Should You Act Excited During a Job Interview?

by Nancy Ordman

Culture affects both the emotions an interviewee displays during a job interview and the effect these emotions have on the interviewer. How do these cultural predilections influence interviewee behavior and interviewer hiring decisions?

A group of researchers from Stanford, the City University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Northwestern University examined this question with a group of related experiments comparing European Americans, Asian Americans and Chinese living in Hong Kong.  The results provide insight into the kinds of impressions different cultural groups want to impart and the potential for biased hiring decisions.

“Given how diverse our workforce is and how global our markets are, it’s important to understand how culture might influence emotional preferences in employment settings,” said Jeanne Tsai, who directs the Culture and Emotion Lab in the Psychology Department at Stanford’s School for Humanities and Sciences.

Job candidates have an image of themselves that they want to project during an interview, an image informed by emotions they value. Several experiments assessed the different ideal affects – how a person wants others to view him or her – that people from different cultures value. European Americans and Asian Americans showed a strong preference for conveying excitement about a job opportunity; Hong Kong Chinese preferred to project a calm demeanor. Researchers observed this difference in preferences in both job interviews and language on applications.

The research team showed videos of three different candidates to 300 employees at a U.S. company. The only difference between the candidates was their interview behavior; all were equally qualified on paper. The audience showed a strong preference for the excited interviewee (47 percent); 29.3 percent preferred the neutral candidate and 23.7 opted for the calm person. The researchers observed the same preference distribution in a separate experiment.

What are the takeaways from this research? Tsai points out that both applicants and interviewers should be aware of the impact cultural background can have on whether an applicant thinks a company is a good cultural fit and how accurately an interviewer assesses a candidate’s qualifications. Another researcher, Lucy Zhang Bencharit, cautions against putting too much emphasis on hiring for cultural fit.

“Hiring for cultural fit unfairly disadvantages some groups over others. Those who have less experience with American workplaces, like recent immigrants, may be most disadvantaged in the interview and hiring process,” Bencharit said.