Overcoming Cultural Barriers of a Job Interview
by Judy Chau
Asian American Civic Association
Never overlook the obvious. This is
what I continue reminding
myself. After three years of coaching students in a prevocational
education program to prepare for job interviews, particularly white-collar
job interviews, I find myself backtracking and focusing much more
with students on the basic presentation aspects of interviewing.
While our program is open to the non-native speaking population
of Greater Boston, the typical profile of an Asian Ameri- can Civic
Association (AACA) Prevoca-tional Skills student is a Chinese or
Vietnamese female, in her late 20s to early 30s, who has worked
as a stitcher, cashier or waitress in a Chinatown business since
arriving in the United States. The students are high-beginners or
low-intermediate level. The average current length of residency
in the U.S. is two or three years.
Most students have a very solid work history in their country,
having worked for a single employer for up to ten years. Many have
had excellent skills, as teachers, bookkeepers, secretaries, bank
tellers, business owners, doctors, tour guides, or hotel clerks.
They are mature, with a stable work history and many transferable
skills. The main barriers are limited English, difficult acculturation,
and a lack of computer skills, confidence, and for some
adequate daycare. Most are very employable individuals who typically
do not see themselves as employable beyond Chinatown. This is one
great barrier especially since many usually summarize their
goal as I want a good job, an office job.
Enrollment typically consists of twenty students who are divided
into two equal groups. Classes run 16 hours per week. Although not
an office skills training program, the students are taught the basics
of keyboarding and basic word processing functions of Microsoft
Word. They practice math and learn the English necessary for the
mathematical skills which they possess. They study grammar for two
hours per week, but ESL is intertwined in all course matter. In
addition to aiding students with these basic skills, the task of
the three prevocational teachers is to assist them to accept themselves
as employable outside of Chinatown. They participate in self-assessment
activities to recognize their strengths. The Case Manager works
with the students on an ongoing basis for five months, both in workshops
and individually, to develop goals and follow their action plan.
My responsibility is divided into ten weeks of conversation, culture
topics, writing skills, and pronunciation, along with ten weeks
of introducing U.S. culture as it relates to the world of work.
The greatest challenge: to prepare students for a white-collar
job interview. The goal of the enrollees is to either find a full-time
job after the five-month class period, or to enroll in a full-time
training program. Typically, up to 80% opt for the training program;
this may be the Office Systems Training Program at AACA, or others
throughout the city of Boston.
Herein lies the challenge. Within those months, the students must
feel confident and ready for either a job or training. Whether preparing
for a training program interview, or preparing for a job interview
white-collar or not the challenges remain the same:
the candidate must appear confident, describe and sell
their skills and experience, and explain their motivation and goals.
The problem lies in the fact that most do not feel confident, cannot
adequately describe their skills, have no knowledge of the Boston
job market and have not developed long-term career plans which they
could express to a Human Resources professional. So, on the larger
scale, proficiency in English, a realistic view of the current office
job market in Boston, the necessary keyboard and computer skills
to obtain an office job, and a plan are paramount to achieving their
Less evident, yet equally as important to the process, are the
presentation skills which native speakers of English are coached
on at University Career Centers, Massachusetts One-stop Career Centers,
or by employment specialists. They are the handshake, volume, eye
contact, and the all important ability to sell yourself
at every opportunity. These are the deeper, cultural aspects of
Western-style interviewing which my students repeatedly inform me
go against cultural propriety. In addition, in the case of students
from mainland China, jobs were assigned by the government, and they
have never experienced what we know as a job interview. The lack
of experience with interviewing, and the cultural differences are
very evident as they come to interview for a slot in the Prevocational
As a Prevocational Instructor, I am a member of the seven-person
Employment and Training team at AACA. The entire team participates
in the intake process. Applicants may be directed in one of four
ways in AACA. They may be accepted to either Prevocational Skills
or to Office Systems. Candidates who need much more remedial English
are referred to ESL class. Those who test with high conversational
skills and extensive office experience in their homeland are referred
to the AACA Job Developer.
During the intake process of potential Prevocational or Office
System students, we are assessing many factors, from eligibility
requirements including low-income status, residency, and having
a work permit, to their English level, and to their commitment to
the objectives of the program. With respect to selecting who studies
in which program, it often comes down to our determination of their
apparent understanding of cultural expectations in the intake interview
and their confidence in themselves. Candidates who come across professionally,
who smile, give a strong handshake, have good eye contact, and are
willing to try to define their work history will typically be accepted
to office skills. Realistically, by learning the appropriate office
skills, they will be job-ready in five months. In general, these
candidates have lived for some time in the United States, and have
somehow become acculturated to many of these interviewing factors.
They still have to strengthen these skills, but they are well on
The typical Prevocational candidate will rarely extend their hand
to the teacher/interviewer. We extend our hand first. The handshake
which we receive is the classic dead-fish handshake,
described in how-to interview books. It is limp, with little or
no grasp. Often it is a two-fingered shake, or a slider,
which slips through our fingers before we have a chance to grasp
it. During the first week of class, we begin to practice the handshake.
It is approached from the cultural aspect first. Students learn
that it is appropriate protocol within the business world to do
so. Women are assured that they are crossing no boundaries to shake
especially with a man. They learn the cultural interpretation of
a weak handshake that human resource professionals emphasize: a
weak handshake is a sign of either a weak character, or a weak body
or both. Either way, these are less than desirable traits
in a employers confident, competent, healthy workforce.
Three years ago, I felt that a bit of practice and a cultural explanation
would be enough to make students aware of the need for a great grasp.
I felt as though I would belittle my students to continue to review
this point. I have since discovered how culturally difficult this
seemingly simple act can be. The students have listened to many
human resource specialists who have come as guest speakers and have
emphasized this point. They have practiced with the H.R. specialists,
they practice at least once a week in class, and during the 19th
week of the program, as students actually experience their first
complete mock interview with a true interviewer rather than a teacher,
most will have the handshake down. There will still be a few limp
hands. My mistake three years ago was believing that I would insult
my students by emphasizing this point. I discovered that I was not
doing them a favor by failing to demand consistently strong handshakes.
Clearly, a firm handshake is only a piece of the outside package.
Equally important is for the eyes to meet. Maintaining eye contact
throughout a thirty-minute interview takes practice for any person
who may be less than comfortable in an interview. Coupling that
with the fact that in Chinese and Vietnamese culture direct eye
contact in a formal situation such as a class or a job interview
is seen as disrespectful, this is our second obstacle to overcome.
In the initial intake interview for the Prevoca-tional Program,
eye contact is no more than the fifty percent range.
And once again, it is first approached through a cultural perspective.
Students list the implications of giving direct eye contact in a
formal situation. They inform me that to do so is to be an affront.
Words that they include are rudeness arrogance
or a challenge. They are then
introduced to the American take on lack of eye contact basic
shyness and insecurity, possible boredom or lack of interest, perhaps
avoidance of the truth to a particular question. The students are
very surprised by these last two negative interpre- tations, but
no miracles of eye contact come strictly with knowledge.
Throughout the twenty weeks, the students practice pair activities
in which they observe each others eye contact. Not being a
formal instance such as speaking to a teacher or an interviewer,
this is much easier. Although each student spends a total of eight
hours per week with me, for twenty weeks, they usually still consider
contact with me as formal. On an ongoing basis I may
sit down with a particular student in class one-on-one, and have
a chat. During the chat, I will follow their eyes up to the
ceiling, down to the floor, toward that invisible spider on the
wall. This is done in a good-humored way, and the students have
some idea of how much their eyes travel in a one-minute conversation.
At the culmination of the job search skills segment of the Prevocational
Program, the students participate in a 15 to 20 minute videotaped
mock interview, generally with one of several Human Resources professionals
who cooperate with AACA. Until the eighteenth week, when the students
have an opportunity to view themselves on the video, eye contact
remains a challenge. I find that it improves after the students
take their taped interview home to review. Seeing is believing.
Volume is another sales point which we work on. Again,
sitting face to face, in a formal situation, speaking with volume
and emphasizing points emphatically, might indicate a certain boisterousness,
arrogance or disrespect. Again, this point is worked on throughout
the twenty weeks.
The students bring a blank cassette to class from week 15 onward.
We spend the good part of three weeks practicing approximately 35
common interview questions. I act as interviewer, the classmates
observe and make notes on a critique form. When initially playing
back the tape, students note they hear me very clearly, but have
trouble hearing themselves. We are sitting equidistant from the
recorder. This method seems to help significantly, and students
self-improve day by day; most are able to match the volume and energy
of the interviewer. Others improve after they hear the same problem
with volume reflected in the videotape. We do our best to improve
awareness, and to increase confidence, but someone who is inherently
shy may continue to be.
Although the handshake, eye contact, and volume are somewhat determined
by culture, the main cultural barrier is the central requirement
of Western-style interviewing: selling yourself. In
cultures where humility is a virtue, the concept of recounting past
accomplishments and emphasizing strengths is a huge obstacle. The
concept is a challenge. The English
vocabulary is a challenge. Believing what you say is a challenge.
Students must be convinced that their work history in their home
country is important. We find during the initial intake interview
that candidates tell us only about their work experience in the
United States, as if what went before is not valid. This is especially
true for former professionals who realize that they may not practice
their previous profession again, at least not on the same level.
To first introduce them to which skills are valued and sought in
the world of
office work, the students spend a week learning the want ad abbreviations,
and reviewing the Boston Globe office job ads. The purpose of the
exercise is twofold: first, to view the current job market realistically;
second, to see which hard and soft skills are being
They can clearly see in newsprint which hard skills or computer
skills are being sought. This helps them set some concrete training
goals. In addition, once they learn that basic soft skills such
as teamwork, initiative, hard work, cooperation, honesty, enthusiasm
are listed time after time in
expensive advertising space, they begin to believe that they have
something to sell.
We work for one week to develop the vocabulary of such soft
skills. Students practice giving vivid examples both in writing
and orally. For example, one former student wrote, I like
to take initiative. I know that in the past, taking initiative helped
me to advance in my job. One day, when I was working at an electronics
company, the assembly line stopped working. My coworkers sat on
the floor playing cards, waiting for the line to start. I thought
this was a good opportunity to learn something. I asked my supervisor
if I could see the other department working. I watched the other
worker for more than an hour, and I thought I could do that. The
next day, I told my supervisor that I was sure I could do that.
The next week, I got a promotion to that department. I dont
think that you can advance without doing extra things.
The next week is spent on functional or transferable skills,
or the I am good at
skills. Functional skills
are things one can do well. We do the same review of the want ads,
and look for key words such as organize, analyze, instruct,
sell, convince, motivate, prioritize, calculate, handle multiple
tasks, plan, mediate problems. Again, we spend a week for
students to develop the vocabulary appropriate to their experience,
develop personal examples, and practice pronunciation.
The next three weeks consist of more vocabulary development and
affirmation of their previous skills as something valid. This is
done with the help of the Job Developer and the Case Manager. The
three of us spend significant individual time to develop vocabulary
for the third component, the job-specific skills. We
trace their work history with a chronological form and choose the
most appropriate terminology to accurately describe their experience.
Having no experience as a seamstress, an accountant, or an acupuncturist,
I cannot pull terminology from the top of my head. Developing occupational
or professional vocabulary is a team effort, using occupational
To further reinforce and practice this vocabulary, the students
will fill out up to ten Boston-area job applications in class. They
will then develop a resume, and will format it in computer class.
They will write basic cover letters in response to mock advertisements.
Through all of these media, the students become comfortable with
the vocabulary, and hopefully they also begin to see that they do
have valid, valued skills.
Weeks ten to fifteen have carried us through the job market exploration,
skills self-assessment, job applications, resumes, and cover letters.
By this time they should have a great handshake, make consistent
eye contact, project their voices well, believe that they have skills
to offer, know how to describe their skills, and are realistic about
which hard skills they must learn in a future training
Weeks sixteen to eighteen consist of daily practice of 30 to 40
common interview questions, including the areas of small talk, education
background, work experience, work style/personal traits,
career plans, and hiring details, such as schedules. They have a
nightly homework assignment to prepare complete answers to three
or four interview questions. The following day, as one student is
interviewed on their personal cassette tape, the others observe
and critique each other.
By this time, they have become very aware of the completeness of
answers, the effectiveness of personal examples, volume, eye contact,
posture, and general sales ability. Having been together
for almost 20 weeks, they are comfortable with each other and generally
very supportive, yet they are often more critical of each others
performance than I might be. This just indicates their awareness,
and I love when I see that.
They are ready for a full trial run. Members of the AACA Employment
and Training Advisory Board are called in. These are most often
Human Resource specialists from major area employers such as Fleet
Services, BankBoston, New England Medical Center, MetLife. They
interview those whose English skills are in the higher range, and
who have a great deal of comfort by now with the interview process.
Those who are still struggling with English and/or confidence are
interviewed by Board members with Adult Education and ESL affiliations.
We do not tell this to the students, so not to single them out.
Clearly, these interviewers have strategies to ease them through
the first interview.
By now, the students have been observing each other for at least
three weeks. The mock interview takes place in a classroom observed
by the teacher and up to 10 classmates, and it is videotaped. It
is a highly artificial situation, but we hope the students will
benefit from multiple forms of feedback. The students seem to consider
it a rite of passage, and say that it is beneficial. Because there
is no real job at stake, they just consider it a good opportunity
During the interview, classmates fill out peer-critique forms which
are in the form of a checklist. In fact, they have been doing this
informally during the past three weeks. They pass these to the interviewee
after the class. At the culmination of the interview, the interviewee
gives a self-critique, describing the basic level of comfort, explaining
which questions were difficult, and suggesting how they might improve
those answers in the future. By the students own critique,
it is clear how aware they are of themselves. When they can laugh
and suggest improvements for themselves, I know that they are on
the way to successful interviews in the future. This is a great
sign of success.
The interviewer then gives a critique, explaining the strengths
and weaknesses of the interview, and makes suggestions. The final
critique is done by the teacher who focuses more on pronunciation
difficulties with pivotal words, or grammar which may have impeded
understanding. I write those specific words down, and they may ask
me to practice with them, and to put it on their audio cassette
At twenty minutes per interview, plus time to critique, interviews
may take three or four days to complete. The students applaud each
other and release a collective sigh of relief. I then copy the videotape
onto VHS, and students circulate that copy, often making their own
Cycle after cycle, students tell me how they review their audiocassettes
and video cassette, especially as they begin to graduate from other
training programs and prepare for interviews. They have also used
the videotapes to help instruct friends and family members about
By spending almost 10 weeks on the actual process of skills self-assessment,
job search skills, and interviewing we hope to prepare students
for two options. The first is to seek employment directly from the
Prevocational Program. Of course, unless they have work experience
in a related field, and a certain competency with English, they
will be seeking more basic entry-level service jobs. Secondly, for
those who plan to continue on with training programs, we hope to
give a comprehensive ESL-oriented view of the employment search
process which will be used in conjunction with the more rapid-pace
presentation of such skills in other city-wide programs where they
may be studying with
Clearly, a non-native speaker faces the same interview challenges
as a native speaker. They face competition, nervousness, insecurity,
and the need to prepare. Coupled with linguistic and cultural barriers,
the prospect can be overwhelming. In preparing students for the
process, we as ESL teachers should not be uncomfortable to emphasize
the basics. If we do not, then who will?
Evaluation Form for:
self & handshake
about past employment
interest in position
about strengths and work style
good examples to clarify points
appropriate questions about job
thank you & shakes hands
general, sells herself/himself well
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 10 (December 1997),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 1997.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.