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Imagine being the camera that is filming the opening scene of a blockbuster movie. You pan across a room where two characters are sitting. The director instructs the camera person to make sure that you do not show the faces of the characters until a few minutes into the scene.

Instead, you focus on the items in the room, the furniture and the overall décor of the room. The director’s goal is to present the characters through the overall ambience of the place, as created by the items, furniture, and décor.

Off the screen, we do the same when we walk into a room, although a movie usually prolongs this process of scanning and interpreting the room. Take, for example, the experience of walking into a job interview.

Our natural tendency is to scan the space to get a sense of the kind of person we are meeting and, perhaps, even the type of company or office that we hope to join if given the job.

We Are Eternally Scanning

In our daily lives, we are perpetually studying our environment to make meaning.

Our interpretation of the environment stems from this habit.

In a sense, we operate as amateur semioticians reading signs around us to better understand the world in which we live.

A car could be a sign. A shopping bag could be a sign. Even an umbrella could be a sign.

As trained semioticians will tell you, moreover, our interpretation of signs is influenced by our existing knowledge about the domain that the thing belongs.

So, if I know a lot about cars, then I will look at a car and make meaning differently than someone who does not know much about cars.

How Scanning Can Help or Hurt You

How well we scan has an impact on how it impacts our life. An ineffective interpretation of our surroundings can lead to a poor decision or lousy choice that changes our life the wrong way. While walking into a job interview, we might notice a tattoo on our interviewer’s arm.

Unaware of the meaning of the tattoo, we might make a hasty judgment that it represents the interviewer’s support for a liberal lifestyle.

However, it might be a tattoo with religious connotations, and the interviewer could be someone with conservative beliefs.

Our misinterpretation could lead us to exaggerate our liberal mindset during the interview, and the result is predictable. Seeing a mismatch in our viewpoints, the interviewer will probably not hire us. This is due to a lack of fit with the company culture.

In contrast, scanning can help us when we pick up a warning or recognize an opportunity quickly.

During an interview, we might correctly identify a ring on the interviewer’s hand as something they won at a college football tournament.

This might make us comment on our sporting experience or refer to sports-related examples during the interview.

Consequently, the interviewer will perhaps readily recognize our competitive attitude and hire us.

The Job Interview

The job interview can is divisible into the specific and general. Cultural intelligence can be useful in both realms. The two examples above are very concrete. The following discussion will elaborate on this distinction further.

Specifics of the Interview

The interview process usually involves a detailed conversation between the interviewer and us, unless it is a short screening interview. We are expected to present details about ourselves to make the case that we are indeed the ideal candidate for the job.

As anyone who has been in an interview will probably agree, these details are most presentable in the form of stories that make us appear exciting and throw light on our overall persona.

Cultural intelligence helps to create appropriate stories. A story is relevant to the interviewer when it fits in with their cultural fabric.

An interviewer based in Singapore, for example, may not be able to relate to an interviewee’s story about an American hiking trip.

Apart from the content of the story, factors like overall story tone and type of humor should accommodate the cultural fabric of the company.

A funny story about drinking with friends in a bar can be useful in cultures where drinking alcohol is prevalent, but it shouldn’t be thrown around in more formal cultural settings.

Especially if the hiring company is known to be conservative. Or if the position is in a country where drinking is inadmissible for religious restrictions.

General Interview

Apart from the specifics of the conversation during the interview, cultural intelligence is vital in the context of an interview. Within formal cultures, it is crucial to maintain a slightly submissive body language that demonstrates respect.

A gentle handshake with a lowered or downward tilt is a standard greeting in such a culture. While confidence is important, an overtly independent and self-promoting style is not always appropriate.

In a liberal, self-driven culture, however, a dramatic show of respect could come across as unproductive. They may be interpreted as lacking character, confidence, or the ability to work independently.

The interview attire, similarly, should have an overall appearance that matches the hiring culture.

At a traditional financial institution, for example, we should always attempt to project an old school look. Exemplified by a well-kept hair, no facial hair, or a formal suit. Equally useful is an elegant folder or carry on bag to bring extra copies of a résumé.

At a new age design firm, the same attire might be less appreciated. One that is trendier or avant-garde would be more appropriate. In certain organizations, it might also help to demonstrate non-conformist characteristics like stylish, long hair or a body piercing.

Ultimately, cultural intelligence makes us sharper job candidates whether we are interviewing within or outside our own culture. This applies even when in an interview with someone from our community.

We are more likely to offer impressive answers to interview questions if we are culturally intelligent. This is because such intelligence improves our ability to scan and interpret the world around us. It shows our capacity to relate to people and establish our presence in a milieu that is possibly akin to the culture in which we grew up.

Written By
Rohit Chattopadhyay is the founder of Culture Cushion™ Consulting, a firm that helps professionals develop communication and cultural skills to succeed internationally. He has a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Pennsylvania and has worked as a marketing research and marketing professional in Canada, India and USA. If you want to schedule a workshop, please send an email to Rohit@culturecushion.com

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