Ask June: Troubled in Tampa

Dear June,

I have a second interview coming up for a job I want very much. I have been going over questions they are likely to ask me. I feel pretty comfortable talking about my experience and qualifications, but I also anticipate a question like: What would you say, or what would your employer say about you—positive and negative?

The part of the question that I’m struggling with is the “negative.” How do I talk about my “areas for growth?”

—Troubled in Tampa

Dear TnT,

I sincerely hope the interviewers don’t ask that question, because it is a ridiculous question. They probably will, though.

The problem with the negative qualities/relative weaknesses/areas for growth question is that it’s a trap for the candid and naïve. These days almost everybody knows that you shouldn’t, and aren’t even really expected to, mention a limitation of the sort that would actually make a difference in the workplace.

What you are supposed to cite are bogus shortcomings – ones that most people see as neutral, or as virtues. You are supposed to say something like that you have been exploring the issue of work-life balance because in the past you tended to work too hard. (A variant on this is “sometimes I care too much.”)

Perfectionism is a great bogus weakness to cite in the case of certain jobs, like computer programming, where perfection, at least in the sense of being mistake-free, is the result most employers actually want.

In my experience, another promising non-fault is having trouble delegating tasks because you do the job so very well yourself. “But I knew I had to let go,” you might add with a rueful smile, recalling that first time you had to sit on your hands and let young Cedric struggle through the oral argument, appendectomy, collar, etc. – while keeping your citations, scalpel, nightstick, etc., at the ready in case of some serious lapse. “I just had to trust in the thorough training I’d given him and think about the importance of overall productivity.” If your past work has involved supervision of any kind, the learning-to-delegate “weakness” is an excellent choice.

There is also something to be said for trying to figure out a shortcoming that you, as interviewee, would not seem weird for mentioning, but that would not really be relevant to the job at hand. If you are an academic, you might admit that you still need to work on your hand-eye coordination. If you are applying for a landscaping job, you might regret that the French and German you listed on your resume are getting a bit rusty.

Whenever possible, you should try to talk about your negative attributes – real or bogus — in the past or “semi past” tense, as in “it has taken me a while to overcome my fear of parrots.” That is, mention the areas for growth where you have already done most or all of the growing.

An example: “When I first started managing complex projects, I had trouble deciding how much time to spend learning about the substance of the project versus when my time would be better spent on management issues that were common to virtually every project. Over time I have learned a great deal about how to make this decision by talking to the right people early in the process.”

A less boring example: you could talk about how you overcame your anxiety — to be on the safe side, you could call it a lack of spontaneity – when speaking to large groups. Cite the various clever and creative ways you have dealt with this issue: taking a class, joining Toastmasters, doing practice run-throughs, reading, preparing, visualizing. Let the interviewers know how gratified you are that you’re now the one most often chosen to make presentations, which clients have praised as informative and one called “absolutely riveting.” (Direct quotes from bosses or clients are always a nice touch.)

This keep-it-in-the-past technique can be applied to most “areas for growth.” You can talk about the tools you use now to be better at just about anything: organization, preparation, efficiency, even the ability to handle stress.

One huge caveat: if you think there is a good chance that your current employer will speak to your prospective one and mention some non-bogus shortcoming you need to work on, you may want to head your boss off. You will have to weigh the risks here. You do not want to miss the chance to preempt your boss’s critique, especially if you think your boss is going to say that he or she has repeatedly spoken with you about the problem. On the other hand, your prospective employer may never get in touch with your boss, or your boss may decide not to badmouth you at all, in which case it would be a shame to have let the cat out of the bag about your alleged procrastination, technophobia, lack of people skills, or any other serious issue you would much rather not deal with until safely ensconced in your new job.

I hope this helps. What I really hope is that you spend most of the interview talking about what you are good at, asking brilliant questions, and laughing with your interviewers about what a coincidence it is that everyone around the table watches Gaelic football, owns a Savannah cat, and agrees on who will ride the dragons in Game of Thrones.

Dear June,

I am interested in a man in my choir group. I think he is interested in me, too, partly because of a few things he has said, like telling me that he liked my hair and asking whether I had had it done (I hadn’t, I never do … but maybe it had curled itself up a little tighter or looser than usual). He has also asked me out for coffee after choir practice, twice, and we had a lovely time laughing and talking about his two golden doodles and the books he is reading. My roommate says that he may have just been angling for a ride home afterwards, but I say that he could have asked me for a ride without the coffee invitations. Anyhow, it feels like a flirtation to me, maybe the beginning of something more.

Here is my question. The two of us were chosen to represent our choir next month at a festival about 250 miles away, in a rural setting. We will both be staying in a big event center. When I said I was driving and offered him a ride, he seemed very happy to accept. He even said he would look into a fun place to eat along the way. I think this could be our breakthrough. But this will also be our first time alone together so far except for those two half-hour coffee “dates,” and I am afraid it might be too much exposure, too soon, to my lack of culture and education. Jake (I will call him Jake because he has eyes like Jake Gyllenhaal) has three Ivy League degrees, and seems to have read just about everything. All I have is a B.S. in computer science from a not-very-prestigious state school, and all I really know about is systems architecture and, to a somewhat lesser extent, music. During one of our coffees I started to tell him what I had been reading. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t do much for him, and he seemed to find mysteries and thrillers distasteful for some reason. Can you pick out two or three books for me to read this month so I can make a better impression during our long drives? I am not a very fast reader of non-STEM stuff, so three is probably the most I can handle in 31 days. Thanks!

—Unschooled in the Upper Peninsula

Dear friend (you sound schooled to me),

I was young and infatuated once, or so the yellowing pages of my journals suggest, so I can kind of see how you might want to spend a whole month reading books chosen solely to impress a love interest. That said, you should try to choose books you might also actually enjoy reading and feel comfortable discussing. This befits your dignity as Jake’s full equal. It may also make conversation about them more enjoyable and less forced.

Here are some suggestions:

Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. This book is about music, which you already understand and like, and the science of neurology, which I bet you, as a systems architect, do or would find fascinating. It is a collection of true stories about people who are either helped by music, or afflicted by it, in illuminating, startling ways. Sacks, whom I am guessing you know, was a wonderful writer and seems to have been a good doctor and a brilliant, quirky person. This may not be his best book, but his personality and moral sense shine through it. And case studies are good car-conversation fodder because you will have a bunch of stories to retell if Jake has not read the book, or to recall and discuss (“remember the one where dancing a jig made her forget she had Parkinson’s?”) if he has. By the way, it would be a good idea to read some reviews of your car books, along with a short bio and list of other books by the same author. This will show Jake – well, not exactly show, because it is not entirely true, but imply – that you know whereof you speak.

Agony, a graphic narrative by Mark Beyer. If you think Jake is into being intellectually cool, this is a fine, multi-purpose choice. Originally published by Raw in 1987, and just now reissued by a comic imprint of The New York Review of Books, it recounts a series of increasingly outrageous calamities that befall a hapless couple named Amy and Jordan. The illustrations, to quote Nathan Chazen’s review in Cleaver, are “childlike and dementedly unreal.” The new edition of the book is small and square, suitable for leaving in the space between your car’s driver and shotgun seats so that you can point to it and say something like: “Have you seen this? It’s from The New York Review of Books’ new imprint.” (This is very intellectual and cool.) Encourage Jake to leaf through it: this way you will have an actual artifact to discuss. Then you can ask him what he thinks of graphic novels in general. You can also ask him what he thinks of the illustrations. I am sure Nathan Chazen will not mind if you say that you think they are childlike and dementedly unreal.

Honesty compels me to say that if I were going to advise you to read a single graphic novel based on merit alone, I would pick Fun Home or classics like the first book in the Persepolis series or Maus I. But this was supposed to be our cool selection, so you might as well go for broke. Anyway, reading Agony through once or twice will not take more than a couple of hours, although it may freak you out a bit. For extra credit, you might want to take a look at the 2014 graphic memoir by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? If either you or Jake has dealt with aging relatives, this book can be be grist for some real, sincere conversation.

Honeydew, short stories by Edith Pearlman. These are wonderful. The prose is great, the stories are beautifully constructed, and the characters and plots pull you in. Read a few of the twenty or so stories. If you like them, keep going. If not, you will still have plenty to talk about. It is possible that your friend does not know Pearlman. She was not very prominent until recently, and it seems that more women than men read her. But you are covered: she has won some prizes and general critical acclaim, so a man who has read “everything” should know about her. If he doesn’t, try not to act superior. Just tell him, more in sorrow than disdain, that you think he’d like her and he should check her out. (Oh, dear, I seem to be taking a dislike to your friend Jake. I hope and trust that he is not a self-centered snob, just a well-read person who happens not to like certain popular literature. It does worry me, though, that you two seem to have talked only about his interests when you went for coffee. Does he ever ask about you?)

If these suggestions don’t all seem right for you, here are a few others. He has dogs, right? You could try Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. The writer is about as classy as you can get, and the book is very entertaining, at least if you like dogs and don’t mind whimsy. But unless you have read at least one other book by Woolf, I’d think of some way to explain why this is the one you chose, or at least say something like “Speaking of your dogs, you know, it’s funny, but the only book I’ve ever read by Virginia Woolf is the one about the cocker spaniel.”

You might also consider reading, or rereading, a classic. This might be easier for you two to talk about from shared experience, since he sounds as if he has read or at least knows something about most of the canonical authors. You could go for a ripping yarn, one of those long but not-too-intimidating British novels from a century or two ago. Maybe some Dickens, perhaps his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It really is a mystery, and fun to read. You can also ponder and read up on theories about how Dickens meant for it to end, alternate endings various other writers have proposed or written, and so on. Or you might read some Jane Austen. Some people, especially men, think she lacks the depth of a Dickens. They are ignorant and wrong, however. And if you find that Jake has the discernment, and is comfortable enough in his masculinity, to be an Austen fan, this is a very good sign, definitely information worth having.

One last book, in case this list isn’t eclectic enough already: Between the World and Me, a searing essay on being black in America in the form of a letter to his son, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is important and thought-provoking. I bet that Jake will have already read it — or will say he has been meaning to, which is an opening for you to tell him about it. Either way, you two can learn about each other, whatever your race, by discussing this book.

It occurs to me that you could just come out and ask Jake for some suggestions about what to read. If you go out for coffee again, you can tell him you are between books and solicit his advice. This should come very naturally, since he has already been telling you about what he’s reading. Most serious readers like to suggest their favorites, so I predict that Jake will not mind giving you guidance. In fact, you might do better seeking his literary choices and soliciting his opinions than exhibiting your own. I realize that this not a very empowering thing to say, and not totally consistent with my earlier talk of being Jake’s “full equal”— you would probably want to dial down the teacher-student dynamic quite early in any relationship you two might develop. But if we are talking visceral initial romantic attraction, bear in mind that things have not completely changed since Jane Austen wrote that “[w]here people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.”

Whatever you read or don’t read beforehand, just relax and play it by ear during the trip. Jake may not even want to talk about books. Perhaps your hours on the road will be a time for some of those revelations that make early friendship and love so exciting. He says he is bringing music, so maybe you can listen to and talk about that. (I would also have some music of your own on hand, both vocal and instrumental. With any luck you’ll want to hear each other’s favorites.)

And don’t forget nonliterary, nonmusical matters! Wear something comfortable and attractive, plan the route, vacuum the car, and pack some treats.

Good luck in your adventure. Sing your heart out. I hope the choir trip is everything you’ve been dreaming of. Whatever happens, I hope your month of reading and anticipation invigorates you and brings you joy.

ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at Find more columns by June in her attic.


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