When interviewing for a job, you might wonder whether you’ll be viewed more favorably if you appear excited and enthusiastic or if you seem calm and collected. There’s certainly an argument to be made for either choice: Excitement could suggest you’d be highly motivated and a pleasure to work with, while calmness might convey you’d be focused and even-keeled on the job. But it’s hard to appear excited and calm at the same time, so which should you choose?
New research led by Stanford University postdoctoral researcher Lucy Zhang Bencharit suggests that the answer may depend on the hiring organization’s national culture. Past research has shown that Americans of European descent generally strive to be in what psychologists refer to as a “high arousal positive” (HAP) state—that is, excited, enthusiastic, and elated. By contrast, people from East Asian cultures such as China, Japan, and South Korea are more likely to aim for a “low arousal positive” (LAP) state— calm, peaceful, and relaxed. These cultural preferences can affect how job candidates behave in interviews and how they are judged, Bencharit and her team found.
A culture connection
In two experiments, the researchers asked U.S.-born Americans of European descent, Asian Americans born in the United States or an East Asian country, and Chinese residents of Hong Kong about what emotions they’d like to convey in a simulated job application. The European Americans wanted to seem excited, the Hong Kong Chinese aspired to be calm, and the Asian Americans fell in between the two. On written job applications, European Americans and Asian Americans used more words that convey excitement, such as “passionate,” to describe themselves than did Hong Kong Chinese. When these participants filmed short job application videos, the European Americans did, indeed, appear more excited than the Hong Kong Chinese participants, as reflected in their broad, excited smiles.
Next, the researchers looked at the type of emotions that employers from these cultures value in job candidates. They began by filming actors who, playing the part of job applicants, described their qualifications in an excited, calm, or neutral (somewhere between the two) demeanor. Shown videos
of European American applicants, European American MBA students said they’d prefer to hire the one who seemed excited. Shown videos of applicants from their culture, Hong Kong Chinese MBA students chose the calm candidate most often. And Asian American MBAs, who viewed European American applicants, tended to prefer either the excited or neutral candidate, but not the calm one. A final experiment found that employees (most of them white) of a U.S.-based company preferred to hire an applicant who seemed excited over one who seemed calm.
Debiasing the hiring process
Taken together, the results suggest that employers may be biased toward interviewing and hiring candidates “whose expressions match the emotions that they and their cultures value,” write Bencharit and her team. This suggests that, on the flip side, employers may be biased against candidates whose emotional expressions don’t align with their cultural values.
Employers are likely unaware of this decision- making bias, which could contribute to discriminatory hiring.
In the United States, this cultural bias “may be one reason Asian Americans are less likely to be hired and to attain leadership positions compared with their European American peers” despite similar or superior qualifications, according to the authors.
These results suggest that when applying for a job in a very different culture, you might think about trying to tailor your behavior to the likely expectations of those doing the hiring. More to the point, organizations should try to promote diversity and reduce bias by instituting more objective hiring practices, including giving less weight to interviewers’ subjective assessments of candidates’ performance.
Resource: “Should Job Applicants Be Excited or Calm? The Role of Culture and Ideal Affect in Employment Settings,” by Lucy Zhang Bencharit, Yuen Wan Ho, Helene H. Fun, Dannii Y. Yeung, Nicole M. Stephens, Rainer Romero- Canyas, and Jeanne L. Tsai. Emotion, 2018.