TBT – shifting your deicitc center

On this TBT, I thought I would revisit shifting your deictic center, which is my way of describing the important change in perspective which jobseekers must enact linguistically in presenting themselves professionally.

So first of all, what do I mean by “shifting your deictic center”? Recall that deictics are “pointing elements” in language which reveal contextual information about speaker/hearer and their relationship. To enact a deictic shift in the career context is to  see yourself as the employer sees you.

There are many terms for this:

  • perspective-taking
  • point of view
  • getting distance on yourself

But I like thinking in terms of deictics because for me this term also captures an additional meaning – assuming the deictic center of the employer means that you have taken on her concerns as your own.  Again, there are many other ways to describe this:

  • speaking with empathy
  • active listening
  • talking like an insider

But again, I think that deixis gives us yet something more still.  Speaking from a shifted perspective gets heard as agentive or:

  • confident
  • professional
  • as though you have done your homework

In the career development literature, you often hear this work being laid at the foot of the verbs chosen by the author.  You are exhorted to use “active verbs” or sometimes even “kicking verbs” (if you can believe that one).

But we linguists know that deixis is comprised of a constellation of linguistic features and the good news is that this is something you can easily assess for yourself:  so go ahead, pull out a cover letter that you have recently written and pay attention to your deictic markers.

I or you?
Are you talking about your goals as a jobseeker (to be able to practice your French) or the needs of the organization (the organization would benefit from my ability to speak French for their X initiative).  This is often expressed in your choice of pronouns.  How many times do you use “I”?  Some will of course be inevitable, but could some of them be “you”s?

Here or there?
Are you using language that places you inside the organization or outside looking in?  Are you going to “bring” your expertise to them (which entails distance) or can you instead demonstrate with an example that shows you using the expertise you are describing.  Then unpack the broader implications (i.e. that your values are aligned, that your background is uniquely valuable, etc etc etc).

Student or professional?
Are you describing yourself as a student?  Contextualizing everything that you know as something that you learned in a specific class or research that you conducted as something that you presented at a particular conference?  Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading this cover letter.  They want to think of you as a potential colleague, not as a student.  They want to think of you as a professsional, so don’t go out of your way to remind them that you are (or were recently) in school.

Further, think about it: they don’t really need to know when/where you got the knowledge, they just need to know that you have it.  Of course, this is something that could come up in conversation, perhaps at the job interview, but for the cover letter what is important is how your knowledge, skills, and abilities meet the organization’s needs and speak to the duties responsibilities and tasks described in the job description. You are an experienced researcher, you are a specialist in cross-cultural communication, you are a social scientist, you are not a student.

Cover letters belong to the genres of reassurance  so don’t let your deictics be something that might give anyone cause for concern

….and remember – always remember: THEY need YOU (it’s not the other way around)!!