What do we look for in an executive employee, or any employee for that matter? Obviously, we want them to be professional and have the requisite skill set, but we also want them to look and talk the part. In an interview, beyond meeting job requirements, we look for people that come across as confident, intelligent and competent. We also hope to find people that are sociable and easy to work with. How we speak gives off signals about these qualities, often more than we realize.
Most of us know that we should sound professional, but don’t know what specific linguistic features are most damaging or helpful to this end. As a linguist who has spent a career examining how language features take on social meaning, I want to share with you what research on linguistic features can tell us about how we are perceived when we use them.
In their article “Employment Interview Outcomes and Speech Style Effects,” communication researchers Parton et. al suggest, “A powerful speech style conveys the impression that interviewees have self-control as well as control over others (p. 145).” And who doesn’t want to sound powerful and in control especially in a high stakes environment like a job interview?
The big question is what constitutes a so-called powerful speech style and does it benefit all of us to adopt it? The answer is more nuanced than you might think.
What is Linguistic Style?
Our natural linguistic style is dependent on who we are socially – for example, our age and background. When our linguistic style matches those we are taking with (i.e. when we talk to friends, family, coworkers), we can feel more comfortable that it will be interpreted the way we intended. But in less familiar contexts, such as a new corporate culture or a job interview in a less familiar setting, we are less certain of how we might be understood.
Relative status, such as interviewer or an interviewee (or a boss and a subordinate), also affects both how we talk and how we expect others to speak. And finally, gender can play a big role in both our linguistic style and in other’s ideas about how we should talk. In other words, the less similar our background to our interviewer, the more we risk having our style not come across the way we intend.
How, and When, to Use Powerful Linguistic Features
While no feature is inherently better or worse than any other from a linguistic standpoint, research suggests that some features are more often used by those that have power or influence in a setting while others are used by those in subordinate or powerless positions. Thus, over time, these features can become associated with those roles and affect how we are perceived in terms of competence, confidence, intelligence and even friendliness when we use them.
When we walk into an interview, we certainly want to exude confidence and competence as well as come across as sociable and a team player. So, what can linguistic research tell us about how to make the right impression?
Don’t over-use verbal hedges
Linguistic hedges like I think, maybe, kind of, perhaps, I feel mitigate how married a speaker is to an assertion. For instance, if I don’t want to come across as too pushy, I might say “I think that the operations the company has in Europe are not performing optimally,” instead of more directly saying that the operations are not performing well. We often do this for politeness or out of fear of a negative reaction.
But research suggests that using a lot of hedges weakens the perception of us as confident speakers, and more problematically, also causes listeners to be less persuaded by what we say.
Of the many so-called powerless speech features that have been studied, Parton et. al’s research suggested using a lot of hedges may have the most significant effects on how you are perceived.
Of course, there is a fine line here of coming across as overly-confident, as using hedges is also viewed as congruent with speakers in less powerful positions, such as an interviewee. So, using hedges when you are generally uncertain (i.e. I think we made that proposal two or three years ago) can help walk that line. Gender plays an important role here as well. We seem to associate (and expect) hedges from women more than we do from men, despite the fact that research doesn’t show that women consistently actually use more. So, women using hedges do not seem to be perceived as negatively as men using them.
Use discourse markers in moderation
Discourse markers such as well, so, okay, clearly, I mean, you know and actually help to point out how our talk ties into what was said previously and show relational/audience awareness. All good things to both build rapport with our listener and to help us draw attention to elements of our talk or how we want our conversational contributions to flow with what was said before.
As an example, in response to the question, “Tell me how you envision changing the way we approach X in the division” you might respond with “Well, I ….” to indicate that what you are going to say will directly respond to the query and signposts your contribution. Likewise, saying ‘you know’ towards the end of your contribution as in, “I see the supply chain as the crucial link here, you know?,” can help to build up the collaborative nature of the conversation and be a check in for listenership.
Research supports the interpretation of discourse markers as generally positive additions to our speech. A study by psychologists Laserna, Seih and Pennebaker (2014) found that discourse markers were used by more conscientious people (as measured by personality tests) as a way of showing conversational considerateness. In looking at the features used by successful speakers, Duvall et al. (2014) found that effective speakers made measured use of discourse markers. In fact, a lack of such markers made speech feel unnatural and robotic.
However, measured is the key word here as overuse of such markers has been associated with the perception that a speaker lacks self-confidence or professional credibility. Overuse can also make a listener resentful that speakers don’t fill out ideas on their own. For instance, Fox-Tree and Shrock (2002) suggest that using ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’ too much can be construed as an annoying habit because they put an expectation of collaborative effort on the listener.
Problematically, speakers generally underestimate how much they use discourse markers and are not aware of how much they use particular types of markers that might be more negatively construed, such as ‘like’ or ‘so’ use. Overall, though, discourse markers in isolation are not problematic and can enhance the natural flow of conversation, but lean on more conventional ones and use in moderation.
Fine Tune Your Linguistic Style Before Your Next Interview
Unless we’ve received direct feedback, most of us are unaware of our linguistic style. So, record yourself having a conversation with a friend or colleague (with permission of course). Take about 10 minutes of that conversation and transcribe it, meaning write down verbatim what you said, including noting hedges and discourse markers. Identify which of the features we discussed are ones you use, where you use them and how often.
If you used hedges, practice saying the same thing in more direct terms. Note whether you use sentential hedges which embed your statement ( I think that…) or softening particles like ‘kind of’ or ‘maybe.’ How often do you use discourse markers, where do they occur and which discourse markers do you use? Ask your friend if there were specific verbal ‘tics’ or habits they noticed. Knowing your specific patterns makes it easier to adjust. Remember that habits takes practice to break and to build.
There is no wrong or right style, but in an interview, it pays to know your own style and modulate it based on what science can tell us about how different styles are construed. It is also important to recognize that developing some flexibility with your linguistic style can help increase the possibility that you can adjust your style to your interviewer or others that you want to develop a strong working relationship with.
Learn more in Dr. Valerie Fridland’s webinar on using linguistic science to make the right impression in your next interview!