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Interviewing for dummies, aber auf Deutsch

Today I’m going to do something that I’ve never quite done before, in over 7 years of writing this blog. I’m going to give useful, practical and tangible tips. Or at least tips that are in my mind, all of the aforementioned. Its possible that I am just writing them down to commit to my own memory, and I will just deign to share. Whatever the reasoning, here goes.

The last 6 months of my life, after finishing my Masters, has been about finding a job. Although I’ve been very realistic that there’s no perfect job, I have been very picky. So these tips are probably not that relevant if you are looking for just any job, which many times is a necessity to pay bills. But these tips are about when you want to put yourself out there to find a job that you wont hate going to, and that gives you a chance to challenge yourself. Now these jobs don’t come by easy. There’s a shortage of them out there, and when they do, it takes a huge effort to walk away feeling like you’ve given it absolutely everything you had. But this effort is doubled or even quadrupled, doing all of this in a foreign language. And that’s what I’ve been doing for a while now. Its taught me a lot of things which I took for granted before.

In India, every single interview I gave, I aced. And a few days or weeks later, I got the job. I began to feel like it was easy, interviewing. It was my thing! I also began to feel like my chosen profession was “my calling”. It had to be, if I was so good at it! But what I didn’t realise, what I took absolutely for granted, was the fact that it was my communication skill that was making the difference between me and other candidates. My culturally appropriate, language-specific communications skills. The little things that most of us who are privileged don’t stop to ever think about, until you are thrown into a situation where it becomes vital to survival. By now I’ve given quite a few interviews in German, and from each one (except the last few) I’ve walked away with a feeling of complete frustration at myself, obsessing over some spur-of-moment error in judgment. I was being hard on myself because in retrospect they seemed like brain farts, something that I could not forgive myself for, in a high stakes game. But slowly, I’ve realised that they aren’t brain farts, they are either small cultural differences in the ways of carrying out conversations, or they are simply language barriers (either real or imagined). Either way, the only way to deal with them is to take them head on. This won’t be a universal guide to acing every interview in Germany and German. Its just an accumulation of my experiences, struggles and learnings. So here goes.

·         Understand the culture. Simply put, avoid what the culture isn’t comfortable with, and make sure to follow and adhere to what is. In Germany, I’ve found that uncertainty isn’t something easily dealt with. Unfortunately, visa uncertainties for example, may be a part of your normal life as a expat, but its something many Germans are scared off by. Put the uncertainty at ease, by being honest, clear and concise. Figure out yourself what documents you will need, don’t put the onus on the company. And punctuality is vital, but this everyone knows.

·         Learn the language – lets face it, if you can’t express what you want to say, then you might as well not bother going in. Watch movies, talk to people from different parts of the country, listen to songs to familiarise yourself with the language and accent. But here’s the thing. Language isn’t only about the words you use. Its about the smaller cues of conversation, that’s what makes it so beautiful. I realised after 2 interviews that I had made the same “mistake” in both. In India, at least in my experience, a lot of times you shake hands and say something like, “Nice to meet you”. Its so rare that a man can shake a woman’s hand without crushing it, or holding it like a limp rag, that I never had any problems beyond that. But in Germany, people shake your hand and announce their name. They expect you to do the same. Even though they are obviously aware of what you are called, considering you have been invited to interview with them. Maybe they are unsure of how to pronounce your foreign sounding name, and are even more eager to hear you say it so they don’t end up saying it wrong. This is a tiny, tiny thing, and maybe I was extremely slow on the uptake, but I’m putting it here anyway. After a couple of interviews of me shaking hands, and saying thank you for inviting me, and then being stared at by an interviewer blinking like a confused fish, I realised what was happening. By the 5th or 6th interview, I was shaking hands, announcing my name loud and clear, and making a little joke about the “German version” or pronunciation of it. Which brings me to my 2nd point.

·         Small talk isn’t really small in a foreign language. When you as a non-native speaker arrives at an interview, its safe to assume that your level of stress is already much higher than otherwise. Then, when you are asked, “Haben Sie gut hergefunden”?, (did you find your way here easily?) if you are anything like me, chances are all you manage is an uneasy “Oh, ja! Kein Problem”.  This answers the question, but it does nothing to break the ice, nor does it buy you time to calm your nerves, gather your thoughts, upraise your surroundings and generally add any value to the beginning of the conversation. Also, Germans tend to expect longer replies to any questions they ask, and they are genuinely interested in your answer. The best example of this is when a German asks you if you slept well. This question completely baffled me when I heard it, and I tended to just say yes or nah. But now I’ve realised, if I haven’t slept well, and I in fact had a weird dream about flying on a giant aubergine to see Lord Sauron, a German is most curious and interested to hear the story (as long as its finished in a reasonable amount of time, I mean, time is still money). In the same way, the last interview I went to, when they asked me this question (about finding the office, not any aubergine-based dreams), I said that actually I got off at the wrong stop, got a little misdirected by google maps and then asked someone for directions and found the way. It was a short narrative that humanises my effort to get to their office, still be on time and point out something that I find important – human connections and asking for and receiving help from strangers. But it was a narrative that I practised quickly in my head, while walking from the station to the office. You can do this for lots of things – maybe the weather small talk, the coffee offer, or just about anything that frequently comes up before diving into - “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself”. Find your little narrative, rehearse it and use it to your benefit.

·         “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself”? and all those other standard interview questions. What seems like a normal conversation in many situations, is a quiz in an interview, and almost a herculean task to answer effectively in a foreign language. I’m gonna be honest here. I’ve taken the most nerdy way out and written down phrases I want to use, sometimes whole answers to probable questions. Then I’ve said them out loud, going over all questions I can think of, one by one. Its time consuming and boring, but it pays off. It gives you the freedom to focus on saying it well, instead of focusing on how to say it (welcome to grammar, sentence structure and verb conjugation hell). Even the smallest question can throw me off sometimes, and I can’t recover quite as quickly as I could have in English. For example, at an interview I was asked about hobbies. Now that’s a question I know the answer to, and I’ve answered many times in English interviews. I usually start with reading. And then be expected to be asked what I read recently. When answering this question in this particular interview, I was calculating ahead about whether or not I should answer honestly, if asked, that the only German book I have read is a political satire on Hitler. If I decided to steer clear of that, then I’d have to admit that my language skills are either not strong enough for German books, or that I am not interested in the culture enough to give it a shot. Or to lie about a book I haven’t actually read. All 4 scenarios are undesirable to say the least. The interviewer didn’t ask this follow-up question, but while stressing about it, I forgot to mention the various sports I play, while listing my hobbies. And I work in sport management. The lesson is – you have to really overprepare for every scenario in a foreign language. Its not as easy to get back on your feet after ducking a curveball. I can’t stress this enough.

·         Own up. This happened at my last interview – it’s time for the end of the discussion small talk. “Oh, I hope you are aware that if you take this job, you need to move to this city”. This is like point 1. You could say “Ja” (duh). And that’s it. But if you are prepared for it – you can say, “Yes, I’m aware of that. I have some friends here and I could stay with them a few weeks until I find an apartment”. But the best laid plans of mice and men. However much you practise, of course you will make mistakes while speaking a foreign language! I said “Yes, I’m aware of that. I can sleep with a few friends until I find an apartment”. The interviewers, being decent human beings, kept nodding their heads seriously. I however, burst out into a giggle and corrected myself. I could have ignored it and probably it wouldn’t have affected the result of the interview. But by my reaction, I showed that I was open to improvement, capable of laughing at myself and most importantly I was honest about my mistakes. It was embarrassing but yet, not really, because I owned up to it. This didn’t come easily to me. The story below is how I got there.

·         Hol die Leute ins Gespräch rein“. I used to find it extremely difficult to be at ease in an interview in German. I wanted to be perfect, and I was hard on myself when I wasn’t. It’s a fine line to walk between honesty and selling your skills, because there will be interviewers who push you to commit to a certain level of language fluency which you may not have. You don’t want to lie that you can read legal documents when you are at the level of reading comic books for 5+. In my case, I kept going to interviews where they complemented my German within the first 5 minutes, impressed by my fluency. I had the feeling that they thereafter forgot that I was still struggling, still working hard to find a word, remember its gender or conjugation, put it in a grammatically correct sentence and express it all in a confident manner. I was putting a lot of pressure on this perfection, but communication is important in my field. Its not a technical field where you can prove tangible skills you have. But I was doing all of this alone in the room, viewing the 2-3 interviewers as opponents in this game. Then I’d feel the interview slipping away from me, and sat there feeling helpless and frustrated. So, when I got this piece of advice from a great career counsellor (danke, Frau Schneider) – I stuck to it. “Hol die Leute ins Gespräch rein“. Draw the people into the discussion, literally translated. But I interpreted it as including the interviewer in your struggle. There will always be moments when you can’t remember what the word is, or you make a mistake. Instead of trying to cover it up, include them in your little moment of blankness. Apologise, ask for a second, or simply laugh if its silly. Be honest, and give them a chance to see what you are going through. People are not able to always put themselves in your shoes, so help them, and yourself in the process. Sometimes, just while saying the sentence out loud, “oh! I don’t know how to say this in German”, I have found the word I’m look for, in those extra 3 seconds. This technique, it doesn’t work always, but when it does, it will click. Because you don’t want to be stuck in an office where people completely forget that you are a foreigner, and you will struggle with some things. To offset that, you have other skills and experiences that they don’t. I try to highlight how much better I am at being flexible (than many Germans), because that comes with being Indian. Integrate not assimilate.


·         Play the (mind) game. And the last thing that I struggle with quite a lot – lack of eye contact. Many interviewers spend time taking notes, after they have asked a question. Personally, I am not at ease in this situation because I keep wondering who I am talking to, and whether I am boring them. This isn’t a foreign language interview specific issue, but I am more hesitant to “bore” people with my stories in German, simply because my confidence is lower and I am not sure that I am that charming or charismatic when I’m not able to express every nuance like I am in English. I give this example because it’s a very minute point, but a real struggle for me. I took to loudly asserting to myself before an interview – “They want to know you. They want to listen to you answer.” Being self-aware is the key in this learning process. What’s a big deal to me maybe doesn’t even cross your mind. You need to pin point each and every thing that puts you out of your comfort zone, and deal with that. It’s a mind game you play with yourself. Only then would you be able to level the playing field for yourself, while competing with native speakers. The trick is to be confident but not cocky, at ease but not casual, smart but not stuck-up, open but not personal and eager but not desperate. Personally, I found this balance very hard to achieve without the comforting knowledge that my language skills were impeccable.

Its been a long and interesting journey, and although I’m sure I still have loads to learn, I hope these tips help some expats to know they aren’t the only fish out of water, and German interviewers to know that we really are trying. 

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