In a previous article on interviews for jobs in Japan, we looked at the kinds of questions that might come up at interview, and the personal qualities and professional experience, etc., that might be required of a candidate. But none of that will matter a jot if you’re in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf, and your throat is so tight you sound like you’re being strangled.
Nervous anxiety can scuttle the best-prepared job interviews, and if you’re being interviewed in a foreign language (Japanese), there is an added pressure on you to perform well. On the other hand, being nervous is a natural reaction to stressful situations and actually helps to heighten awareness in many useful ways, if you know how to control your ‘flight’ instinct!
Fight or Flight
I think most of us are aware of the natural fight or flight impulse that animals – including humans – employ in stressful situations. Obviously, neither response is particularly helpful to we civilised beings because they both arise out of a kind of blind panic that conflicts with our usual sense of reason, casting us into a kind of cognitive limbo. This is the cause of our mental anxiety and the physical effects we experience as nervousness: sweating, trembling, cotton mouth, etc.
So the first thing we have to do is learn to control our lizard brain’s primitive impulses, and in so doing, take greater control over how we present ourselves in difficult situations.
Exercise and Meditation
In preparing oneself for stressful encounters, physical exertion, breathing exercises and meditative techniques can help to dissipate the adrenalin, cortisol and other stressors building up in your system.
For example, getting up a bit earlier on the day of an interview and going for a run or a workout at the gym will help to flood your system with tension-relieving endorphins. Yoga exercises and meditation techniques have the same endorphin-boosting effect, and many of these techniques can even be quietly practised while you’re waiting for your interview to begin.
While we’re on the subject of body chemistry, I’ve heard tell that some stage performers eat a banana before auditions or to allay first night nerves; it’s thought that the combination of beta-blockers, potassium and especially tryptophan that occur naturally in the fruit can help to relax shaky nerves. Urban myth, or hard science? You can decide for yourself next time you have an interview.
Now you’ve achieved a more balanced body chemistry, you can start to think about the physical presence you’ll present to your interviewers. The trick will be to appear both self-confident and approachable, but not arrogant or forceful, and to greet your interviewers and their staff on their level.
Always prefer to remain standing if offered a seat, whether waiting in a reception area, or in the interview room, until the interviewers arrive and your interview begins. Their first impression of you will be more positive if you don’t have to get up from a chair to meet them, and you will feel more confident in being at their level from the outset. If your interviewers are solely Japanese, you should remember to bow respectfully
Now that you’re sitting in front of the interview panel, adopt an alert, straight-backed posture and never lean back, no matter how comfortable the chair back seems, as this can tighten your throat muscles. It’s also important to keep your hands in plain sight at all times, in front of you or on the table, as this signals honesty and reliability. You can also use your hands when illustrating a point or describing something as this will show you have a real mental picture in mind, as opposed to simply reciting information you’ve rehearsed.
If you’re feeling shaky – and I didn’t believe this myself until I tried it, hungover this morning – surreptitiously clench your buttocks. I’ve proved it for myself; it is literally impossible for your hands to shake if you’re tensing your bum!
Interview Psychology 101
On the subject of bums, or fannies if you’re American (though that has a very different meaning in British slang), a very wise old boss of mine once told me, a long long time ago, that when faced with an interview panel, one should try to picture them sitting on the toilet; I think it’s supposed to humanise them in one’s mind, imagining them at their most vulnerable. I’ve tried it numerous times and it does help to dispel nerves, even if it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired.
Always try to think positively about an impending interview, and visualise in your mind being successful. Most people tend to do the opposite and imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong, conditioning themselves to accepting failure. Isn’t it better to condition your mind to achieving success – to visualise shining in your interview, answering every question with aplomb and being offered the position immediately? Of course it is; either way, you have little influence over an interviewer’s final decision, except by your positivity.
Now you’re feeling more positive about yourself, you’ll find it very easy to smile. And by the same token, forcing yourself to smile will make your mood more cheerful. Misery might love company, but companies don’t go for miseries – interviewers love people who smile and seem happy, so spread a little happiness in your search for employment.
Setting the Pace
When we’re nervous, we tend to either talk faster than usual, or dry up altogether, so you should aim to relax before the interview. Try this simple breathing exercise to lower your heart rate and calm your nerves: breathe in through your nose for a count of three, then out through your mouth for a count of three. Repeat this three times and you’ll feel less compulsion to gallop through all those carefully rehearsed answers in your mind.
Actually, carefully rehearsed answers to questions will be very obvious to seasoned interviewers, so try to avoid sounding as though you’re reciting. As far as you can, try to maintain that relaxed mood you picked up in the last paragraph and take a moment before you answer a question; this will make what you say seem more thoughtful, rather than rehearsed. This is equally important when being interviewed in Japanese, for although Japanese interviewers give a lot of latitude to foreign job candidates, to demonstrate that you’re actually thinking about your use of the language will go down well.
The point of all this is to slow things down so that it’s you, rather than the interviewer, who sets the pace of the interview. You can only really do this if you’re relaxed, and if you’re relaxed it’s easier to be yourself and sound natural. If you do find your mind racing, pause to think and take a deep breath now and then, and always listen carefully to the questions you’re asked.
You can ease yourself off the hook occasionally by turning the table on your interviewers and asking them questions. Yes, this will give you a break from all their questions, but more importantly, it will show that you’re interested in them and their company, rather than just in talking about yourself. But at the very least try to seem interested in their answers as this can show how serious you are about the job on offer.
Do you remember that bit in The Matrix when Neo demands his phone call and the agent asks him what’s the point if he can’t speak? Well, I’ve been in interviews myself where my mouth has gone so dry, and my throat so constricted, that I might as well not have had a mouth at all.
As you might imagine, actors have developed a whole range of exercises to help them project their voices confidently, so if you know any of those, give them a try. One exercise that might be helpful to do before an interview is to stick your tongue out as far as you possibly can, and then recite a poem, song lyric or nursery rhyme that you know. This will help to open the throat up and allow you to speak more confidently and without your voice shaking.
Using the kinds of relaxation and physicality techniques mentioned above is the best way to allay a dry mouth, because our mouths produce more saliva when we’re relaxed and comfortable. Some people assume that sucking sweets or mints will help, but all too often the sugars in them end up clogging the throat. It might be better to suck on an old-fashioned glass marble, but don’t forget not to swallow it! Then again, a better option is to take a small bottle of sparkling mineral water with you and sip it slowly until called for interview.
A Final Thought
Most of us find ways to deal with interview nerves as we become more experienced. My best advice is simply that you begin to think about why you get nervous over job interviews, then let this self-awareness guide you towards to remedies that suit you.
By Bill Ambler
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