Job interview

Awkward Job Interviews – We’ve All Been There

Books of Adam: The Blunder Years, published by Grand Central Publishing on July 9, 2013, is written by Adam Ellis, the writer/artist behind the funny Books of Adam blog. It’s another fun book I recommend, especially if you’re a fan of sites like The Oatmeal and Hyperbole and a Half.

Adam Ellis book from Amazon

The book is based on the Books of Adam blog and has a lot of great material, but my favorite part is Adam’s account of a job interview gone bad — it’s funny and reassuring at the same time, since most of us have bombed an interview and should remember that it’s happened to nearly everyone at some point! I’ll share an account of one of my own bad interviews in a bit, but first here is Adam’s story:

“When I finally landed an interview at a bookstore, it only proved I had more to worry about than simply getting callbacks from employers. Apparently my interview skills had atrophied and died. I arrived to the interview on time wearing my most professional outfit. But I was so nervous that when the interview asked what the last great book I read was, I froze up. Suddenly I couldn’t remember a single book I’d ever read. I sputtered a nonsense answer about ‘reading so much it’s hard to decide,’ and then stared at the interviewer awkwardly until he moved onto the next question. The saddest part is that I really do read constantly. I could’ve talked about being swept up in the haunting tragedy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or how Kavalier & Clay was so achingly beautiful I didn’t know what to do with myself after finishing it…”

This really amused me. How many times hasn’t that happened to you, where you think of a great response to another person’s question or comment only after your chance to say it has passed? I know it’s happened to me a lot! And it’s even worse when it happens during something like an interview; if you’d just been talking to a friend, it’s not a big deal, plus you could possibly say it later. But an interview? Too bad, that ship has sailed. Plus, in the moment, your anxiety about bombing that question likely throws you off for the rest of the interview and makes you act strangely, like how Adam stared awkwardly at the interviewer afterwards. (That’s what cracked me up the most about his story; I pictured him just sitting there, with the silence lasting longer and longer….!)

I know how Adam must have felt, because it’s happened to me. In one particularly bad interview, I actually said something not only incomprehensible, but it also sounded borderline inappropriate! Here’s what happened.

I was interviewing for a writing internship at a publishing company which produces materials for educational institutions. I really wanted the job because I liked the work the company did, plus the position paid very well compared to other comparable roles (some of which didn’t pay anything at all, actually).  So I was thrilled to have been offered an interview with the head of the company.

All was going well until he asked how long it typically takes me to write a 1,000 word piece. Now, that question threw me for a bit because the length of time a piece of writing takes me varies depending on the subject — do I already know a lot about it or will it involve extensive research? And the approach to the topic is a vital factor too — will it be a news article or a first-person account? Since this company produced a wide range of published works, I wasn’t sure what kind of work I’d be producing for them, and that made answering the question hard for me. Plus in the past, I’d write for as long as it took and had never quantified my work time. I was just beginning my writing career back then and didn’t have enough experience to estimate how long it took me to write — or how long it should take me. Even now, I tend to overthink things and neurotically check, check and re-check my work, but that was especially true then when I was starting out. So I was worried I might answer with a length of time that sounded crazily long, or like an inefficient use of company time — but if I went too far to the other extreme and gave too short of a timeframe, that might make it look like my work wasn’t thorough enough. I knew I was willing to spend extra time on my writing for them during my own free time if needed, since I really needed the experience, but I just wasn’t sure how to base my answer on all these nuances.

I decided to break down my answer into 2 parts, as honestly and realistically as possible: the time I’d likely spend doing background research and outlining the piece, and then how long I’d take to write and polish it. I started to say something along the lines of, “Well, it would probably take me about an hour to do the nuts and bolts of the piece, although that would depend on the topic, and then approximately another hour to organize and polish it.”

But suddenly my brain felt that the term “nuts and bolts” sounded old-fashioned, plus it was vague; I knew I meant research, but I should say that more clearly! Unfortunately, my mouth was faster than my brain, so my internal self-editing turned into me saying that it would likely take me an hour to do the “nuts of the piece,” then another hour to wrap it up.

The nuts of the piece? What the heck is that?

Needless to say, I was immediately embarrassed. I felt my face get red and I was aware of myself fidgeting as I first paused, then quickly rambled on, trying to gloss over my odd response. The interviewer — and remember, the head of the company! — looked at me quizzically for a moment, but didn’t press for clarification. I was relieved but at the same time was also scheming how to retroactively correct my choice of words in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to my error but would make more sense and not seem so…well, weird. But I couldn’t do that and focus on the current questions he was now asking me, so I had to move on. And I was very uncomfortable during the rest of the interview.

Later, a friend asked me why I didn’t just continue saying “nuts and bolts.” But I’d felt I couldn’t — I’d already altered my phrasing and moved past the point where I could use my original sentence! She then asked why I didn’t just try to work in the journalism term “nut graf” that we’d learned in our college classes, which refers to the paragraph in a news story which summarizes the essential points of the article. That would have been a decent strategy, but I was too far gone by that point to even think of something intelligent like that. It was all I could do to keep up with the rest of the interview and try to get to the end of it with some dignity.

Amazingly, however, I got the job! I really hadn’t expected to, especially since this was a writing job. I figured they’d want someone who could communicate better than I had! But somehow I was hired. That might be why I’m able to laugh about the interview now; had I lost out on the opportunity, I probably wouldn’t be as light-hearted about it.

I’m now glad it happened, actually — it showed me that an occasional slip-up doesn’t spell doom and mean certain failure. And looking back, I realize I could have handled it better. Now that I’m older and not as easily embarrassed, if the same scenario happened today, I think I’d just briefly correct what I’d said and explain it.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still feel odd for what I’d said; I would, and I’d definitely still blush. (That is a weakness of mine I can’t seem to fix!) But I’d probably say something like, “You know, the nuts and bolts of the piece. In other words, I’d research the topic; then I’d…” And just keep moving forward normally, versus freezing and then prattling on in a nervous, overcompensating way.

Trying to hide a mistake, when you’re clearly aware of it, just makes you look like you’re not willing to admit your own shortcomings. Who wants to work with someone like that? I know we’re told to highlight our strengths and downplay our weaknesses and mistakes in a professional setting, but I prefer to just say the truth, without any spin. Not sure if that’s the “smart” approach, but it’s worked for me over the years. Why try to hide the obvious?

Overall, here’s what I now say about interview slipups:

  • If you’ve ever had a bad interview you keep beating yourself up over — don’t! It’s done, and it happens to all of us — and it’s not the end of the world.
  • If you get the job in spite of it, you’ll know you really had what they were looking for if they were able to look past your gaffe.
  • If you don’t get the job? It probably wasn’t just because of that — I know that may sound discouraging, but what I mean is, it could be for reasons you couldn’t control right now anyway. Like maybe they hired someone who was able to take a lower salary, or the position itself is being put on hold.
  • But if they did rule you out based on something odd you said or did, but which is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, then you probably wouldn’t have wanted to work there anyway. Having had my share of miserable work environments over the years, I now would rather not get a job where people are uptight and closed-minded than get it and hate every day I have to drag myself into the office.

Hope this helps anyone who has never gotten over an interview mistake, or those of you who may have an interview coming up…and that’s the nuts of what I have to say right now.