Should You “Act Normal” During a Job Interview?

As you can probably well imagine, someone who is socially awkward, who has social anxiety, and communication problems of various sorts isn’t going to do well in a job interview. Think about the issue of eye contact. This article lists 8 reasons someone might not make eye contact with you. Here’s the short version:

  1. Social anxiety
  2. They like you
  3. They aren’t interested in what you’re saying
  4. You aren’t very visually appealing
  5. Low self-esteem
  6. They are hiding something
  7. They are having a bad day
  8. They don’t want to come across as flirty

Now isn’t that a delightful list? The first one comes closest to saying “because you’re autistic.” Most people interpret lack of eye contact as being at least 6 or 3. Can you imagine how your interview is going if the interviewer(s) are thinking you aren’t interested in what they are saying, or that you’re untrustworthy? It’s just as bad if they think you’re not looking at them because you think they’re ugly. And who wants a potential sexual harassment suit (2 and 8), or want to hire someone with low self-esteem?

Of course, we can learn we need to make and maintain eye contact, but then we get into the issues of not actually knowing how to do so properly and thus run the risk of staring or making the interviewer uncomfortable. So that may seem like a solution, but it may not in fact be one.

To many think that if they tell an autistic person they just need to be trained to interview, that that will solve the problem. But that’s essentially telling them that they need to be taught not to be autistic while they’re being interviewed. Even if that were possible (some of us can fake it long enough to get through an interview), what happens when you get the job?

If we could simply learn to not act autistic, we probably all would have done so by now–at least, during work hours. But when you ask us to not “act” autistic, you are asking us to stop being natural in our behavior. And I’m not talking about excusing bad behavior. It’s not “natural” to be a rude little jerk. And I’m not talking about mere cultural or subcultural differences. I’m talking about complaining that your cat isn’t acting like your dog. That being the case, let me ask my neurotypical readers something: why not learn to act autistic? Try it for even an hour. See how well it goes. See how it feels.

Of course, asking us to try to act normal during an interview is just a subset of the larger problem of people thinking we can act normal if we just wanted to do so. We act the way we act because it’s normal according to our neural structures and neurochemistry. Those elements inform the way anything with a nervous system behaves, which is why there is such a wide variety of behaviors in nature. Are gorillas or orangutans inferior chimpanzees because they don’t behave like chimpanzees? Or might they have different neural structures, resulting in different behaviors? Even more obviously similar to the situation I’m talking about would be the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos. Only the specialist can tell these species apart, but their behaviors are completely different. A chimpanzee among bonobos would appear to be “socially awkward,” to say the least.

Further, asking us to fake it during the interview only delays the problem. How are you helped if you get a job with people expecting one set of behaviors, then finding out they are getting someone with completely different behaviors? And this of course ignores the issues of when and if one should disclose being autistic.

I know people think they are being helpful when they make these suggestions, but the problem is that these issues are much more complex than simply doing well in an interview. Quite frankly, if we could just disclose up front without any negative consequences, and be accepted for who we are and how we behave, most of our social anxieties would disappear, and we’d actually be much more delightful to work with.

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