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Knowing Your Place

The Right Bearing

(c) Bill Strain

Interviews are situations to be endured rather than enjoyed, a necessary evil in the recruitment and promotion of labour. They may change format and duration (2-3 day interviews are surprisingly commonplace), but the principle is the same – the presentation of self to be judged by other people who are more important than you. As a result, they are unavoidably anxiety-inducing, both on a personal and social level. They have the habit of feeding whatever fears lurk in your psyche – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being not quite up-to-scratch.

Key among these sources of anxiety is the fear of rejection, that the interview panel will decide that you are not quite ‘one of them’. This troubling aspect of interviews brings together a whole range of concerns designed to keep one awake at night – concerns about belonging, fitting in, being cast as an outsider. No wonder interviews are a challenge to prepare for – anxieties about level of knowledge, understanding and skill have to make room for worries about interpersonal performance.

Studies suggest, however, that we are correct to worry about these things, whatever level of employment. Michael Hartmann’s study of the social reproduction of the European business elite, for example, illustrates the importance of social anxiety and its management as an indicator of interview success and a prerequisite for employment at the helm of top corporations. While other factors were of course also significant (what school one went to, level of education, networks, experience), his research focused in particular on the importance of having the ‘right bearing’ in the interview setting:

A confident and relaxed bearing is the primary criterion. People who give this impression have, as one personnel consultant succinctly put it, ‘an absolute plus over others’. In the eyes of personnel managers, self-assurance and calm are expressed in a whole range of signs – gestures, facial expression, body language, movement and speech. The frank look, firm handshake, the calm, sure stride, clear articulation, the attentive but relaxed manner of speaking, the ability to listen, are all positive features. Negative marks are given to sweaty hands, the avoidance of direct eye contact, fidgeting or a slightly cramped posture while seated, a tight or high-pitched voice, long monologues, or a somewhat hectic argument style.

The absence of the right bearing means, according to Hartmann, that “you have a difficult time in winning acceptance as one of their own”. While Hartmann understands bearing in the context of class and social capital, his findings also strongly suggest that social anxiety is directly related to success or otherwise in the workplace – career, promotion and networking. Far from being a mild inconvenience, then, social anxiety can make the difference between success and failure in the race to the top.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.