Don’t answer that

Political interviewers of the Russert school often ask questions without listening to or caring about the answers given. The substance of either the question or the answer isn’t the point. The ritual, whether called an “interview” or a “debate” (their term for simultaneous interviews during which the interviewees remain standing) is really an attempt to measure politicians’ ability to “stay on message.”

What that message is is beside the point. The substance of the message, or its lack of substance, doesn’t matter. The politician might be explaining a practical solution to provide health care to the working poor, or they might be shrieking about “Islamofascism.” The interviewer doesn’t care and doesn’t think we should care. All that matters is whether or not the politician in question has demonstrated the required mastery of the art of staying on message.

Normal people tend to find this ritual either dull or laughable. Or both. But the Russerts of this world are deeply impressed, awestruck even, when George W. Bush proves able to answer every question on every topic with the word “terra,” or when Rudy Giuliani is able to answer every question with “9/11.”

This sort of ritual fosters an evasiveness and pretense that requires something less than candor or honesty on the part of both the asker and the (non)answerer. Even if you’ve never been a guest on Meet the Press, you’ve had a similarly distasteful experience — a taste of the same awkwardly stylized disingenuousness — if you’ve ever interviewed for a job. “What are your weaknesses?” the interviewer asks, reading from the standardized list of questions in the prepared script. Your task, at that point, is to recite a response from the standardized list of answers (“I’m a perfectionist,” “I care too much,” “My awesomeness, like the sun, can be blinding”). Do not answer candidly, or honestly, or relevantly, or in any way related to the generally accepted meaning of the English words “what,” “are,” “your” or “weaknesses.” Straying from the script will mean you don’t get the job.

The ritualized pretense of the job interview and the ritualized pretense of the political interview came together in a recent Democratic “debate” in which the moderator, Tim Russert of course, actually asked the candidates “What’s your biggest weakness?”

The question seemed to confuse Barack Obama. The Illinois senator responded to Russert’s question with the ultimate Beltway faux pax — a response to the question. He said he was disorganized and always losing papers amid the cluttered piles on his desk.

That was hardly an excessively confessional moment — Obama was surely withholding his biggest weaknesses — but it was close enough to an actual response that the rhythm of the ritual was thrown off. Obama had failed to do what the ritual required of him, which is to stay on message. His job was to wait until Russert’s lips stopped moving, then repeat his talking points — change, hope, out of Iraq, whatever. Those talking points, of course, do not include anything about whether or not his desk is organized.

John Edwards went next. When Russert’s lips stopped moving, Edwards said, “I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me,” and springboarded into his talking points. He walked the thin line between artifice and artificiality, and artfully recited an answer from the standardized list.

Obama has since joked about that debate: “If I had gone last, I would have known what the game was. I could have said, ‘Well, you know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don’t want to be helped. It’s terrible.’”

He’s since mocked his own ineptitude and Edwards’ polish, joking that his former opponent told Russert that his biggest weakness was, “I am just so passionate about helping poor people.”

Both variations of that joke gently chide Edwards and himself for playing along with and clumsily not playing along with, respectively, the absurd rituals of Russert-World. The barb in such comments, however, doesn’t cut into either of the candidates, but into the ritual itself and the pompous, insincerity of the moderator — of Russert and Russertism in all its incarnations.

Sen. Obama earns major points with me for acknowledging, and thus deflating, that distracting and corrosive absurdity. Bonus points for self-deprecation, and half an extra bonus point for the elliptical praise of his former rival (only half a point because he’s probably sucking up for an endorsement from the man I hope to see as our next Attorney General).

But wait, couldn’t there be another opposite-from-the-apparent way to interpret those comments? Couldn’t Obama’s jokes be taken as mockery directed at John Edwards and, what’s more, at “poor people” themselves?

Well, we could try to interpret them that way. … Hmmm. … No, maybe if we squint and tilt our heads? … No. Uh-uh. I can’t manage that.

For that level of determinedly obtuse humorlessness, we’d have to turn to Roger Simon of The Politico.

Simon — who hopes one day to grow up to be Tim Russert himself — announces that “Barack Obama mocked John Edwards in a speech.” This, he says, was “so bizarre” that he could scarcely believe it, but he did, after all get the tip, and the spin, straight from Mark Halperin — former editor of “The Note,” i.e., the L’Osservatore Romano of the Church of Russert. So it must be true.

After all, Obama couldn’t possibly be making fun of people like Russert and Halperin and The Politico. Everyone knows they are all deeply serious and weighty and beyond mockery. So he must, therefore, have been mocking Edwards. And poor people. And puppies. Poor puppies. Yeah, that must be it.

Trying to explain humor to Roger Simon would be like trying to explain peacock blue to someone blind from birth.

  • spinetingler

    I just want to work the phrase “floopy spooge” legitimately into an interview sometime.

  • http://d-84.livejournal.com cjmr’s husband

    @spinetingler: Why, to see how effective their anti-sexual-harassment policies are?

  • burgundy

    If I’m lucky, I’ll have two job interviews sometime in the next few weeks, and I know at least one of them will ask The Dread Question. Every other interview I can remember has included it. I hate it. And really, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m a perfectionist, and the reason that’s a weakness is that it’s hard for me to maintain boundaries and recognize reasonable standards so I get stressed and anxious and depressed. But the state of my mental health is frankly none of their business so long as I do all of my coping on my personal time. So if I answer it honestly, I’ll sound like a bullshitter.
    Fortunately, the interview that I know will involve The Question is for a permanent position at the place where I’m temping, so I can bring in some humor and know that it won’t hurt me. I can also ask my current project leaders what they think my strengths and weaknesses are, and work that in.
    Also, every time I hear that question, I want to laugh, because it reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon I don’t feel like finding and linking to. (Interviewer: What are your weaknesses? Dilbert: Well I tend to work to hard. Interviewer: How is that a weakness? Dilbert: Well I tend to forget to eat and then I starve to death at my desk and then my corpse begins to smell…)

  • hapax

    Don’t let hapax send out the hounds.
    I don’t have any hounds, only one slightly brain-damaged Skye terrier. If she finds you, she will try and take off your pants. (Seriously. “Pants!” is the only command we have been able to teach her. And by “we”, I mean my children.)
    Jesu, burgundy, everyone with job interviews coming up, good luck!

  • aunursa

    Jon: Now, if the moderator were to say “You didn’t actually answer the question that you were asked; try again,” and keep at it until we did get real answers, that would be worthwhile.
    That’s exactly what I want in a moderator.

  • Tehanu

    I don’t think “Why do you want this position?” is a good interview question, unless the implication is, “…rather than the other position we also have open”. My answer would always be the same, if I felt able to be honest: “Because I need the freakin’ job, that’s why! Because eating, wearing clothes, maintaining a car (I live in L.A.), and having a roof over my head are my priorities! Why would I be here applying if I didn’t want it?”
    I hate job interviews.

  • Reynard

    My least-favorite job interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    I was always tempted to answer this in either of two ways:
    A. Narrow my eyes and, in a slightly menacing tone, say “Doing *your* job.”
    or (and this was while I was homeless and on the street for several years)
    B. Grab the interviewer by the collar and scream “What the F**K do I look like, pal??? A soothsayer??? I don’t even know where my next *MEAL* is coming from, let alone where I’m going to be five years from now!!! For all I know, I might be f**kin’ *DEAD* in five years!!!” Needless to say, I managed to hold my tongue, but it was difficult…oh, *so* difficult…

  • borealys

    Just a couple of days ago, I had a job interview where I was repeatedly asked if I had any questions. It’s (so I’ve been told) often used as a way for the interviewer to gauge if you’ve done enough homework about the company and the position you’re applying for, and to see just how interested you really are in the job. Also, in the case of the job I was applying for, she probably wanted to see how confident I was in being able and willing to ask questions when needed, since the job, while within my scope of training, is largely outside my areas of significant experience (I’ve mostly worked with adults, and this job is at a pediatric clinic).
    At another recent job interview, I was asked three different variants of the “what is your greatest weakness” question: What would I say is my greatest weakness, what would my then-current boss say is my greatest weakness, and would I please name one quality I have that my then-current co-workers probably don’t like about me. The clear implication was that I was *not* supposed to give the same answer three times.
    The one interview was friendly and relatively informal, the other was me sitting across the table from three people with clipboards.
    Ironically enough, of the two jobs, the one I got is the one I’m less qualified to do. I *never* do well in interviews of the three-people-with-clipboards variety.

  • Brandi

    My least-favorite job interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    These days I’d probably be tempted to start with “Assuming my position *hasn’t* been outsourced in that time?”

  • Spalanzani

    Reynard: My least-favorite job interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    That reminds me of this Cat and Girl comic parodying job interviews/Near-Death experiences .

  • http://www.extremelyevilmusic.com Monkay

    As Callahan once observed, “What kind of a God would allow a thing like this to happen?”

  • Steve

    My basic advice for any job interview:
    - Dress very nice
    - Be well groomed (believe it or not some people don’t both to look nice when they show up)
    - Be likeable/use appropriate humor
    I was talking to a headhunter recently and he said “you know, if you have good social skills: good manners, are likeable, use proper english…that is often more important than competence.”

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    My least-favorite job interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    If I had the nerve (and REALLY didn’t want the job), I’d reply with “Caught in bed with the Olsen Twins”, just to see how they’d react. :)

  • OneFatEnglishman

    I once answered the “What is your greatest weakness and what do you intend to do about it” one with: “My greatest weakness is robbing banks, but as soon as I’ve amassed enough loot to retire I intend to stop.” It had already become clear before that that I wasn’t going to get the job and I didn’t much want it, but the interviewer congratulated me at the end.

  • http://www.magistraetmater.blog.co.uk/ magistra

    My least-favorite job interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    I never like that one, but it’s increasingly possible to say: ‘Doing a job that hasn’t been invented yet’ or ‘Doing this kind of work in a way that hasn’t been invented yet.’
    I have always wanted to, but never dared, say that my biggest weakness is chocolate. If I’m careful, however, I can often say (truthfully): ‘Not being able to drive’. Which is a big weakness, but, as I only apply for jobs I can do without having to drive, an irrelevant weakness.

  • burgundy

    I was talking to a headhunter recently and he said “you know, if you have good social skills: good manners, are likeable, use proper english…that is often more important than competence.”
    That kind of advice always gets on my nerves. I dress appropriately, I’m well-groomed, I show up at interviews on time, I have reasonably good social skills, I communicate very well… and I’ve never gotten a job based on competitive interviews. (Jobs that I did get: One job that was created for me at a place where I started as a volunteer, two jobs that involved hiring big groups of people all at once, and an internship where I was the fourth pick [out of apparently a lot of people, which was nice, but if they hadn't gotten extra funding at the last minute I still wouldn't have gotten it.])
    Every supervisor I’ve had has thought I did excellent work, but somehow I’m not able to convey that to a stranger. That’s why I have a lot of hopes for getting a permanent job at the place where I am now. I’ll still have to interview, but they’ll already know I rock, so I won’t have to try so hard to convince them.

  • twig

    burgundy;
    Same thing here. I think actually getting anyone to pick me for anything is nothing more than a total crap shoot, relying as much on the trade winds off Cuba as anything I say or do. Of course, it doesn’t help that businesses have prospective workers over the barrel – an extremely talented/way smarter than me friend had to go back for four interviews – FOUR – before they hired someone else for the job. Four interviews for anything but level 9 biohazard research or President of God ought to be illegal.
    Also, Ernest Cline (Ultraman is Airwolf) has a great bit about job interviews on his spoken word cd. Something about “I would rather be stuck in a Menudo Reunion Tour in the Ninth concentric circle of Dante’s Inferno than have to explain why you should hire me.”

  • twig

    Also, totally old news now but on topic with the post, I loved how Romney was able to wedge in ‘stopping terrorism’ into his concession speech.
    It may have taken a prybar and a couple of good thwacks, but damn it, he’s doing his part to stop terror by failing.

  • McJulie

    I was talking to a headhunter recently and he said “you know, if you have good social skills: good manners, are likeable, use proper english…that is often more important than competence.”
    That kind of advice always gets on my nerves. I dress appropriately, I’m well-groomed, I show up at interviews on time, I have reasonably good social skills, I communicate very well… and I’ve never gotten a job based on competitive interviews.
    I could be wrong about this, but I’m convinced that 90 percent of all job-hunting advice is no more useful than a fortune cookie or a horoscope … and most of the job-hunting process is simply a ritual to give you something to do while you wait for the planets of personal connections to come into alignment.

  • http://bifrosts-edge.blogspot.com Jon

    My basic advice for any job interview:
    - Dress very nice

    I wore a suit to an interview once…and was interviewed by people wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals who actually cracked a few jokes about my attire.
    I got the job, but decided that I’d never go the full suit route in the future, leaning instead towards the dressier end of “business casual.”

  • Anonymous

    I wore a suit to an interview once…and was interviewed by people wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals who actually cracked a few jokes about my attire.
    What type of job was it? I suspect it was in the creative field, or writing software code, because those fields prize nonconformity. They also value what is in your head more than what is on your body.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    Last job interview I attended, I knew to wear a polo shirt to, because that was the standard dress code.
    What I hadn’t realized until just before I left the house was that my last clean polo shirt had a nice big Starfleet insignia on it.
    Funny, how I never quite got around to taking off my jacket in that interview. (Got the job.)

  • Izzy

    I don’t think “Why do you want this position?” is a good interview question, unless the implication is, “…rather than the other position we also have open”. My answer would always be the same, if I felt able to be honest: “Because I need the freakin’ job, that’s why! Because eating, wearing clothes, maintaining a car (I live in L.A.), and having a roof over my head are my priorities! Why would I be here applying if I didn’t want it?”
    Bwah!
    And the thing is, I can soooort of see this in salaried work–making sure you won’t take off to another company the moment they offer you slightly more money. It’s still a bad question, because, unless the company treats you well, you *should* do just that.
    Where it really gets ridiculous, though, is when minimum-wage summer jobs start asking that. One summer, I spent an hour with friends coming up with a list of Reasons I Want to Work at Urban Outfitters:
    * Because I want to infiltrate the secret evil snake cult you have in your basement.
    * So I can brighten your life with my madcap antics and winsome charm.
    * Because the centipedes told me to.
    * It is my destiny.
    * Because I like your environment, by which I mean your air conditioning, and I enjoy working with people, by which I mean giving them things so they go away.
    * Um. Money. DUH.

  • Bugmaster

    During my last job interview, I was grilled by a gauntlet of scientists and computational biologists. Each of them had a theme: one liked RDBMS questions, one liked OOP, one asked lower-level machine architecture questions, and one liked math and logic puzzles. They weren’t really focusing on any particular language or application; they wanted to see how well I can solve problems in general. The puzzle guy was smiling sadly and shaking his head at the end. I could’ve worn a tuxedo, but I don’t think it would’ve made a difference (I did get the job, though).
    Clothing only matter in jobs such as marketing, where your primary objective is to impress people. If your goal is to solve problems, or to write software that solves problems for you, clothes won’t help.

  • borealys

    The advice I was always given in regards to dress for a job interview is to dress one step nicer than you expect to have to dress on the job. Almost as bad as dressing too sloppily is dressing too formally. Let’s face it, if you show up for an interview for, say, a summer camp counsellor position at the YMCA wearing a suit and tie (and someone I know did that once), you look like an idiot who has no idea whatsoever what the job entails. So, I would say that clothing matters, but only insofar as your outfit at the interview is appropriate to the kind of job you’re applying for.

  • Reynard

    Posted by Jon: “I wore a suit to an interview once…and was interviewed by people wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals who actually cracked a few jokes about my attire.”
    That reminds me of a scene from The Pirates of Silicon Valley in which Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) does a funny/scary interview (just after he’s introduced the first Mac, IIRC, and he’s become a bit full of himself) with some poor nerdy schlub — while barefoot and wearing a dirty T-shirt and shorts, no less — and proceeds to question the poor guy’s manhood. Needless to say, I’m glad you didn’t have to suffer through *that*…

  • Jesurgislac

    borealys: The advice I was always given in regards to dress for a job interview is to dress one step nicer than you expect to have to dress on the job.
    *nods* Works every time – if you can figure out how you expect to have to dress on the job.

  • http://ksej.livejournal.com Nick Kiddle

    One course I did suggested hanging around outside the workplace at quitting time and seeing what the other employees wore. I have never yet got a job that required that sort of obsessive preparation.

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