Understanding the dance

The challenges of interviewing across cultures
By Adam Kaminsky
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/30/2001

The Canadian job interview today is not unlike a dance — a series of choreographed moves that participants know and expect others involved to know as well.

Interviews are a sort of conga line of fairly predictable questions, a range of acceptable answers and an outcome based on how well the dance was performed.

But what happens if an interview candidate comes from a culture that only does the rumba and has never seen a conga line, does that mean they are any less capable of performing on the job?

This is a useful, though admittedly simplistic analogy for the struggles that people from different cultures often have with an activity so common to Canadians.

Struggling with the dance

As in most intercultural interactions, the most difficult hurdle in interviewing across cultures is overcoming the assumptions held by the interviewer and candidate. These assumptions are often based on physical appearance, the job requirements, the level of formality and many other issues.

A typical example: One job candidate is an outgoing engineer from Germany, but in his interview he uses a formal tone and exhibits a very academic demeanour, because that is common in his native country. The manager who is conducting the interview immediately assumes that the candidate is too formal and inflexible to be right for the job and decides to hire the previous interview candidate, who opened the interview with a joke about the local hockey team.

Assumptions are only one of the challenges that complicate cross-cultural interviewing. Different communication techniques also have an effect on an intercultural interview. Communicating across cultures is always challenging, but in an interview setting where every move and every word is scrutinized, when those actions and words mean different things to different people, miscommunication often follows.

Every word and every gesture emits a meaning, whether it is intended or not. Non-verbal communication plays a more significant role in a job interview than every day interaction because the interviewer diligently observes eye contact, gestures, posture, tone of voice and emotion.

This often creates a problem for candidates from other cultures. In Canada, the interviewer generally considers eye contact and good posture as a sign of confidence, while the candidate from China may see those same characteristics as a sign of disrespect.

Verbal communication may also lead to similar confusion. When a candidate is using a second language, they may spend time searching for words and sentences, leading to long pauses or primitive use of the language, neither of which will likely impress the interviewer.

Language difficulties can be compounded in the interview setting if the interviewer uses metaphors or jargon. While jargon in the technical sense is often unavoidable in a job interview, metaphors inevitably cause miscommunication.

Most metaphors are not only complicated for the second language speaker, but also involve culture specific examples (especially since many relate to sports), that would confuse even those with strong English skills from different cultures.

Simplifying the dance

While assumptions are natural, and cross-cultural communication is difficult, interviewers that are aware of the potential challenges involved with interviewing across cultures will be able to overcome them.

The first step is for the interviewer to be aware of her assumptions. In the book Intercultural Interviewing, Christine Turkewych and Helena Guerriro-Klinowski call these assumptions the “Book of Shoulds,” based on the fact that the assumptions are what the interviewer thinks the candidate should or should not do. Being aware of what is in her “Book of Shoulds” allows the interviewer to better catch herself if she is basing decisions on how things should be, and not as they are.

Overcoming the issues surrounding verbal communication may be the most straight forward of the challenges. Interviewers should consider using more simple language, be willing to repeat themselves, avoid most metaphors and not judge the candidate based on accent or use of slang or jargon.

While in some cases facility with the language is important for the job, that is not always the case. If language is not essential for the job, then the candidate should not be rejected because of difficulties with the accent or language.

Many of the problems that relate to non-verbal communication across cultures can be resolved through understanding that cultural differences exist. It is impossible to learn the non-verbal cues of every culture, but being aware that differences exist is essential. For example, understanding that in some cultures eye contact is not a good thing will force interviewers think twice about dismissing candidates who do not look them in the eye.

Re-choreographing the dance

In today’s global, highly competitive economy, organizations need to find the best people. It is counter-productive to unnecessarily restrict the size of the pool of potential employees through misguided cultural assumptions.

Even the most experienced of interviewers is apt to expect one set of dance steps from the interview candidate, but it is becoming increasingly important to judge candidates based on the content of the interview, and not the cultural expectations of the interviewer.

The intercultural interview dance doesn’t need to be a complicated one, but if participants go in with open minds and limited assumptions, the results will be fair to the candidate and beneficial to the organization.

Adam Kaminsky is the development associate at MALKAM Cross-Cultural Training, a consulting and training company that helps organizations succeed in the global marketplace by leveraging their cultural and linguistic diversity. He can be reached at (613) 761-7440.

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