Job interviews are challenging enough when everybody’s speaking his or her first language. They’re even trickier for international ESOL students and candidates — and anyone who was raised in a different culture and/or with a different primary language.
The American job interview is different from an interview in China or Brazil or the UK. Some differences are minor and others are more daunting.
I have worked with hundreds of international students and job candidates — and coached hundreds of them to land jobs and internships at prestigious U.S.-based firms. I have seen similar challenges come up over and over again.
After working with so many bright and accomplished job seekers who were missing out on opportunities because of language or cultural differences, I decided to write this post to outline the solutions that I’ve seen work consistently to overcome these challenges. They can work for you too.
Challenge 1 — Self Promotion
Let’s start with the biggest challenge for many international and ESL job seekers (and for many native U.S. job seekers as well!): self-promotion or “selling” yourself as a candidate.
Why is this harder for some people than for others? It’s partly a matter of personality — if you’re shy or introverted or humble by nature, you will probably struggle more than your extroverted buddy.
However, culture also plays a major role in your ability to sell your achievements and strengths in a job interview. In his 1976 book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall presented the theory of high-context cultures and low-context cultures.
Here’s a very basic overview of the topic that may shed some light on why issues can come up during interviews between people from different backgrounds:
High-Context Cultures — In these cultures, social trust must be earned first and the situation and relationships are more important than the actual words spoken. There is more of a focus on the group and people who talk about themselves a lot are not perceived favorably. Examples of high-context cultures include many countries in Asia, the Middle East, and South America (among others).
Low-Context Cultures — These cultures put more emphasis on the individual and prefer to get down to business quickly (instead of spending more time on establishing trust). They value individual performance and respond favorably to people who “talk a good game.” Examples of low-context cultures include the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Australia.
It’s not that one of these culture types is better than the other. However, if you are a person raised in a high-context culture, you may find yourself struggling to make a strong impression when interviewing with someone from a low-context culture
How to Sell Yourself in a U.S. Job Interview
When interviewing for positions in the U.S. (and other low-context cultures), it’s important to be able to articulate your value and what sets you apart from other candidates. The idea of this will be uncomfortable (or even terrifying) for someone raised to blend in and/or to avoid “bragging.”
The good news is that you can learn to sell yourself better in an American job interview. You can’t force it by trying to be someone else. However, preparation and practice can help you find a comfort level with talking about your talents and accomplishments in your own voice.
The 3-step approach that has worked best for my coaching clients is to:
1. Analyze Your Fit — This may seem obvious, but in order to sell yourself in an interview, you’ll need a clear understanding of what makes you stand out from other candidates.
Many modest candidates (from all cultures) have been raised to perform well and wait to be recognized. This won’t work in American job interviews. You’ll only have a brief period of time to make your case, so you’ll need to know in advance what to emphasize.
2. Hone Your Speaking Points — If you’re not comfortable talking yourself up, it’s particularly important to frame out your speaking points in writing. That doesn’t mean writing a word-for-word script. The idea is to outline your key selling points so you’ll be able to get straight to the point and avoid hemming and hawing or going off on tangents.
This is exactly what politicians and talk show guests do — they outline their talking points and then the words themselves come out a bit different each time, but the overall answers tend to stay on message.
3. Practice Until You’re Comfortable — Here’s the critical final step: you really do have to practice. When it comes to job interviews, practice makes a big difference for everybody. However, it can truly work magic for international and ESL candidates who are nervous about being able to sell themselves in a natural and likable way (and who may also worry about some of the other issues discussed below like wording or an accent or body language).
Big Interview is an invaluable tool for practicing for your interview. You can put yourself through the paces of practice interviews of varying levels of difficulty — all with your webcam and without the awkwardness of an audience.
I wrote a whole other post about how to sell yourself in an interview if you’d like more in-depth advice on this method.
Challenge 2 — Speaking the Same Language
Some candidates worry about being fluent in American “interview speak.” Some of this lingo isn’t taught in English classes.
Luckily, there are some simple steps that you can take to ensure that you and your interviewer will at least be able to understand each other:
1. Know the job description — Be sure to translate any buzzwords or industry jargon or obscure terminology from the job description. This will help to greatly reduce the chances that your interviewer will toss out a word you don’t understand.
2. Try some ESL interview exercises — The better ESL sites out there have useful resources like interview vocabulary lists and sample interview dialogues. I like the resources on the about.com ESL site.
3. Practice some interviews with Big Interview — I keep promoting my own site because I know it works. Skip over this part if I’m preaching to the choir. The practice interviews on Big Interview can help you get comfortable with common interview question phrasing — and the tips and sample answers can guide you in how to respond appropriately.
4. Prepare to wing it — If you do hear a word that you don’t fully understand, do your best to interpret it based on context and tone. If you’re still really stuck, it’s okay to ask your interviewer to clarify the question. Sometimes you can just ask him to repeat the question and he may rephrase it as well.
Challenge 3 — Accent
Many international candidates have accents — ranging from barely noticeable to distinctly heavy.
Most of my international coaching clients worry too much about their accents. In fact, worrying about their accents tends to distract them from giving great answers and establishing strong rapport.
It’s perfectly okay to have an accent. Accents are often lovely and charming to American interviewers. The only real problem with an accent is if it makes your answers difficult to understand.
To minimize problems, make sure you are speaking slowly and clearly. Because interviews are nerve-wracking, candidates often get anxious and start speaking more quickly than usual. This can lead to significant challenges in being understood. Slow down and your words will be much easier to comprehend.
If you’re not sure if you’re speaking slowly enough or if your accent could otherwise be sabotaging your message, get some candid feedback from someone you can trust. This could be a friend or professor or a coach.
If you get trustworthy feedback that your accent could be holding you back, there are “accent neutralization” resources out there. However, I find that practice and the proper speed often make accent neutralization measures unnecessary.
Challenge 4— Nonverbal Communications
Everybody knows that your nonverbal communications are critical to your first impression and to establishing the right rapport. However, there is a difference in how nonverbal communications are perceived in high-context vs. low-context cultures (see above for more on this concept).
In high-context cultures, prolonged eye contact can be seen as aggressive or disrespectful. In low-context cultures, lack of eye contact can be perceived as shifty or uninterested.
If you struggle with eye contact or body language, here’s a simple 2-step way to improve significantly:
2) Practice and get feedback from a trusted friend, mentor, or coach. Ask clearly for honest feedback even if it hurts — you need to know if you have bad body language habits if you want to get better.
Challenge 5 — Battling Misperceptions
Some interviewers will jump to conclusions about international candidates. Some may have biases about certain cultures — and letting these biases dictate the hiring decision is both wrong and illegal.
For example, it is illegal to ask about race, ethnic background, or country of origin in a job interview.
On the other hand, it’s okay to ask if someone is authorized to work in the U.S. or would require sponsorship to work in the U.S. — these are job-related questions. You must be prepared to address these questions if they come up.
Beyond outright bias, there are other, less malicious wrong assumptions that can be made by interviewers. For example, an interviewer may assume that you aren’t committed to staying in the U.S. long-term to grow with the company. An interviewer may also jump to the conclusion that you will have more difficulty understanding the American work culture or the company’s customers.
Luckily, these misperceptions about commitment or adaptability can be easily addressed. You may consider consciously addressing them in your answers to pre-empt any concerns. For example, you could talk about adaptability and your previous work experience in the U.S. as one of your strengths or you could discuss commitment to building a career in the U.S. when asked about your goals.)
Challenge 6 — Confidence
In my experience, lack of confidence is the most common reason for bombing a job interview — and this is particularly true for international and ESL job seekers.
Lack of confidence can be exacerbated by any or all of the challenges discussed above. International candidates also struggle with typical insecurities and nervousness when seeking a new opportunity.
The most effective cures for lack of confidence in interviewing: preparation and practice. I wish I had a magic pill that I could prescribe. However, for now, preparation and practice can give you the same benefits without any negative side effects. Sign up for a Big Interview free trial if you want full access to our curriculum, which will guide you through the right kind of preparation and practice to see a big difference quickly.
Here are some additional (free!) articles that cover the critical aspects of preparing for a job interview (whether you’re an international candidate or not):
1) 10 Steps to Acing Your Next Interview
2) Answering Behavioral Interview Questions
3) How to Sell Yourself in a Job Interview
4) Job Interview Body Language Tips
5) Top 12 Questions to Ask at the End of an Interview
Final Note: Remember to Accentuate the Positive
I also want to stress that your unique strengths, personality, and cultural background can help you stand out in a positive way during the interview process.
As an international candidate, you can brag about the initiative and problem-solving skills that led you to seek a career path in a new country. If English is your second (or third or fourth) language, you’ve also got an edge over the typical American candidate (who often has trouble stringing together a little high school Spanish). Your international perspective may also give you other advantages. Think about the positives of your background as well as the challenges as you prepare for your next interview.
If you have additional questions about how to prepare for an interview as an international or ESL candidate, please let us know! We also love to hear success stories of all kinds — and would be delighted to hear if the techniques described here work for you.
And here’s an amusing example of what can go wrong when there’s a language barrier in the interview: