Asking for what you don’t want

A strategy that I have become very aware of lately in professional self-presentation is that of telling an interlocutor who you are and what you want by way of talking about what you don’t (or something that you didn’t like, or were told you couldn’t have). A recent example was a student beginning a statement of purpose to a graduate program in which the student explained their decision to apply to this particular program and degree as the result of a series of conversations in which they were told why a different degree and school (the one this student really wanted) was not actually the right fit.

I deeply understand this strategy of telling us who you are by showing us who you are not.  It feels very close to lived experience, and it has, until I became aware of it, been a big part of my ways of talking about myself. For example, until I started becoming aware of this, when asked about why I became a linguist, I would often talk about a series of conversations I had with professors who told me for various reasons that I should not pursue gradate study in linguistics: that it was a dying field, that there were no jobs, that graduate study would kill my joy in the subject matter. I would talk about these interactions as a way of showing my perserverence, but I recognize now that it can smack of bitterness, or worse, leave my audience with a sense of concern about the field, or about me and my qualifications. The opportunity to talk about yourself is an opportunity to teach: about your field, about yourself, about your passion. You want your enthusiasm and confidence to be unambiguosly contagious!

And I have heard this strategy lately in spoken genres like the response to “tell me about yourself” or in “pocket examples” used in networking events, but it also proliferates in textual genres such as cover letters.

But let’s think about this strategy from a cross-cultural communication perspective for just a moment:

From the perspective of the speaker:
In my case, to talk about why I pursued a field that I had been advised against is to show my interlocutor that I have true commitment, perserverence. I have heard students use this strategy when talking about finding a passion for a subject matter even when the professor was a dud or a re-dedication to linguistic research after working in a job that was soul-crushing. The strategy is intended to show the speaker’s passion, commitment, and sense of calling. However….

From the perspective of the hearer:

This can sound like complaining! Talking about what you hated about a past job as a way of talking about what you will do differently in a current search or next job is a precarious strategy. It can leave your interlocutor with an image of you suffering at work (think Lakoff’s “don’t think of an elephant!” example). Your audience is left with a powerful image, but not the one that you really want them to walk away with.

Plant an image
Readers of this blog know well the power of narrative to create a memorable image of yourself in the mind of members of your network. So given this opportunity, plant an image that is positive. Don’t waste precious time talking about what you don’t love, SHOW yourself experiencing something that you do!

Ask for feedback

Have this aspect of professional self-presentation be something that you are having trusted advisers listening for on your behalf.  And remember that advisers like your parents, your partners, friends and family may not always be able to be brutally honest with you, but it can help to have there be a specific focus – like “how often do you hear me talking about what I don’t want?”  And this may also be a time to engage the help of communications experts (fellow linguists?)


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