Saturday, 15 May 2021

Intraviewing

Interviews lie at the heart of most personal business interactions.  They are an attempt to cram into a few hours or even a few minutes the whole complicated affair of getting to know someone.  But unlike its social correlate, the process of interviewing is designed to come up with an answer, to pass final judgement on a person's worth.  As a result, there is an unnatural pressure on both the interviewer - to winkle out the 'truth' - and the interviewed - to give the best impression.  The two goals may be mutually incompatible.

Though the subject of the interview undoubtedly suffers more, the good interviewer probably works harder.  Interviewers are confronted with a complex human pinball game: they must ask questions, which presupposes some overall structure to the meeting, even if that structure evolves contingently; they must listen to the answers, knowing when to let silences hang, when to prompt, when to cut off; they must think of the next question which may or may not refer back to the previous answers and may affect later quizzing; they must also watch out for the tell-tale non-verbal clues - the hand covering the mouth, the scratch of the head, the constantly averted glance.  All this they must do, often while they read background information, write notes and begin to form an opinion.

The satisfaction gained from meeting these demands can prove addictive.  Like a deft sports player who hungers for ever more challenging opponents, the interviewer begins to relish the difficult interview where the subject dries up, is deeply inconsistent, or - best of all - responds with an equally dextrous finesse.

But there is another, far more insidious, pleasure to be had from interviewing.  At some point every interviewer realises that for thirty minutes, or an hour perhaps, in that small room, for that one person, they are God.  By attending the interview people implicitly accept your right to ask practically anything.  Their task is to aid you in your discovery that they are indeed the person you are searching for.  To expedite that realisation, they must therefore offer themselves to you for scrutiny as willing and submissive objects.  In doing so, they acquiesce in a state of vulnerability which is probably unique to this context, a vulnerability, moreover, proffered to a total stranger.

Even when an interviewer begins to abuse this submission, most subjects dare not retaliate; they find it hard to jump back to more general etiquettes where such behaviour would never be tolerated.  To disturb the unequal but accepted dynamics between the interviewer and the interviewed would inevitably threaten the format of the interview itself.  And without the interview there can be no success.

For this reason the interviewer must wield this immense if short-lived power with circumspection and responsibility.  An interview is like a profound but concentrated one-sided friendship: the interviewed offer you the chance to understand their deepest hopes and fears, to get inside their mind, but demand no reciprocal soul-baring from you.  This is more than interviewing, it is intraviewing.  It is a great and rare privilege.

(1989)

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