity Deficiency”?

Imagine a candidate I’ll call “Randy”. Short-listed and back for a second interview, Randy created a favorable first impression in some key respects; he was attentive, focused, enthusiastic and well-mannered. But there was something “off”, something missing in both interviews and in the tour: Despite presumed motivation to be there, Randy displayed zero curiosity.

Although Randy was impressive in his first interview—in terms of his command of information, his strong credentials, evident confidence, etc., when given the opportunity to ask questions (when it would have been tactically smart to do so), Randy asked none.

Not a single question or remark that could confirm the existence of one iota of curiosity about anything on the tour, the company, the job, the facilities, the operations, neighborhood lunch-stops, or anything else.

One question he should have asked or been asked, and that I will ask and attempt to answer here, is, “How is it possible to have what seems to be a severe ‘curiosity deficiency’?”—a question asked as much for the purpose of coping with a lack of curiosity as from curiosity about it.

What’s Randy’s Problem? Does He Have One?

Perhaps Randy was not in fact afflicted with a “curiosity deficiency” or a “curious lack of curiosity”; maybe he had done his homework very thoroughly or felt that he was there to defer and listen, not to speak.

Or maybe, against all odds, all his questions were anticipated and answered by the interviewer. Even so, it still would have been prudent for him to show some token, even fake curiosity—even if only as further evidence of “enthusiasm”.

On the other hand, he may, in fact, either be “curiosity deficient” or have some difficulty in expressing his curiosity (allowing, what experience confirms, that some people may actually experience curiosity, but not express it).

A Vitamin C(uriosity) Deficiency

Our collective human experience suggests that curiosity is like a second vitamin C: Sure, we can survive with only minimal amounts of it, can overdo it, but are unlikely to thrive individually and would be almost certain not to survive as a species if we had none whatsoever.

So when one of us appears to be utterly devoid of any curiosity whatsoever, we not only wonder, but also worry about him or her, us (and our inability to pique their curiosity) or about the thing in which robust curiosity is expected, e.g., the organization in which the job candidate is otherwise presumably interested.

Yet, time and again, I and others I’ve spoken to (at home and abroad) about this phenomenon frequently find ourselves in the company of ostensibly non-comatose people with zero curiosity about anything or anyone new, different or a neighbor.

From Tanzania to Colorado: a Disturbing Trend

A close friend of mine—a very successful and dynamic Colorado-based entrepreneur profiled in Forbes, a black-belt in karate, a pilot, a hardcore yogi,  a polyglot and a world traveler who spent more than a year in a jeep roaming all of South America —just recently complained to me about the dearth, deficiency and death of even simple social curiosity. Even old-fashioned nosiness seems to be in decline!

His experiences, however disappointing, are a modern commonplace: Going to a get-together attended by people who’ve never met before, he [and many others, including me] find that what happens is nothing: Snacks get passed around, preferences for Brie vs. Camembert are declared, glasses get refilled, movies get recommended, but no one is curious to know anything about any of these snack shufflers—with only one kind of direct question as an exception: “Could you please pass the salt?” or “What time is it?”

My very interesting friend’s response to this: “I gave up a long time ago.”

Too bad: The incurious might have discovered he is also a devoted dad with a fantastic wife and two prodigies for kids, and is a remarkably nice guy with rock-solid ethics and insights.

Why Curiosity Deficiencies?

Apart from possible biomedical issues, discussed in Part II, and purely selective lack of interest, these are a number of intriguing possible causes (discussed below and in Part II):

  •  Prior or anticipated punishment of curiosity: Despite the widespread promotion of curiosity as a prerequisite for applied genius, there are various institutional and cultural discouragements—and indeed blocks of mounted opposition—to it.

For example, there are aspects of organized religions that demand faith, submission and a complete avoidance of questioning, inquisitiveness (unless on the part of a Grand Inquisitor) and other forms of curiosity not already made unnecessary by scripture.

Consideration of the 16th-century church-sponsored execution of Giordano Bruno for his scientific curiosity about and support of a sun-centered (heliocentric) system should suffice to illustrate that. If not, there are the cases of 21st-century Afghani school girls being blinded in acid attacks for daring to learn.

Less violently, traditional Chinese and Japanese educational systems emphasized the “four Rs”—rules, rote memorization, regimentation and regurgitation. Active or aggressive enquiry being virtually taboo in their classes, students were (and often still are) reluctant, if not terrified, to raise their hands to ask a question, for fear of standing out like “the nail that gets hammered down” (as the Japanese describe it).

It has long been recognized that not only does this stifle curiosity; it also smothers creativity and independent thinking.

The punishments may not be intentional: Overcrowded school classrooms may make asking questions a luxury unavailable to most students, who would, by the

ir peer or teachers, be seen as disruptive, if the right to express curiosity were exercised by too many in class. Group job interviews may have the same effect.

Curiosity may also be inhibited by fear of punishment for purely demographic reasons: In small towns or small populations densely packed, there may be an understanding that asking questions carries the risk of answering them and thereby providing grist for local gossip mills.

That’s how I accounted for the fact that in some places I’ve lived (for at least a year) with precisely such demographics, e.g., Halifax, Nova Scotia, where virtually no one ever asked personal questions or otherwise expressed any curiosity about my friends, myself or anyone else, even in the most prolonged sociable and social of circumstances, e.g., a dinner party—especially if, as a newcomer, you were seen as being “from away”.

Unsurprisingly, given the aforementioned possibility of curiosity-deficiency cross-contamination, they displayed almost zero curiosity about anything else, except for whether the crackers go better with Brie or Camembert.

(On the other hand, it would come as no surprise if in sparsely populated regions, e.g., the Australian outback, curiosity about and with strangers is as virtually boundless as the Great Victoria Desert.)

Maybe Randy came from a small town with a big gossip mill and stifled curiosity.

Other personal reasons for being curiosity-averse include a fear of appearing foolish, e.g., by asking a “stupid question”.

That fear can be rooted in a lack of confidence—social, cultural, intellectual, etc. This may partially explain why many social media and iPhone addicts I’ve observed display zero curiosity regarding anyone who or anything that is not online or is not a smart phone.

In addition to getting their full stimulation fixes online or on-phone, and lacking face-to-face social paradigms with anyone not in a pre-existing and narrow peer group, to them, exhibiting curiosity about and to unfamiliar others may seem not only unnecessary, but also “weird”—which would make them look weird (with real or imagined punitive consequences).

Of course, a deficiency of direct, face-to-face social practice (with anyone outside their peer group) will only compound their insecurities and further squelch any curiosity.

On this model, Randy may have, despite being confident about his responses to questions, been much less confident about initiating questions, for fear of blundering socially, tribally, intellectually, etc.

Or maybe he went to schools, worked in other companies, was raised in a family or went to a church (confessional) where “Don’t ask, do tell!” was the norm. That would be a marker for a passive rather than active learning style and for limited curiosity.

[Continued in Part II]

Read more in Interview Questions

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).