At the time of writing, it has been more than 24 hours since I was ushered out of a group interview, alongside six others, and told I would not be moving on in the application process. Less than an hour after being asked to leave, I completed the first draft of this article and then ripped up the pages. As I’m sure most writers do, I used the day’s upsurge of emotions to my advantage and penned a fantastically bitter account of the interview process I had just been through, complete with capital letters to convey shouting and many sarcastic comments about the other candidates who were put through to the second stage of the process: the one-on-one interview. Instead of me. 24 hours later and I am revisiting the article from a calmer perspective, though no less frustrated.
I must begin by proclaiming that I am, and always have been, an introvert. It may seem like a strange label to give myself, but when it comes to group interviews the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are extremely important. So important in fact, that we might as well scrap our CV’s and simply turn up with either of these words awkwardly pinned to the lapel of our suit. Though I’m sure the meaning of ‘introvert’ is fairly self-explanatory to most, the word holds all sorts of negative connotations, and so what an introvert is and is not needs a definitive explanation. Because in the interview environment, the word introvert screams ‘is not’…
I’ll use myself as an example. I am interesting, but I am not particularly outgoing. I am full of ideas, but I am not loud. I am hard-working, but I am not pushy. And my personal favourite: I am quietly confident, but I am not shy. ‘Shy’ is thee word. Shy is the thing that makes employers run for the hills. In Susan Cain’s widely publicised book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, the concept of being an introvert as opposed to an extrovert is explored in wonderful detail, and upon reading it my mind was blown. Cain explains that we as a society misunderstand and therefore undervalue the capabilities of introverted people. “A colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness” in her own words. After reading, I was struck with the realisation that I was not doing anything wrong by being slightly less outspoken than the extroverts around me, I was simply an introvert. I had a label, and a book that justified why this was not necessarily a bad thing. “Quietly confident” was the phrase used on every school report I had ever had since my first year in school, and for the first time ever I saw this as a compliment instead of an insult.
No matter the popularity of Susan Cain’s book or how eloquently explained her theories are, it has not changed the world that I live in, and it certainly has not changed the stone age tradition of inviting a boardroom full of graduates to an interview day and making them fight to the death for a position in a company that has not bothered to tell them what kind of person they are looking to hire, or why they should even want to work there in the first place. Think ‘The Apprentice’ meets ‘The Hunger Games’ and you’ll have the premise of most group interviews.
This interview in particular began in the reception of a large and rather impressive looking building in the centre of Sutton in Surrey. I arrived twenty minutes early (standard interview practice) and took my visitor’s pass and seat by the window. Several other smartly dressed young people arrived with their suits and their fancy folders and their visible CV’s and what-not. I sat with mine in my lap, trying to think of some awkward conversation to make with the person (introvert) sitting to my left. Eventually we chatted about previous interview experiences, quietly like we introverts do, and fidgeted with our suits and bags. Next, an extrovert showed up. Instantly chatty and louder than us, she seemed nice and very excitable about the upcoming event. “She’s loud, she’ll get it”, I thought in the few minutes after meeting her, but after she admitted that her agency had sent her without knowing any of the job details or what the company did, I felt slightly more confident once again.
The interviewer came to collect us and all ten candidates filed into a medium sized boardroom and scrambled not to be the one without a chair. Courteously allowing someone to take my pre-claimed seat, I of course ended up without and had to cross the room to collect a spare. The standard ‘tell us about yourself’ ice breaker was cleverly (but unsurprisingly) tweaked to include a quirky fact about ourselves and the presentation of an object to represent something about our interests. I brought a small pedometer to represent my love of running.
“Does anyone want to go first?”
And they were off. All extroverts in the room sprang into action, trying to be louder than each other and win the title of ‘First Speaker’. I naturally raised my hand slightly in the polite way I was taught, along with two other introverts, but to no avail. A particularly showy character called Carl won the shout-off when he slammed a 2 pint bottle of water on the table. We soon understood this to be the rather theatrical presentation of his object.
“I brought this water because, like me, it works well under pressure and I am very hard working and good at sales.”
Carl continued to compare himself to the kind of water that is ‘good at sales’. A shaky start in my opinion, but somehow everyone in the room knew that Carl was instantly ahead of the rest, simply because of his extrovert manner. And of course his excellent water-based metaphors. A numeracy and literacy test followed, which I felt fairly confident I had passed. I never did find out though. Next was another juvenile task to delay the one-on-one interview that everyone was hoping for.
“You will be given the name of a celebrity and you must remain in this character for the next ten minutes. You are in a hot air balloon, which is going down over the Grand Canyon. Give a 3 point presentation as to why you should remain in the balloon above everyone else.”
Balloon survival skills and knowledge of celebrities wasn’t in my interview prep, but I gave it my best. I chose a card from the envelope with Prince Harry’s name on it, and proceeded to convince everyone in the room that I deserved to stay in the balloon. That was until Carl, or Boris Johnson as he was now known, made his larger than life plea for a space. He was rivalled only by the underprepared girl I met earlier, now masquerading as Jay-Z, who made a strange speech about racial equality before asking to be kept in the balloon also.
Boris, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga and Tulisa Contostavlos (the obvious extroverts) continued to debate for a place in the fictional hot air balloon, while I decided that it might be best for Prince Harry to simply sacrifice himself for the greater good. The only definite conclusion drawn was that Victoria Beckham would be permitted to stay in the balloon on account of her tiny body not making the slightest bit of difference to the overall weight. Tulisa was thrown out before the sand bags.
As with all group interviews I tried desperately hard to hold my own in the drone of conversation, but amongst the shouting, the interrupting and the rude persistence of the extroverts in the room, several people slowly and unintentionally faded into the background, myself included. It was like being at school all over again, where only the loudest survive in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t so silent in school that I didn’t have friends or take part, but I did struggle to be noticed where it mattered due to my reserved manner and aversion to disruption. I was transported back to my high school awards ceremony where I was introduced to the stage to perform music by a teacher I had been around for three years, and who managed to call me by completely the wrong name. Unfortunately his small mix-up stayed with me for years afterwards, embarrassed that I had not made myself memorable enough. Going back even further to the presentation of the DUX award in my school at age eleven, I was thrilled to win the award after many exams sat to proclaim who would be the class clever clogs. When my name was announced as the winner however, I was not so thrilled to hear one of my own teachers mutter “who?” in confusion when I walked to the front of assembly.
Such small, seemingly insignificant moments in my life, but these are the moments that shape a child’s time at school, and from my own experience it is glaringly apparent that being an introvert in school is not okay. We are taught from a scarily early age in schools that the most enthusiastic students will have their ideas heard while the more reserved students will not be offered a chance to share their equally clever and creative minds alongside their extrovert classmate counterparts. There must be presentations. There must be public speaking. You must make your voice heard above all else or you will not be able to actively participate in your own education. In today’s world where it is easier to type your feelings than to say them aloud, this problem can only grow. I would invite schools, universities and even companies recruiting staff, to understand that it is no longer about allowing only the loudest opinions to be heard, or weeding out the strong from the weak, the loud from the quiet. Will it ever be okay for a child to be quietly confident in the classroom? And when will I make it through a first stage group interview without having to obnoxiously shout my ideas and opinions at other graduates across a crowded interview room?
I can say with some certainty that there were three clearly identifiable candidates in the interview yesterday that were, hands down, better than me. They had more experience in the job, better answers (content, not volume) and a generally good ‘vibe’ about them that I felt deserved a second, one-to-one interview. They were not all introverts and they were not all extroverts, and I am under no illusions that I should have been given that job. I am certainly not attempting to start a war against the outgoing and wonderfully interesting extroverts of the world – the world needs both of us. But the people that I did believe to be experienced, articulate and full of great ideas and opinions, did not receive a second interview. The people who did were under-prepared Jay-Z, and arrogant Boris Johnson and his water bottle. Both extroverts.
I am certain that both candidates interviewed well and would go on to do great things in the role, however as the rest of us were escorted from the room like the world’s quietest chain gang, I couldn’t help notice that some of the introverts around me were bright, enthusiastic and well-prepared. Just not loud enough.