In the last week, I’ve had two first-round job interviews, with a third looming this afternoon. I’m good at first interviews – I’d go as far as to say I’m a bit of an expert – and having sat on both sides of the table many times over the years, I have a pretty well-rounded view of what good (and really, really bad!) looks like.
In the context of this blog, I find first interviews interesting because they share a number of obvious features with flirting – right down to the mistakes people make when conceptualising, characterising and conducting them.
The biggest of those is to view both interactions as one-dimensional and goal-orientated; and on top of that, to buy into a narrow, conventional view of what that goal should be. If you go into a first-round job interview thinking that your main – or only – objective is to sell yourself to the company you’re seeing, you’re missing the point; likewise, if you can’t see flirting as anything other than the intermediate step between meeting a potential partner/bedmate and ‘sealing the deal’, you not only reduce your chances of achieving that objective, you take a whole load of other possibilities out of play at the same time.
Let me be clearer: the aim in both situations is not simply to impress the other person. Take that approach, and you set up an immediate power imbalance that just shouldn’t exist. You put yourself in the position of having to do all the legwork; you imply that you’re the one who has to convince them, because your mind is already made up. It’s like playing a hand of heads-up poker and showing your opponent both of your cards before the betting starts.
This isn’t about being coy, or playing hard to get. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be direct and up front with the person interviewing you; nor that you should hide your attraction to someone when you flirt with them. Bluffing is an overrated skill at the poker table, and it’s even less useful when talking about your CV or chatting someone up at the bar. Just as you can represent your hand in an honest way and still make your opponent think about how to engage with it, so you can be yourself in an interview, or during playful conversation, without ceding control of the outcome to the other person.
That’s especially true when neither of you has a particular outcome in mind. When I sit down with an interviewer for the first time, I usually have no idea whether or not I want the job; in fact, sometimes I know for certain that I don’t. Those meetings should be treated as exploratory conversations; a chance for both of you to get a feel for whether there’s a ‘spark’. I do little in the way of preparation, because the aim is not to show off how much I know about the company. I’m not there to jump through hoops, I’m there to have a chat to someone who I may or may not want to talk to again further down the line. As far as I’m concerned, the onus is on them to impress me – to give me a reason to want to work with them – just as much as it is on me to impress them.
And you know what? Taking that approach can be really fucking hard sometimes. In January 2013, I’d been out of work for over four months, and was starting to get desperate. I was miserable, I was running out of cash, and all I wanted was for someone – anyone – to give me a job. Rather than playing it cool in interviews, I felt like getting down on my knees and begging the other person to help me out. With every passing day, the stakes got just a little bit higher, along with my anxiety levels; as they rose, so did the volume of the voice in my head, whispering “don’t fuck this up” over and over again.
It’s both fine and natural to feel that way…but it’s even better if you can stop it translating into actions and behaviour. That’s exactly why I make myself go to interviews for jobs I neither want nor need. Honing your technique when the pressure’s off is ultimately the key to overcoming interview nerves, and to maintaining a calm, conversational approach even when chasing the job of your dreams. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule in miniature: practice hard enough, build up your muscle memory, and your chances of success increase accordingly. Beyond that, you also give yourself a chance to play around with different (and hopefully better) ways of representing yourself, or your skills and experience.
Flirting works in a very similar way, albeit usually with less at stake. It’s also why it ought to be viewed more as a recreational activity – an end in itself – rather than as part of a wider process. I flirt frequently, casually, and – some have said – incorrigibly. I flirt that way mainly because I enjoy it, but also because I don’t see it as something that’s goal-orientated. It’s fun, pressure-free conversation, and if it turns into anything more, that should be seen as a bonus.
Drawing parallels between first-round job interviews and flirting is easy, obvious…and frequently, dishearteningly wrong. Yes, both require eye contact, and smiling, and confidence, and all the rest of it, but to focus on those things is to miss the more fundamental key to success: namely to approach each activity not as if you have to make a sale at the end of it, but instead as a pleasant, initial conversation that’s a good worth having in its own right.