Bringing Goffman to (your job interview over) dinner

This past Spring, I gave a paper at the Standing Conference of Management and Organizational Inquiry (SCMOI) about job interviews which take place over a meal. This conference is gloriously interdisciplinary and such it was that I found myself presenting just after a nutritionist, and just before a participatory improvistational theater performance. I was talking about job interviews, and the room was crackling with creative energy, ready to think about performance (and already thinking about food, thank you previous presenter). When I stood up to start my talk, I noticed that one of the previous presenters had left what looked like a bistro table set up in the middle of my presentation space: it was perfect because  I could almost see my interviewer and interviewee sitting right there (also because I began the ppt with this image):


The context helped me do exactly what I wanted to do: think about job interviews as theater! And I knew that we were chanelling Goffman when in the Q&A, the questions were all brainstorm-y helping me design an “encounters in public” style project of violations of norms in interview contexts

What are the norms in a job interview over food?

I went to the advice books and found this: Much of the advice feels like that which you might hear for any job interview, except for “don’t order food that is messy to eat” and then  one about “don’t drink alcohol. ever”  And that one I saw again and again: which tells me something that I already knew, that interviews are all about frames!


The interviewer sets the frame in a job interview, and in an office, everything about the context works to support and maintain a frame of formality, but a move to a restaurant might feel like an invitation to reframe the encounter. Alcohol seems to be a key “bracketing element” that can reframe the interview in one of the following ways:

 “a trap”

 A test

 A date (you’re deciding if you like them, they’re deciding if they life you)

But what does this matter? Well, interviews over food are “good to think.” When you introduce food and move the location, many of the underlying issues around power, embedded assumptions about behavior in this context rise to the surface. Questions like “should I offer to pay the check?” or “how do I know when the meal is over?” reveal that there is much more going on in a job interview than meets the eye! I advocate for a job interview as an opportunity for practicing empathy. Both participants are likely to be quite nervous, both are likely reading the other one for cues that can easily be misinterpreted. As an interviewee, we can pay attention to some of the big ones like being polite to the waiter and noticing whether our potential employer is as well, but when it comes to the smaller, more micro level cues, a healthy dose of generosity can go a long way. Be generous with questions if something seems amiss, be generous with listening – deeply listen with empathy and curiosity. Be generous about yourself. Let as much of yourself be known as you are willing and able to.

It could be a trap, but the more you choose to see and interpret behavior through this lens, the more you will be assured that it becomes so. Now, it is of course illegal for a potential employer to ask you about family, but if you are someone for whom family is very important and you would “normally” talk about them with your colleagues, and you find a conversational opportunity to mention an aspect of your family life, if you choose to do so and are not hired because of that, you may wish to ask yourself whether you would be comfortable working with those folks at all.

And in my opinion, if you are someone who would normally have a glass of wine with dinner, you should have A glass of wine! Ultimately, you spend so much of your life at work – and it would be too exhausting to perform all day every day. I think you have to be yourself, or at least a job-interview framed version of yourself. Ironic, no that an a performance approach to a job interview would lead to insight about not performing? “Yes-and” that is where “yes-and” has led me! ☺

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