Shifting Your Deictic Center

When I tell people that I am a sociolinguist, the first response is very often “what can you do with that?!?!?!?!” And as Director of the MA program in Language and Communication (MLC) here in the department of Linguistics at Georgetown, I teach a course called the MLC Professionalization seminar to help students answer precisely that.

As I see it, there are three pieces to the process:

  • First you need to figure out where the skills and training that you possess are needed and valued professionally.
  • Next, you want to learn something about your motivators and values surrounding work (what will make you not just stay in a job, but enjoy the work that you do)
  • and finally, you have to enact a shift from student to professional from saying “What should I do?” to “Here’s what I am going to do!”

In this post, I will focus on the last point, what I call “shifting your deictic center” simply because it presents as a language puzzle, which we as sociolinguists are well equipped to tackle. I will give you a sense for our course by showing your what it means like to look at the job search through a linguistic lens.

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 jobsearch is to begin thinking about things from an employer’s point of view and to begin talking that way as well. One easy way to start is to pay attention to your deictic markers in the texts and interactions that comprise the jobsearch.

Cover Letters 

Cover letters are the jobseeking instrument in which I hear the most striking examples of the need for a deictic shift. I often hear “I want this job because….” or “this job would be a great opportunity for me ….” Your (potential) employer knows this. They know that this opportunity will benefit you. What they need to know is why their investment in you will help them. Show that you understand this in your cover letter by explaining how it is that your unique skills, interests and abilities are a great fit for their current needs and goals as an organization. Also, show that you are excited about this fit!

Your LinkedIn profile 

To enact the deictic shift in LinkedIn, simply imagine that you were someone using the site to search for you. How would they find you? What keywords would they use? Do these words return your profile? Another trick: search for your last name. When you find yourself in the list of returns, look for a button that says “similar.”

Here, I have done a search for my last name “Trester” – notice the little blue “similar” link right at the bottom?   This will show you who it is that LinkedIn thinks is like you. See if this seems right.

Trester LinkedIn search

Are you like the people that LinkedIn says are like you?  Why did they return as “similar.”  Begin the process of disambiguating yourself, or emulating the ways that these people have talked about your common interests.  Another way to approach this is to plug in keywords that you would imagine someone might use if they were trying to look for you.  Do you return?

The job interview

The analysis of interaction cultivates empathy and an ability to shift perspectives and look at things from a different point of view. To engage that muscle in the interview context is to recognize that a job interviewer is at least as nervous as an interviewee. They are worried about making the right decision, about finding a qualified colleague who will function as part of the team, and make them look as though they did their job well in hiring you. So to enact a deictic shift is to begin thinking about things from their point of view and to begin talking that way as well.  For this reason, we might add interviews to the list of “genres of reassurance.”  Reassure your interlocutors that you will be an asset to their team!!  You may not exactly feel it yet, but we all also know enough about the linguistic construction of identity to understand why this is valuable!

If there is one question that you are likely to be asked and one for which it is crucial that you be paying attention to deixis, it is: “Tell Me About Yourself.” This question is not an invitation to tell stories about growing up on a farm. There are timescales and there is a formula, and I would argue that this is: present, immediate past, immediate future. Talk about some aspect of your present, draw a connection to some aspect of your immediate past. Then link to a future vision or goal that you then describe with a bit of detail.  Can you help your prospective employer picture you on the job?  What are you doing for the organization: SHOW don’t tell!


The absolute most important thing to understand as a jobseeker is that THEY need YOU. Understandably as a jobseeker, you probably see and feel it the other way around right now, but your skills and training have tremendous value, and when you get out there and put your vision into action, drop me a line, I want to hear all about it!

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