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Life lessons from many an interview disaster

Do interviews terrify you? News of a friend hiring brings back memories of gaffes—and ruminations on why nothing changes

Interviewers ask the same questions in different ways, a routine with little meaning. (ISTOCKPHOTO)

Are you good at job interviews? I am rubbish at them, that’s why I ask. My very first interview was for headgirl. One teacher who loved me and thought I would be a shoo-in was appalled at how many daft things I did. He asked, “First of all, why were you slumped over the boardroom table?” I had no answer. It was hard to explain that sitting alone at one end of a mile-long boardroom table was a rather unnerving experience at 17. But my teacher and I knew none of that mattered because of my answer to the very first question I was asked.

The principal (fake genial, good-looking in a Santa Claus sort of way) asked the first one glaring from under his snow-white eyebrows: What is your father? I should have known what that meant since my school was like NH7 Weekender for class drama. We had to fetch soft drinks at events for school board bigwigs and they sometimes sent us back in the blazing sun if we got them the wrong one. But the “what” of “what is your father” completely threw me. And my tongue, faster than my brain, replied: My father is a man. I was not even trying to be a smartass at that particular moment but nothing I said during the rest of the interview mattered. Game over.

The reason I was thinking about this and other interview disasters is because a friend is in the midst of hiring. One of the questions she was advised to ask all potential employees is this: If someone had to dissuade me from hiring you, what would that someone say? The smart person who advised her said: It’s not about the contents of the answer, it’s about understanding whether the person is able to analyse their own behaviour or only produce a glib response. Unfortunately, this question is now stuck in my brain.

In a 1954 cartoon called Bewitched Bunny, Bugs Bunny wanders into the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. For some reason, the name Hansel stops him short and Bugs spends a lot of time just saying “Hansel? Hansel? Hansel?” My bestie and I saw this cartoon in our teens and we have since liked saying “Hansel? Hansel?” in that bewildered tone a lot. Hansel is about to be displaced, though, because that potential interview question is stuck in my head. Why that one? After all, it is just a sophisticated version of “What is your weakness?”, to which you answer, “I am a perfectionist/I don’t know when to stop/I care too much about people”. La la la, no one has learnt anything from this traditional song and dance.

I have spent the last few days thinking of potential answers and failing. I hasten to add this is not because I am a megalomaniac who cackles and sings “thou art perfection” at a full-length mirror (at least not more than once a month). This new version of that old question has made me Hansel out because it makes me imagine someone with a furrowed brow and lowered voice telling my potential employer something significant. More importantly, something significant that I don’t know about myself. The big reveal. Doesn’t the thought unnerve you? Now listen, if you are like “I am fully aware of all my failings and no one can surprise me”, I would really like to work for you because I am guessing sitting under the tree achieving nirvana is full-time work in a dynamic environment. We can only be colleagues because I like a little self-involvedness to season my friendships.

Somehow women interviewers seem to see through my Tourette’s-adjacent behaviour (woman who was my boss for six years at interview: what area do you have contacts in? Me: I don’t have any contacts. I do have some friends). When the interviewer is a man, it’s pretty much over for me. Me looking at a potential big client who has a fresh band-aid on his crown, asking in genuine concern: Are you okay? Client: I went to a store and the shutter fell on me. Me: Were you trying to rob the place? Or me at 26 asking a hostile interviewer for 5,000 more than I would have dared to ask because I was wondering whether his antagonism was about wanting to employ the other candidate—a relative of his. Me at 21 frowning at the director of a journalism school who smirked at me and said you are not a very good writer.

Negging wasn’t a term I knew then but I knew what men telling me I couldn’t write meant.

I am still not sure about the right answer to that question but the last week of Hansel-ing has given me some insights into my job interview disasters. I sometimes think of myself as a people-pleaser but I really am not. And at interviews I am mostly like a werewolf who has come out of hibernation to play video games. Not good.

Luckily, this is officially small children school interview season and I am collecting anecdotes like Pokémon cards. I am told these days schools work harder to elicit what a child knows rather than demonically laugh at what a child doesn’t know. But in one notable exception, a principal asked a friend’s three-year-old: How did you come here? The child replied: through the door. I like to imagine the principal immediately resigned and deleted his LinkedIn account.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.

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