What Your Language Really Says in a Job Interview

Posted by Dave Allen on November 7, 2011

Think of a job interview like a first date: In both settings, you reveal who you are and what you’ve done in hopes that you’re what the other person is looking for. As you carefully describe yourself, you probably give little regard to those words that crop up most frequently, such as “I” and “me.”

Though these words may seem forgettable, they actually say a lot about who you are. In the new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, author James W. Pennebaker investigates what the language we use reveals about us. We caught up with Pennebaker to find out what to consider when choosing your words in an interview.

You & I
In conversation, use of “I” shows self-awareness, while using “you” acknowledges and draws in your audience. The job interview calls for a balance of both. Focus on yourself too much—imagine an email in which every sentence starts with “I”—and you’ll isolate yourself from your audience.  So be sure to include the interviewer in the conversation. A short phrase, such as “I’m glad you asked,” lets him know you have his concerns in mind.  

No “I” In Team
When referring to team projects, it’s time to tone down “I,” “me,” and “my” and play up the collaborative nature of the work with “we.” “That would tell me you were psychologically a member of that team,” says Pennebaker. In contrast, references to “them” and “they” distance you from the people you worked with and raise doubts that you’re a team player.

Matching Up
Pennebaker’s research has revealed that people working in the same field often have common linguistic traits. For example, engineers tend to use articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns (physical objects) at higher rates than non-engineers, but pronouns and emotion words (good, happy, sad) at lower rates. This indicates a greater focus on tasks and an unemotional approach to one’s work. Interviewers gauge cultural fit partly based on your language, so matching the speaking style of your interviewer can be helpful. A mismatch—discussing how you felt about your work when the interviewer wants to know what you accomplished—will keep you from really connecting.

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