Be your real self in an interview

Interview adage: If you can’t get hired being your true self, you don’t want to work there.

Life adage: If you’re not comfortable showing your true self then you probably have a disconnect between who you are and who you want to be. You really need to address that before it derails not only your career but also your relationships.

Here are three ways to make sure you stick to who you are when you interview:

1. Recognize that who you are is a moving target.
I find that showing my true self stems from knowing my true self. I am always learning about who I am, and then I always have to how I convey myself to other people—the two need to match, and I have found that it’s not so easy.

For example, we had guys come to put new roofs on old barn buildings.

The farmer told me that most of the buildings we are re-roofing are buildings people around here would tear down. People build new, shiny metal buildings now. Our yard full of old, wooden sheds, is something between a historic monument and an abandoned farm.

I knew for sure that I love the old wood buildings too much to tear them down.

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Roofer: You’re gonna put a new roof on that thing?

Farmer: Yeah, my wife’s from New York City and they really like the old wood barns there.

Roofer: [Shakes his head]

Farmer: [Makes some odd motion with his head that is a cross between women-are-crazy and please-don’t-talk-to-me-I’ve-gotta-go-feed-pigs.]

The farmer leaves and I see the guys are putting on metal roofs instead of shingles.

I call the farmer. He comes back.

I tell him, “The roof’s gonna be gross. Shingles go on top of a wood shed.”

“The guy said metal lasts longer.”

“It’s not period-correct.”

The farmer says, “We’re in this period. People do metal now.”

I’m silent.

2. If it’s not working you are probably not being your true self.
I’m silent so the farmer says, “Okay. Talk to the guys. See if you can change to shingles. But you can’t spend any extra money on it. The farm is paying for it and my parents will think you’re nuts.”

So I yell up to the roofers about how metal is not period-correct.

They don’t even stop working.

I say, “How much is it to switch to shingles?”

Turns out they’d have to throw out the metal.

I want to be an accommodating, don’t-rock-the-boat farmer’s wife. I want to just let them go ahead, but I can’t stop having ideas, and I’ll have to look at this roof every day for the rest of my life.

I try to use a nice, non-threatening voice: “Can I call the place you buy the metal from to see if they’ll take it back?”

I call. It doesn’t work. And really, trying to be nonthreatening was a nonstarter for getting someone to take the metal back.

The thing is, I’m glad I tried. At least I know now that there was no way to get a shingle roof. And it feels good to be annoying and pushy because that’s who I am. I think maybe people here in farmland are getting used to it. I like to think they are charmed. Or at least curious.

3. Don’t let the type of person you’re dealing with change the person you are.
So right in the middle of me trying to figure out if I can be my regular self or if I need to be a little nicer and maybe ask people about the weather a little more often—right when I’m trying to figure that out, I get this email from executive search specialist Kathy Harris, about how to be your real self in an interview no matter what sort of person you are facing across the table.

I think everyone we talk with fits into one of these categories — even the roofers (which I think fall into Kathy’s “disinterested” category). So here I give you Kathy’s list of the types of people you might face, and how to best respond to them:

Autocratic — This domineering style might put you on edge or distract you with concerns about the work environment under this type of authority. Don’t take it personally or let it throw you off. Even the most approachable CEO can have a bad day or quirky interview style. It’s not necessarily reflective of their management style. Candidates should almost over prepare for interviews by researching the company, key executives and initiatives. It’s not just enough to look at the website and know revenues and industry position. Candidates who prep by rehearsing their key messages and questions for the interviewer are more confident and less likely to be caught off guard.

Folksy/Neighborly — This overly casual style might make you lose focus or feel so comfortable you let the conversation drift to off-topic matters. This can be especially deadly — it’s still an interview. Smile and look for a segue to bring the conversation back to the company and position. “I can see why people like working here. You’ve reinforced my desire to join and make a contribution to this organization. Please tell me more about some of your top initiatives.”

Uninterested — This distracted style might make you wonder if they are even seriously considering you for the position, or perhaps they are just going through the motions for some unknown reason. Keep in mind that a busy executive wouldn’t spend time in an interview for no reason. They may have come from a difficult meeting, be trying to solve another problem, or haven’t had time to thoroughly review your resume. They are listening and you’re in their office. Stick to your plan.

Salesy — This “look at everything we can do for you” style might make you feel this is a slam dunk and leave you complacent. Don’t get overconfident — you don’t have the job yet. Most senior hires are consensus decisions made by a team. It’s important to give them the answer to the question “Why hire him?” that will inevitably come later.

Brick Wall — This hard-to-grasp style might be frustrating in its lack of feedback. You just can’t get a read on them and think to yourself “who is this person?” This is where preparation builds the confidence to speak to the value you bring to the organization. Keep it business-like and professional. A good question to ask is what do they see as the greatest challenge facing the company at the present time. Sometimes even senior people need an icebreaker.

Contrarian — This style seems to be just plain argumentative. This is especially tough for candidates to get past. I’ve known organizations where an interviewer intentionally takes this position to see how candidates react in difficult or stressful situations. Will they lose their cool? Become agitated or distracted? Smile. Take a breath and think “Teflon.”

62 replies
  1. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    I hate to be “contrarian” but I think your recruiter pal probably meant “uninterested” and not “disinterested”. An uninterested person goes through the motions with no feeling; a disinterested person is actively engaged but is impartial or unswayed by personal interest.

  2. fd
    fd says:

    well i’ve had most of those styles in interviews at some point or other and think i’ve performed well mostly. But I have to say if the atmosphere of the interview has been made deliberately unpleasant by the person who is going to manage me, i have turned down the offer when they come. it might be the wrong decision but it felt right to me every single time. same if they asked too many questions about dealing with intra-office politics questions or answered perfectly professional questions with anecdotes about how difficult it is to work there.

  3. sophie
    sophie says:

    I smiled at your roofing story for several reasons. I too would want shingles instead of a metal roof – and I’m a Wisconsin farm girl. But to be truly historically accurate, you would need cedar shakes not asphalt shingles and that would really crank the price of your roofing.

    Years ago I was having cabinetry built for my bathroom and the builder, in reference to my plan, said “no, you don’t want your cabinets like that, you want them like this.” I went along with his idea, seeing as he was the professional. And guess what, I should have kept to my plan. I now get irritated because I don’t have enough towel storage. I’m Irritated at the builder for not listening to my needs. But mostly I’m irritated at myself for not standing up for what I really wanted. I should have trusted myself.

    I find most tradesmen and husbands think only of function (thus your metal roof) and haven’t a clue of form. I now have my husband build my cabinets and he knows he has to listen to my ideas. To him, my ideas initially seem frivolous or not-doable. But he’s learned that he doesn’t naturally see the whole picture and that to go the extra mile–to add that extra trim or finial – in the end makes a much more awesome product.

    I need to apply that to other areas of my life as well. I need to trust my ideas and be confident to stand up for them. I bet I’d be more awesome.

  4. Missy
    Missy says:

    This may go against conventional advice, but I have always found that although top priority in an interview is to be professional, research the company/industry, bring a great portfolio and show what you can bring to the table, it also helps to be likable and make the interviewer feel like they can connect with you on some level. This approach works especially well with women (and I’m a women). People spend a great deal of time at work and it is undeniable that people want to surround themselves with people they feel they can get along with. However, I agree with P in the fact that this can only work if this is your genuine personality. If it’s not, then you will just come across phony and it is probably better to keep it strictly professional.

  5. Samuel
    Samuel says:

    It occurs to me that the categories of interviewers also describe the different “bedside manners” one finds in doctors.

  6. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    Penelope, Here is a chance for you to think out of the box. What if you could paint the metal roof some color that would add to the overall picturesque quality? I could not tell from the sepia-toned pictures, but it looks like the buildings are natural aged-wood color. Maybe you can paint the metal roof the same tan color as cedar shingles? Some other options are asphalt black or brown, brick red or gray. Or you can go completely wild and paint it turquoise blue with yellow sunflowers or daisies on it!

  7. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    One more thing. If the farmer does not want to pay for the paint, you can pay for it yourself, paint a huge sign on the roof that says and deduct the paint as advertising expense.

    Just a thought . . .

  8. T
    T says:

    In the first point, there is a typo: “I am always learning about who I am, and then I always have to how I convey myself to other people…”



    P.S. Excellent article!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I keep coming back to this comment and thinking: What was I trying to say? I think that’s why I wrote the error in the first place. The idea was jumbled in my head. So I think I’m just going to leave it there. Maybe some academic will call this new journalism.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        “I am always learning about who I am, and then I always have to how I convey myself to other people – the two need to match, and I have found that it's not so easy.”

        Here’s a thought – being your real self is a two step learning process. First, discovering it for yourself, and then conveying it to other people, with both steps in harmony with each other. Not easy.

        So I read the above sentence as – “I am always learning – about who I am, and then how I will have to convey myself to other people – the two need to match, and I have found that it's not so easy.”

  9. Chris McLaughlin
    Chris McLaughlin says:

    I like shingles too.

    Figure you (and I mean you personally, not you globally) can be your real self in interviews when your real self is real quirky as long as you are young and hot.

    Later, not so much. The Cloak of Invisibility middle age puts on you (globally this time) is an interesting thing. We just have to learn to use it to do good, not disappear!

    • CS
      CS says:

      Hello Chris

      What age range constitutes “young and hot?” This is something I’ve been grappling with. I’m young and quirky, but don’t know how long I’ll have to get away with it. Also, can you delve more in to the “Cloak of Invisibility?”


      • CS
        CS says:

        @Samuel – well, in the case, I actually am hot. However, in my region of the country it doesn’t serve to help, it only serves to make Puritan men uncomfortable.

        @Maureen – wow, that was very powerful, thank you

        @Chris and everybody – can someone PLEASE tell me what the age range is for “young and hot?” I’m seriously wondering what that range is considered to be in the work world. I have my theories but want to know how others would define that range.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        C S, this varies from person to person. And the real key isn’t to hide your quirkiness, but to decide how much you want to share in any given situation. My advice, regardless of your age and appearance, is to show enough to see if they’re comfortable with you as you are, and to see if you’re comfortable with the way they react to you as you are. But ultimately you’re there to interview for a job, not compete in the Quirk Olympics.

  10. Bud Bilanich
    Bud Bilanich says:

    You’re absolutely correct on this one — if you can’t be yourself in an interview, you will not enjoy the job, assuming you can even land it in the first place.

    When I read your headline, I was reminded of the old saying, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

    And, for the record, I like the old barns too.

  11. Samuel
    Samuel says:

    I am in your region, and not all men here are Puritan. Maybe the discomfort you sense is them being turned off by your self-awareness of your self-hotness.

    • CS
      CS says:

      Wait, you can see people’s regions on this? Seriously or are you joking? Either way, I strongly suspect this work computer has a misrepresented IP address bc it was brought from somewhere else. I’ve seen it show up as a CA computer on the live feed of certain blogs. Can you where you think I am? I mean I could just tell you. I dont’ really give a shiitiit. : )

      • Samuel
        Samuel says:

        I’m sorry, I read Wisconsin somewhere else on the page and on my fifth cup of coffee put you there. Anyway wherever you are I stand by my snark and notice you don’t deny it.

      • CS
        CS says:

        Samuel – They won’t let me post the response I wanted to. I was more thrown off by the fact that you claimed to know my geographical location than your mistaken accusation of vanity. I picked up on it but since you are incorrect I didn’t really care. It’s one thing to recognize a stand out quality and another to be showy and vain about it. Could you be projecting your own negative work place experience with a cocky,attractive woman on to a random blog commenter? That’s simply not me.

    • CS
      CS says:

      I noticed you were essentially accusing me of being vain, but your accusation didn't hold much weight because I know I'm not. Could you be projecting a personal experience you've had with a cocky attractive woman at work (maybe rejection?) on to a random blog commenter? Furthermore, I was more surprised by the fact that you claimed to know my geographical region.

      Anyway, there is a difference between recognizing a stand out quality one has and being honest about it and being showy and vain. I'm not showy at work (I'm actually quite kind and stay out of everyone's way) and I'm not vain anywhere. I just happen to have a very beautiful face, so even if I wear non-revealing clothing men are often made very uncomfortable by me. I've had married men accuse me of hitting on them just because I happened to glance down at their wedding ring as I turned my head. It's a sort of "projecting my attraction to you on to you by blaming you for it" type of thing.

      I guess the feminist lobby has also made men gun shy at work; talking to any woman can constitute sexual harassment these days. On top of that Midwestern men are passive and Puritan. What can you do? So anyway, yes, I recognized your snark, but I just sort of thought – meh, whatever, this dude (or girl) doesn't really know me –

  12. teddybear12
    teddybear12 says:

    I think you are mixing two things: being true to your own values, which you should always be, and being open to change in terms of how you interact. For example, if you are always brash, and dish out critique like candy, and start wondering why your direct reports hate your gut, you truly might want to rethink this particular approach to “being yourself”.

  13. -mike-
    -mike- says:

    Here in central VA metal roofs go way back. The way they did them in the old days was to have rolls of sheet metal and cut and crimp them on site. Then you painted them because the metal was bare. Many of the building from colonial days used very expensive copper roofs, which turn green quickly and is still sometimes used now days. In fact I don’t remember seeing an old barn in these parts with anything else than the old rolled metal roofs. Kept painted they last forever. Newer metal roofs come with many ridges (for strength of the thinner metal) and are pre-sized and pre-painted, they should not need to be repainted for a long time.

    • Joan E
      Joan E says:

      If my memory serves, I recall that Laura Ingalls lived in a house with a metal roof, in her book “On the banks of Plum Creek”, after they moved out of the dugout. They were in Walnut Creek, Minnesota in that book.

  14. Devon Shane
    Devon Shane says:

    Thank you for this, Penelope! I think it is important for job seekers to hear that they should be honest in an interview to find a good match. I think this is more possible now that companies are realizing that they must cater to the needs of Gen X an Yers who, among other things, expect authenticity, value alignment, and meaningful work. The younger talent of today has more freedom to be themselves and expect certain things from an employer (like a focus on internal career development or the ability to work flexible hours or from home)instead of compromising their authentic selves for a job as past generations unfortunately often had to do.

  15. Lindsay Lennox
    Lindsay Lennox says:

    The list of types of interviewers you might encounter is helpful, and it’s a great idea to have a game plan for how you’ll handle any or all of them. However, I’ve worked for folksy-style bosses, and being overly businesslke – making it seem like you’re trying to steer them back into professional waters – tends to seem unfriendly to them, unless you’re already a jedi-level interviewee. Especially if your folksy interviewer is someone you’ll be working with regularly, be aware that friendliness and camaraderie are REALLY important to them, and don’t give the impression that you never relax and shoot the breeze. Plus, if you’re interviewing with the boss you’ve already been screened for skills and the ‘job fit’ by others, so you’re actually being interviewed for your personality anyway.

  16. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Funny. The one interview tip that ALWAYS helps me is to zero in on the person who actually makes the hiring/firing decision, and do body mirroring. No matter what I’m really like or saying, they feel an affinity for me and don’t quite know why.

  17. Jen Gresham
    Jen Gresham says:

    THANK YOU for saying what I have always believed, but hear so little of: if you can’t be yourself in an interview, you don’t want to work there.

    So much job hunting advice, from resumes and interviews to social media warnings, is focused on hiding as much of yourself as possible.

    Of course, to be fair, most companies don’t paint an accurate picture of themselves prior to hiring either. It’s still no reason to follow suit (so to speak).

    • Jen Gresham
      Jen Gresham says:

      P.S. I think the list from Sally works against your message. If you were in an interview with a contrarian, would you just smile and think “teflon”? I don’t think so, at least, not if you were being true to yourself. I’m not suggesting you should be rude in response, but I imagine you would engage in healthy debate, which frankly might win you the job better than just smiling. Who wants a yes man?

  18. Praxidike
    Praxidike says:

    "I can see why people like working here. You've reinforced my desire to join and make a contribution to this organization. Please tell me more about some of your top initiatives."

    Can I just laugh at this? I interview candidates for positions at my firm, and if someone actually said this to me I would immediately discount them as a sycophant and I certainly would not hire them. Yeesh.

  19. Mimsey
    Mimsey says:

    Old farm buildings has metal roofs, too, not just shingles.

    If someone wants to be successful in the workplace he/she has to know what they don’t know and be honest about it. Answers can be found. Mere opinion won’t hack it.

  20. Jean Gogolin
    Jean Gogolin says:

    Here’s a case where I think the comments were as self-revelatory as the post!
    To add to them:
    In addition to sizing up your interviewer’s style and motivations, I think an important part of being yourself in an interview is to listen and observe carefully enough to judge whether this is some place you really want to be — and whether your reasons are valid.
    The biggest career mistake I made in my life was to take a job as a C-level speechwriter at a prestigious defense company because a)I wanted to live in California, and b)I liked the man who would be my boss.
    I loved California, but of course the boss I liked left, leaving me to report to a truly sadistic VP who was legendary for playing with peoples’ minds. Eventually I left.
    Even after years of running my own business, I look back on that experience and shudder.

  21. Vicky
    Vicky says:

    Folksy/Neighborly got me the job and they didn’t even care that we went off topic. I think it helped. There can be a lot of pressure in my job, and being able to go through the interview (like the job now) and not get rattled, and remain interesting, proved I was right for the position.

  22. Sandra Pawula
    Sandra Pawula says:

    So many of us are living in the land of disconnect from our real self. It helps to have these reminders that only more pain can come from pretending to be someone other than who we really are.

  23. awiz8
    awiz8 says:

    Be your real self in an interview:

    What if you’re a narcissitc, overbearing, unfocused, undisciplined, clueless wannabe-neverwas?

    You’ll probably be told you can start a career blog about sex and have tons of readers.

  24. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    They are not charmed. They are not curious. They probably think you’re an unstable jerk and wish you’d go back to New York.

  25. Michael Anthony
    Michael Anthony says:

    I like it. It’s the only real way to interview someone, and it doesn’t just help out the person looking for a job, but it helps out the person who’s doing the hiring. This way it will work out best, and honest, for both people.

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  27. triple beam balance scale
    triple beam balance scale says:

    The biggest career mistake I made in my life was to take a job as a C-level speechwriter at a prestigious defense company because a)I wanted to live in California, and b)I liked the man who would be my boss.

  28. Carolina Claxton
    Carolina Claxton says:

    I like this post. I think it’s important to be your true self in everything you do. I used to know this, but over the past couple of years I’ve found myself chnaging who my true self is depending on who I’m dealing with. It makes me feel phony at times. I’m not sure where I picked up this ugly habit, but I’ve been working on it.

    FYI: I’m not sure how I ended up on your blog, but I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a gem.

  29. maximillienne
    maximillienne says:

    i think they’re uninterested in the aesthetics and interested in the functional. they run farms and you have to look at them…so its just that they’re interested in different things…

  30. Bill Kaminski
    Bill Kaminski says:

    I actually like your perspective and yet it’s so far from reality? Managers practice “behavioral interviewing” and candidates find (and practice) their responses to the ten most asked interview questions. I only wish there were more candidates who believed in your paradigm.

  31. Bill Kaminski
    Bill Kaminski says:

    I’ve been in the employment/recruiting field for 30+ years and it’s been my experience that 90% of the people I’ve interviewed are anxious to leave their current job for many different reasons – and as a result they move to jobs that really aren’t the best fit. And the almighty buck causes people to accept jobs they shouldn’t accept.

    I really love the philosophy of honesty and jobs being a good fit, but it is so hard to make this stuff work in the real world of work. The emphasis is on – what are your skills and what will you pay me.

  32. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    Going back to the barn, metal roofs have been period-correct for the last 100+ years, just that they have been Galvanized metal roofs instead of colored roofs.

  33. Bill Kaminski
    Bill Kaminski says:

    I’m sorry Dennis – I’m a little slow today, the message isn’t clear to me? I’m trying to do what I can in inject more authenticity into the job searching world and I’m not having much luck. Because I have so much experience in the recruiting world, people keep asking me for the best questions and the best answers – and I guess I’m not doing a good job of delivering a more meaningful message?

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