In this age of email, IMing, tweeting, and Google Hangouts, face-to-face communication is becoming increasingly rare. One of the unintended consequences of that fact is that young job entrants have developed a kind of situational Asperger’s Syndrome, that variant of autism spectrum disorder characterized by poor language selection and a lack of ability to “read” the faces of others or respond to their visual cues.
This is not real Asperger’s, which is a rare but growing condition. It is actually just a poorly developed skill set; one that is essential for getting a job. Whether you are interviewing with a human resources professional, a headhunter, or the person for whom you are ultimately going to work, the ability to communicate in non-verbal ways is as important as anything you have to say during the interview.
When someone has strong non-verbal skills, one of the most common ways to communicate that you are in sync with the interviewing is something called matching. When the interviewer leans forward, you lean forward. When they smile, you smile back. When they pull back, indicating that they have been startled a bit by something you said, you have to pull back as well, to acknowledge that you have suddenly put a bit of distance between yourself and the interviewer. Your next statement needs to be followed with a lean in the interviewer’s direction, to re-establish social contact.
I first learned all of this when I was in the Foreign Service, and an expert came in for a morning training session in body language. Non-verbal cues are extremely important in diplomacy, especially when there are cultural as well as linguistic differences among people. Our instructor showed up for the training session with a baseball bat, to illustrate what he called the “social bubble.” For Americans, the social bubble is about 32 inches. As long as you maintain the bubble, you can maintain communication with someone. Pull back too far and they will lose interest in what you have to say. Advance too closely and they will take it as a sign of aggression. That’s why you have to match your interviewer’s moves while you are carrying on your conversation. There are hundreds of other rules that apply when you are talking to people from another culture, such as not crossing your legs when you are speaking with Arabs — showing the soles of your shoes is considered an insult — or waving backhanded when you speak with Greeks — the palm of the hand contains the evil eye — but you won’t really need to know these things for most interviews unless you plan to work overseas.
Along with the things that you ought to do, there are any number of things to never do. Never furrow your brows in response to a question. You may think that it makes you look serious, or that it makes you look like Brian Williams of NBC News, but most people take a furrowed brow as a sign of worry. To an interviewer, worry translates into a lack of confidence, and if you don’t have confidence in yourself, why should the interviewer give you a job that you might not be up to?
Never take your eyes off the interviewer. I am an intensely curious person, so whenever I’m in a room, my eyes wander all over the place. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the person by their surroundings, and while it can be a good tactic when you are reporting, it’s a turnoff to an interviewer, because it indicates a lack of attention — translation: commitment — to the task at hand, which is persuading the interviewer to give you a job. If your eyes do have a tendency to wander, you’d better find something interesting to focus them on, so you can make conversation with the interviewer after the interview is completed.
Don’t maintain too fixed an expression on your face. You should be responding to what is being said, but that said, don’t exaggerate your facial movements, either. Don’t smile at inappropriate moments, or laugh unless there’s a real joke being told. Above all, don’t show panic. I know a number of people who blush easily, and if you are one of those people, you have my sympathy. Blushing not only shows embarrassment; it is also a primo “tell” to interviewers of nervousness, as are inadvertent facial tics.
If you have either of these problems, my advice to you is simple: Do practice interviews with a friend and have them record the interview so that you can play it back. As you do, observe your own behavior. You may be shocked by what you see, but once you’ve observed yourself in action, you can begin to eliminate problems and turn yourself into a much more polished interview candidate.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at
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