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The Boston Globe

The art of the interview, US style

By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 5/15/05

Brandeis University professor Andrew Molinsky will never forget the conversations he had with newly settled Russian refugees who wanted to find work with US employers.

Molinsky, a volunteer at the nonprofit Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, taught refugees about the fine art of the American interview. He told them to make direct eye contact, deliver a vigorous hand shake, make small talk and be honest - but not too honest.

However, one Russian client was having so much difficulty that he confided to Molinsky that he felt like he was "committing a crime against my own personality."

"In Russia, honesty is an important part of the cultural ritual for interviewing," said Molinsky. "But in the US, that can get you into trouble, especially with small talk like: 'Any trouble finding the office today?' 'Yes.' Or if you'd ask a recent Russian refugee, 'So how do you like Boston?' The answer might be: 'I really don't like it much.'?"

At a mock interview, for example, Molinsky asked a Jewish Vocational Service client to discuss his weaknesses. The trainee's response: "I don't like to work with other people."

Talk about a culture clash.

But with so many professionals and students flocking to the United States each year, and more American executives going abroad to do business, the definition of global trade is hardly limited to dollars or goods and services. These days, making the connections needed to seal a business deal in Tibet or land work in Los Angeles also hinges on one's ability to decipher cultural cues, mores, customs, and body language, said Molinsky, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis' International Business School.

Struck by the cultural dissonance he'd witnessed while volunteering, Molinsky last year launched a classroom project that brought international MBA students from Brandeis to Jewish Vocational Service to teach the city's foreign newcomers how to cinch an interview. The project, completed early this year, led to the creation of a CD-ROM and videos that show refugees from Africa, Asia, and Europe how to communicate with Boston recruiters and potential bosses.

Molinsky's class also analyzed how their own cultural mores could affect their ability to find work in the United States. At one class, the students found that the behaviors American interviewers found most appealing sometimes conflicted with the values they'd learned at home.

Take Shin Chih Lin, 25, of Taipei. He sat ramrod straight in his chair as Deborah Marsen, manager of global business unit strategies at Gillette, questioned him during a mock interview in the classroom.

"It's OK to make small talk," Marsen said. "But let the interviewer introduce the small talk."

That might work at US firms, said Lin, but in Taiwan idle talk could hurt an applicant's chances.

"Sitting still is seen as a show of respect," said Lin. "So, you sit there. They ask the questions, and you answer them."

Celine Hubort, 29, of Paris, told the class that the French would likely frown on small talk.

"French people are very conservative, and small talk is not common in the interview," she said. "But in America, they want to know your personality. In France, they want to know which university you went to. Interviewers do not smile, and they can be tough to test you. You must always keep it in your mind that you are speaking with the boss."

And while Americans expect correspondence such as thank-you notes to be typewritten - or even e-mailed - the French wouldn't consider hiring an applicant who did not submit a handwritten thank-you note. "They'll do a full analysis of how you make your y's or your t's," said Hubort. "They use your handwriting to assess your personality."

In East Asia, by contrast, the handshake should not be firm, but gentle, said Molinsky. In Taiwan, recruiters and job applicants greet each other with a bow, not a handshake. In the Netherlands, interviews are formal and are accompanied by tests designed to assess computer or clerical skills and emotional stability. Lola Ayallo, an MBA candidate from Nigeria, said that in her country having a mentor or knowing someone at the firm plays a big part in getting the kind of job you want.

"You must try not to make eye contact," she said. "To make eye contact would be perceived as arrogant and you do not speak until you are spoken to. Also, small talk is considered inappropriate, and too informal."

Armed with that knowledge, the MBA students began interacting with refugees at Jewish Vocational Service during the school year.

"They helped people learn small talk, how to make eye contact, what to wear and what to do when you don't know the answer to a question," said Phyllis Burke, senior employment specialist who helps legal aliens find work in Greater Boston.

Burke said most of her clients fled persecution in their own countries, or experienced economic deprivation. For them, learning to open up can be difficult.

Some found low-wage jobs, and are hoping to improve their circumstances. Others, having already mastered English, may hold advanced degrees and are looking for a way to enter the professional job market. To get them, they must master the interview.

"They have a tremendous number of interview problems," said Burke. "Many times people do not know how to be positive, or how to show self-confidence to sell themselves. They have to remember to speak enthusiastically, with confidence, and smile."

Silvana Majushi, 31, of Albania, was afraid at first, but she says the seminars helped boost her confidence.

"When I first came, interviewing was very hard," she said. "But the Brandeis [graduate] students taught me how to dress for the interview, how to present myself and what kinds of questions I should ask."

This week, Majushi started a job as a receptionist at a West Roxbury chiropractor's office.

Alassane Traore, 38, of Malden, came to Boston in 2002 from the Ivory Coast. Traore, who is fluent in French, works as an intern at Icon Business Solutions, an international document processing company - a position he landed after completing the program.

"In my country, the interviewer would want to know your value and how well you can do the work," said Traore. "How to dress is less important there. People expect you to be neat and clean and to wear a shirt and pants. But here, in the United States, you must have a suit."

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