Sending the right signals at interview

By Gordon Rugg

On the surface, a lot of the advice that you’ll see about sending the right signals at job interviews is either pretty obvious (e.g. “dress smartly”) or subjective (e.g. “dress smartly”) or social convention with no relation to what you’ll actually be doing in the job (e.g. “dress smartly”).

Below the surface, however, there are regularities that make a lot more sense of what’s going on. Once you know what those regularities are, you’re in a better position to send out the signals that you want, with the minimum of wasted effort and of misunderstanding on both sides.

So, what are those regularities, and where do they come from? The answer takes us into the reasons for Irish elk having huge antlers, and peacocks having huge tails, and monarchs having huge crowns.

Images from Wikipedia; credits at the end of this article

When you look at the research into signalling, by biologists and anthropologists, one concept is particularly useful. It’s known technically as honest costly signalling. In this context, “honest” means “I can put a lot of trust in the accuracy of this signal” and costly means “requiring a lot of resources”. This is subtly but significantly different from the everyday meanings of “honest” and of “costly”. To reduce the risk of confusion, I’ll deliberately avoid using those words where there’s a chance of ambiguity.

In biology, male land animals tend to have prominent body features that are used in courtship, such as the extravagant tail feathers of peacocks, or the enormous antlers of the extinct Irish elk. The features involved are typically ones that require excellent health and that are hard to fake, which makes them trustworthy signals of biological success (and therefore of good prospective mates).

In anthropology, the same principle appears in human behaviour. An example is the crown used by a king or queen, which is typically made of rare, highly valued materials as a signal of social success. However, finding signals that are hard to fake is difficult in human society, because human beings are very inventive in finding ways to fake signals. For example, Archimedes’ famous eureka moment arose from the challenge of determining whether a ruler’s crown was made of pure gold or of a cheaper mixture of gold and silver.

So how does this apply to the initial stage of job applications?

Before interviewers see you, they’ve read your application. There’s an asymmetry at the written application stage. If your written application is bad, then it’s probably an honest signal of badness. If it’s good, that isn’t a very trustworthy signal, because they have no way of knowing whether you wrote it yourself, or whether you persuaded a friend with brilliant writing skills to do it for you. Which is one reason that most organisations like having interviews, even if the statistics for interview success in choosing the best candidate aren’t very inspiring; at least the interview lets the organisation detect some types of cheat and bullshit artists.

A brief side note: Selection panels are usually picky about typos in written applications, because they don’t want to hire someone who will cause a disaster through not being able to get the written text absolutely right. You might think that this is unfair to people with dyslexia, and you’d be right. An organisation which has its act together should have a process which includes having important documents proofread by someone with proper proof reading skills, which will make life fairer to people with dyslexia or poor spelling.

In case you’re wondering whether a simple mis-spelling can actually make a difference to anything, the answer is an emphatic “Yes”. There are plenty of cases where a typo or a mis-spelling or mis-phrasing have caused disasters, which is why a lot of employers will reject a job application because of a single typo in the cover letter.

How does this apply to the interview stage of job applications?

One obvious issue is that interviews involve questions and answers in real time, where you can’t ask a friend or do an online search for help in giving the right answer. This greatly reduces the options for sending out dishonest signals. Any halfway competent interviewer can rapidly get past the answers that the applicant has carefully prepared, and into territory that the applicant hasn’t prepared for. This doesn’t guarantee that what they find will be a completely accurate sample of the applicant’s abilities, but it’s likely to be a pretty good start.

Most candidates are well aware of this issue, and are very twitchy about being dragged out of their comfort zone into unprepared territory. If a candidate performs well in response to questions that they couldn’t have prepared for, then that’s likely to be an honest costly signal.

This, however, isn’t the only way of signalling strength. One signal which is often used semi-tacitly or tacitly involves shibboleth terms.

These are words or phrases which are used to show some form of group membership. Originally, they were words or phrases which outsiders found difficult to pronounce. In a broader sense, they are words or phrases with specific, specialist meanings, which outsiders tend to mis-use. Often, learning the specific specialist meanings involves mastering sophisticated concepts, making these terms honest costly signals.

For example, in many disciplines the terms “validity” and “reliability” have very different meanings from each other, and have strict definitions grounded in statistics and experimental design. So, if an applicant uses these terms in the correct sense without having to pause and think about them, it’s a pretty trustworthy signal that the applicant knows about a whole batch of underlying concepts in statistics and experimental design, and that there’s no need to poke around further in that area.

A common example which has significant legal implications is the distinction between “e.g.” and “i.e.”. A lot of people use these terms interchangeably, but there’s a big difference between them. The term “e.g.” means “for example”. This doesn’t tie you down. The term “i.e.” means “that is”. This does tie you down. There’s a big difference between “We offer out of hours customer support, for example on Sundays” and “We offer out of hours customer support, that is, on Sundays”. The first phrasing is saying that the out of hours support includes Sundays, but isn’t limited to Sundays. The second is saying that the out of hours support is only for Sundays (so it doesn’t include evenings, nights, or public holidays). That’s a significant difference, especially if you’re confronted by an angry customer who has been inconvenienced by your mis-phrasing.

At a craft skill level, this distinction is your friend in several ways. You can use the “e.g.” phrasing to give yourself some wiggle room in a plan, by giving an example of a method or material that you might use, but won’t necessarily use. This phrasing also allows you to get some credibility and/or Brownie points by showing that you know a specific relevant method or material. In addition, the fact that you’ve used it correctly implies that you’ll also know about a batch of other things which are usually taught together with the distinction between “e.g.” and “i.e.”

The take-home message from this is to pay attention to the apparently nit-picking distinctions that your lecturers make between terms that may be used interchangeably by non-specialists. Those distinctions are likely to act as shibboleth terms in interviews, and later when new work colleagues are meeting you for the first time and deciding how much use you’ll be. If you’re not sure why the lecturers are making a particular distinction, then it’s a wise idea to find out; if nothing else, it could get you that extra mark or two in an exam that takes you across a key boundary. On a more positive note, the more you understand your topic, the more you’re likely to get out of it, both in terms of skills and in terms of actually enjoying it.

Which leads us to the last topic in this article…

Closing thoughts

You might be starting to wonder bleakly whether job interviews are going to be an exercise in mental torture, where your every word will be measured against impossibly high standards. The reality is that the other candidates will usually be a lot like you, and will usually be feeling a lot like you, because that’s how the selection process works. The candidates who reach interview are usually at about the same level as each other, because significantly weaker candidates wouldn’t reach the interview stage, and significantly stronger candidates would have either been rejected as over-qualified (yes, that really does regularly happen) or been advised to apply for a higher grade job.

So, you don’t need to know every shibboleth term in your field to have any chance of a job; they help, and you should have picked up some of them along the way, but you don’t need to be a walking encyclopaedia of specialist terms. That should act as some reassurance to you.

Another source of reassurance is that there’s a classic form of question which interviewers often use if you’re having trouble with nerves, and feeling tongue-tied and incoherent. It’s some variant on: What did you most like/enjoy/find most interesting in your previous job?

It’s surprisingly effective at getting you to forget about being in an interview, and to start talking about something you really care about and know about. From the interviewer’s point of view, it’s very useful to discover what you really care and know about – for instance, is it about technical challenge, or producing a well finished product, or teamwork? It also shows the interviewer what you’re really like underneath the nerves; in other words, an honest signal that shows your best qualities.

On which encouraging note, I’ll end.


Credits for original pictures in the banner image:

Irish elk image: By Jatin Sindhu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Peacock image: By Pavel.Riha.CB at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Crown image: By Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941) – G. Younghusband; C. Davenport (1919). The Crown Jewels of England. London: Cassell & Co. p. 6., Public Domain,

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

There’s more about job applications and interviews in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by myself and Marian Petre.

Although it’s mainly intended for PhD students, there are chapters on academic writing which are highly relevant to undergraduate and taught postgraduate students. It’s written in the same style as this article, if that’s any encouragement…

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, 2nd edition (Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg)




1 thought on “Sending the right signals at interview

  1. Good day!
    To the question about the Voynich manuscript.
    The text is written signs. Signs are used instead of letters of the alphabet one of the ancient languages. Moreover, in the text there are 2 levels of encryption. I found the key with which the first section I could read the following words: hemp, wearing hemp; food, food (sheet 20 at the numbering on the Internet); to clean (gut), knowledge, perhaps the desire, to drink, sweet beverage (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to believe (sheet 107); to drink; six; flourishing; increasing; intense; peas; sweet drink, nectar, etc. Is just the short words, 2-3 sign. To translate words with more than 2-3 characters requires knowledge of this ancient language. The fact that some signs correspond to two letters. Thus, for example, a word consisting of three characters can fit up to six letters of which three. In the end, you need six characters to define the semantic word of three letters. Without knowledge of this language make it very difficult even with a dictionary.
    If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages showing the translated words.

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