How Should You Act During a Job Interview?
Research shows that cultural mismatch can negatively influence hiring decisions.
Posted August 21, 2018
How should a job applicant behave during an interview, in order to increase the likelihood of getting hired? The answer may depend on cultural factors. In a paper currently in press, researchers from the United States and Hong Kong concluded that cultural and emotional mismatch between the interviewer and applicant might negatively influence employment and hiring decisions.1
What influences an interviewer’s hiring decision? Factors relevant to the job in question, of course, but also ones unrelated to work.
Some of these non-work related elements have to do with the interviewer’s conscious biases. For example, a racist interviewer might consciously plan not to hire a minority applicant. But non-work related factors could also exert a subconscious influence, as in the case of an employer who rejects qualified minority applicants because they just happen not to have the “right attitude.”
What is the right attitude? Could it involve the person’s emotional expression during the interview? Before we discuss the current research, we first need to briefly discuss emotions and affects.
According to affect valuation theory (AVT), actual affect refers to how people usually feel, while ideal affect refers to how they wish to feel.1
In general, people often wish to feel less negative and more positive, but AVT claims that ideal affect (compared with actual affect) is more strongly influenced by cultural factors. For instance, compared with East Asians, European Americans have a stronger desire to experience feelings of excitement and enthusiasm.
Ideal affect has been used to explain many different inclinations and behaviors, including a person’s music preference, drug use, leisure activities, etc.2
The present study
What happens when an interviewer and applicant come from different cultures, and have different understandings of ideal affect?
To examine this phenomenon, the present study’s authors, Bencharit et al., conducted a series of five related studies. They investigated how ideal affect influences the way applicants present themselves in their application and in person, and how ideal affect impacts hiring decisions.
The first two studies found that compared with Hong Kong Chinese individuals, European American applicants attempted to show more enthusiasm and excitement (as expected, given the European American ideal affect); they did so both through word choice (when completing their applications), and through more high intensity smiles (during the interview).
In the third study, the participants were asked to make hiring decisions. The results revealed that European American participants considered the ideal applicant to be someone who expressed excitement/enthusiasm; Asian American participants (and especially the Hong Kong Chinese) were less likely to feel that way.
In the fourth study, both Asian American and European American MBAs were more willing (compared to Hong Kong Chinese MBAs) to hire an enthusiastic applicant.
In the last investigation, employees at a U.S.-based company were less prone to hiring a calm (as opposed to excited) applicant.
Looking at the results of these studies, we may wonder why emotional expression affects hiring decisions. Maybe because emotional expressions cue group membership.
If an Asian man were to show an enthusiastic and intense smile upon meeting a stranger from Europe, this can serve as a cultural signal that he too values enthusiasm (which is an ideal affect among European Americans). In other words, he is signaling that he belongs to the same group as the stranger.
While an ideal affect mismatch might not have any serious consequences when casually interacting with a stranger, the results of these studies show that such a mismatch has the potential to influence important outcomes (e.g., not getting a job despite being more than qualified for it).
Recent immigrants and others who have limited understanding of the American culture (e.g., its expectations and norms), are likely to be misunderstood themselves. And that is worth remembering.
For instance, just because an applicant (or coworker) does not express energy and excitement (as is culturally expected), it does not mean that she does not care about the work or her coworkers.
And yet, even well-meaning employers who are committed to diversity, but who have limited experience with other cultures, are vulnerable to these hiring errors. Employers, then, should consider having a culturally knowledgeable interviewer conduct the job interview when needed.
1. Bencharit, L. Z., Ho, Y. W., Fung, H. H., Yeung, D. Y., Stephens, N. M., Romero-Canyas, R., & Tsai, J. L. (in press). Should job applicants be excited or calm? The role of culture and ideal affect in employment settings. Emotion. doi.org/10.1037/emo0000444
2. Tsai, J. L. (2007). Ideal affect: Cultural causes and behavioral consequences. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 242–259.