The job interview is one of the most difficult rhetorical situations that exist. In the job interview we must sell ourselves to a prospective employer using both written (resume supplied prior to the interview) and verbal (the actual interview) forms of rhetoric. A person’s ability to communicate effectively, regardless of the position for which they are applying, is the first qualification under scrutiny. In an interview, to communicate effectively that you are the best person for the job, the rhetorical aspects to consider (and ultimately master) are content, language, dialect, and effective delivery.
The questions posed in an interview restrict the content, but the rhetorical skill to master in this situation is the ability to provide substantive answers detailing your qualifications without rambling or straying from the intended topic. Bitzer says, “A situation which is strong and clear dictates the purpose, theme, matter, and style of the response” (223). Later he adds to this saying, “One might say metaphorically that every situation prescribes its fitting response; the rhetor may or may not read the prescription accurately” (223). The interview structure at Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) is a formal process. The human resource department reviews the interview questions for potential legal issues and fairness to all applicants before an interview committee may use them. Each member of the committee has a sheet to score the answers and write key phrases or words that support the score. They are looking for specific responses to the questions – a perfect example of the situation Bitzer describes. In the past four years, I have interviewed eleven times with Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), at three different campuses and in front of several different committees. My first interview, a phone interview, was my first experience with this type of questioning and with the committee style of interviewing. When the interview was over, I was sure I had done horribly due to my inexperience with this type of situation. I thought I had not “read the prescription accurately” and not being able to see the reactions of the committee members, my audience, I could not gage if my responses were fitting. Although it is a very structured setting with a clear purpose, it is still a difficult rhetorical situation to interpret and left me feeling very inept. The interview setting is one where it is crucial to understand what response is required and to deliver that response clearly.
While the questions restrict content, the vocabulary of the culture restricts the language of the interview. To show your knowledge of the organization and type of work they do, you must be able to speak their language. For entry-level positions, the knowledge can be general and broadly applied. When I interviewed for the first time with MCCCD, I knew general bookkeeping terms, practices, and was able to apply them broadly in the interview. Not knowing the specific language of the institution was detrimental during a management level interview when I was asked for an explanation of my knowledge of fund accounting. My initial reaction was that I had no idea what they were talking about; after some prompting I realized I did know what it was and had a fairly good understanding of fund accounting but unfortunately, did not know that was what it was called. Although I understood, and could explain the concept, I did not appear knowledgeable because of my initial reaction to not knowing the term. I was not hired to that position; I was excluded from that community in part due to my lack of knowledge of their vocabulary.
Even with a thorough knowledge of the community and an ability to use the language appropriate to the field, a dialect may make you seem unintelligent. Dicker speaks of this when he talks about language and cultural stereotyping, “…hearing one’s native language spoken with a regional accent different from one’s own, or hearing one’s native language spoken in a variety associated with a particular sub-culture, can trigger thoughts and feelings about the people who speak that way. Language is therefore a means by which cultural stereotypes are transmitted” (6). It is difficult for me to accept when Dicker says, “A single standard English exists only in theory, in the pages of English grammar textbooks” (7). He also states that, “To many speakers of standard English, AAVE sounds like a corruption of the standard, English spoken in a lazy or uneducated way” (7). If as Dicker claims that, “…they are bidialectical, and can move back and forth from one to the other as the situation warrants”, then the job interview situation is a time when an AAVE speaker should use Standard English (7). However, according to my family and my teachers, there was never an appropriate place to use non-standard English.
When content, language, and dialect come together perfectly it is then that the ability to persuade your audience is optimal. In an interview, your goal is to deliver the message that you are the most qualified candidate for the job and that the interviewers would be fools for not hiring you. Corbett states, “…most rhetoricians would acknowledge the importance of effective delivery in the persuasive process” (145). In an interview, you are selling yourself to your audience – your ideas, skills, and worthiness to be a part of their organization. The manner in which you deliver this information is a key element in persuading them that you are the best person for the job. Corbett also says, “Skill in delivery can best be acquired, of course, not by listening to theoretical discussions of this art but by actual practice and by analyzing the delivery of others” (145). As I stated earlier, I have interviewed eleven times in the past four years, additionally I have served on two interview committees, and I now feel very confident in my interviewing abilities. I have applied, and interviewed for positions that I knew were unlikely possibilities but they offer opportunities to improve my responses and feel more comfortable with the process. By serving as a committee member I get a greater insight to the process as a whole, I know better what the interviewing committee is looking for when I’m in the hot seat, and I can note the behaviors and responses that were unfavorable in other interviewees. Repeated exposure to the interview process has allowed me to refine the delivery of my qualifications (content), in a language and manner appropriate to the organization, resulting in two promotions in a short period of time.
In a job interview, we use our best rhetorical skills to garner the acceptance of a stranger and influence their decision about our value as a potential employee. Corbett states, “But if, as we are told, the ability to use words to communicate thoughts and feelings is our most distinctively human accomplishment, there can be few satisfactions in life that can match the pride a person feels when he or she has attained master over words” (148). We put our best foot forward and hope it doesn’t end up in our mouth.
Bitzer, Lloyd, “The Rhetorical Situation”
Corbett, E.P. J. “Introduction to Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student”
Dicker, Susan J. “Language and Identity”