Playing the interview game: social background and language capital

Author: Marianne Blattès, Research Officer, Bridge Group

During interviews, candidates are judged not just on what they say, but how they say it. Being able to play the “interview game” does not necessarily reflect adequate preparation or individual competence. Rather, it is a sign of mastering institutional and organisational discourses. Knowledge of how to perform well in an interview is unequally distributed in society. Evaluating candidates on their ability to produce the “right” linguistic codes is likely to favour interviewees from more privileged backgrounds who possess greater linguistic capital.  This can contribute to the reproduction of social inequality in the interview space. Consequently, employers may be missing out on talented individuals who are deemed inadequate or unsuitable merely on the basis that they have not been socialised into the particular linguistic and cultural norms typically expected in the interview.

Language capital should not be an indicator of potential

Bridge Group research has highlighted the way that extra-curricular activities, international experiences, career support, internships and work experience are accessed disproportionately by affluent students  These experiences are valuable  as they provide candidates with concrete examples with which to illustrate certain competencies in job interviews in addition to being a source of linguistic resources. This means that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face a double disadvantage: not only do they have fewer opportunities and experiences from which to draw on, they do not necessarily have the linguistic tools in order to succeed in the interview.

Knowing how to articulate experiences in a compelling manner is not an easy task. Candidates are often more likely to be perceived as a “fit” for the company if they have been exposed to certain ways of talking. Those with prior “relevant” work experience may be better prepared and have a better idea of what is expected from them. Hence language capital should not be taken for granted and should not be seen as an indicator of potential.

Linguistic confidence should not be mistaken for competence

Considering the investment of employers’ money and time in carrying out interviews, it is worth considering whether current interview practices favour certain socio-economic groups. Certain types of interviews tend to accentuate what Celia Roberts has termed the “linguistic penalty”. “Competency-based interviews” may penalise candidates who, despite being perfectly fluent in English, struggle to demonstrate certain competencies. This is not just a case of having fewer extra-curricular examples to draw on, it is also about knowing how to present oneself and frame answers. While well-rehearsed answers which include all the latest buzzwords (such as “thought leadership skills”) and catch-phrases may indicate a certain degree of preparedness, they are not robust signals of talent. There is also a risk that linguistic confidence may be mistaken for competence.

Some researchers argue that “strength-based interviews” may be a fairer way of identifying future potential since candidates are assessed on what they can do, rather than what they have done. What is certain is that motivation and capability should be given precedence over qualifications and prior experience.

Understanding the relationship between background and linguistic performance

Bearing this in mind, interviews could also be approached in a similar way to “contextual recruitment”. That is, the linguistic performance of the prospective candidate should be measured, as far as possible, against their background. Those who have had greater access to social capital and opportunities are, by virtue, endowed with greater linguistic capital.

Recommendations for employers

  • Recognise that applicants possess different linguistic resources derived from different backgrounds.
  • Avoid regarding linguistic capital as a signal of talent.
  • Develop linguistic awareness in the interview process to improve socio-economic diversity.