Small talk in any context is mildly terrifying. Small talk before a job interview, with the person you very much hope will offer you gainful employment, is even more so. Now, new research, summarized by the study authors themselves this week at Harvard Business Review, suggests that you were right to be wary of preinterview pleasantries: Your job interviewer is indeed likely judging you by your terrible small-talk skills.
The researchers recorded interviews with 163 “job-hungry, and realistically nervous” business-school students, starting the interviews with a quick “rapport-building phrase” — academic-speak for small talk. They then showed the videos to two groups of experts (they don’t define “expert,” but one presumes they were people with actual hiring experience). One group saw the entire thing, small talk and all; the other group saw an edited version, with the small-talk part edited out. All the group members rated the interviewees on how well they answered each question. (And now I’m imagining an unseen panel of experts silently judging my performance at every job interview I’ve ever been on.)
In the end, the findings suggested that small talk did change the experts’ minds about the job candidates, as the researchers observed a noticeable difference in scoring between both groups (who, again, watched the very same interviews, save for the small talk). That’s not so surprising; the preinterview banter formed the experts’ first impressions of the candidates, and first impressions have a frustrating way of sticking around. More to the point, the researchers claim that their experts were picking up on specific “job-relevant attributes” in those few minutes of chit-chat. The HBR piece, annoyingly, does not outline what those attributes are, but other studies have suggested that these tend to be things like communication or listening skills, or some brief moment that suggested the interviewee might have a team-oriented (as opposed to a self-oriented) attitude.
The HBR article is targeted in part toward hiring managers, and it instructs them how they might make small talk a structured part of the interview process. For job seekers, however, they offer this advice: “Candidates need to be ‘on’ during all interactions with prospective employers, even the initial chit-chat,” they write. “Interviewers can, and likely will, use this information to make inferences about candidates’ suitability for the job, especially early on in the interview.” Concerning.