Confidence vs. arrogance in an interview

With all the assurance of a lion moving in for the kill, you know that once you ace the interview that job is yours. You can taste it! You’ve got the skills, language proficiency, and experience – or maybe not – but, still, you can feel it in your gut. Then it hits you: This is Japan; “will my self-confidence be mistaken for arrogance?”, much worse, what if it really is?

Well, for starters relax. In this land of honne (personal perspectives) vs. tatemae (those shared publicly) your possible arrogance is of little importance – or so you may be told. You are wise, however, to consider how potential employers perceive you. Bravado from back home against a backdrop of Confucian cultural humility is worthy of consideration. Sure, one of the best things about not being Japanese in Japan is the low bar for keeping local decorum. But as a recruiter once told me: “Nine out of 10 times, an interview means they’ve already decided they want you professionally. They just want to know if your personality will be a good fit.”

Self-confidence is an essential ingredient in the recipe for career success. This is especially true if it involves managing others in the workplace. But surveys have shown that a significant percentage of promising candidates who fizzle out during the interview process do so because they come off as too arrogant or under confident. While much has been written and said about exuding confidence in job interviews, there are some peculiarities about doing so in Japan. Sure, cross-cultural common sense may dictate toning it down a bit when sitting across the table from a potential Japanese employer, but these days in an increasingly internationalized Land of the Rising Sun, it’s not quite that simple.

For example, if you’ve taken the time to learn about the company you’ve set your sights on, you’ll know if it’s a foreign affiliate with a more Western work culture. Even if it is a Japanese firm, many have read the writing on the wall. The increased demand for bi-cultural, as well as, bilingual employees with overseas experience – whose ranks your Japanese interviewer may be among – means more are likely to break with tradition. In other words, self-starters who take the initiative and responsibility, think for themselves, and communicate well are gradually becoming more attractive than the submissive salaryman or order-barking bucho. Hence, exuding self-confidence may be more important than you think. The question is, what’s the best way to do it?

It’s best to take a little linguistic clue from the locals. Just as watashi, or “I”, can be used in Japanese conversation as seldom as other specifics, there are more ways than one to tout your talents. You can also talk up team triumphs and describe the role you played as a member of that team. This conveys a propensity and appreciation for teamwork, while mutedly tooting your own horn. There’s no more socially acceptable display of self-confidence in Japan, however, than a positive genki attitude. The opportunity to show this, and your communication skills, starts long before you get to the interview room. Polite chat on the way there, while waiting in the lobby, or even with the receptionist can signal a good attitude and ability to communicate with others on all levels. Some potential employers have been known to keep covert tabs on such pre-interview interactions.

That’s not the only way, however, that you can send silent signals about self-esteem and your ability to mesh with a team. Long before – or if – you meet face-to-face, your résumé has already transmitted much about this. Are your skills and abilities outlined completely? Are they understated – or overstated? What about so-called soft skills? Many employers highly value talents, such as problem solving, leadership, and multitasking, especially when considering candidates with little or no experience. Your résumé should show you do too. And it shouldn’t downplay big-name companies; they make much more of an impression in Japan than modesty.

Also consider, well within the scope of accuracy, rewording previous job titles. There’s often leeway for translation. At that last job were you a Web designer or Web architect, a reporter or a journalist, company president or its founder? Often such alternative titles are equally accurate, but one may carry more weight in Japan than the other. It can also make a difference in the salary you’re offered, as well as say something about how you see yourself. Most importantly, you’ll need to be able to back up what your résumé claims, not with braggadocio, but with anecdotal evidence of your skills and experience. Being adequately prepared to do this will help convey the kind of balanced self-assurance that might humble even Confucius himself.