Nobody's Perfect Der magische Satz eines Bewerbers

In seinem Berufsleben ist Ian McMaster, Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight", vielen Bewerbern begegnet. Einer hat ihn beeindruckt, weil er etwas sagte, was sonst nie jemand sagt. Das weckt bei McMaster Erinnerungen an einen US-Präsidenten - and now let's switch to English.

John F. Kennedy (1960): Unsterbliche Worte aus seiner Antrittsrede

John F. Kennedy (1960): Unsterbliche Worte aus seiner Antrittsrede

Have you ever been in a meeting at work and been so frustrated by a colleague or business partner that you wished they would simply disappear into thin air?

No? Well, lucky you -- or maybe you are simply too polite to admit it.

I certainly know the feeling, and I am sure others have had it about me. And, I once nearly did have the opportunity to make other people disappear (without anybody coming to any harm I should add).

But before I tell you that story, let me ask you a simple question. If you were in a job interview that was taking place in English, which of the following three sentences should you not say?

    • "If I would be you, I would give me the job."
    • "If I were you, I would give me the job."
    • "If I were you, I wouldn't give me the job."

The grammar experts among you will, I am sure, recognize that the first sentence is incorrect. You have learned the rule that "if" and "would" don't belong together in the same part of such a "conditional" sentence. (Native speakers do, however, say such things.)

Why don't you get a job? (The Offspring)

OK, congratulations for paying attention in class, but, as we mentioned last time, mistakes such as these don't cause problems in international business. Imagine that you are taking part in an important negotiation in English and the conversation goes like this:

You: If you would give us a 15 per cent discount, we would order 50 more cars.

Business partner: I'm sorry. We couldn't possibly accept that. We don't do business with people who can't get their conditional sentences right.

Absurd, eh?

No, the point isn't grammar, but that, if you were in a job interview, you wouldn't normally tell the interviewer so directly that he or she should give you the job. In most circumstances, that would seem arrogant.

This means that the second, grammatically correct, sentence probably isn't a good idea either. Which leaves only the third sentence: "If I were you, I wouldn't give me the job". But nobody would say that in a job interview, would they?

It's a kind of magic (Queen)

Well, believe it or not, that is exactly what one applicant said to me back in the 1990s. And that is why, all these years later, I still haven't forgotten him. This was such an unusual thing to say that it made me sit up and listen to him more closely. It was also very honest: the guy knew he didn't have all the necessary experience and qualifications.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you should ever use this sentence yourself, but it does show that we often make impact on others in ways that are surprising.

There was a second reason why I have never forgotten this man. In his spare time, he was a magician -- and I love magic of all sorts. So, during the interview I started thinking: "Wow, imagine if I had a magician on my staff. Think of all the things he could do. Card tricks to entertain me when I'm bored. Mind reading so I know what the others are thinking. Hey, maybe he could even make people disappear when they really annoy me in meetings…"

In many ways, I still regret not employing the magician, despite his less than perfect qualifications. He really could have done a lot for me. And that is a key point in job interviews, but one that so many applicants forget. As an employer, I want to know what you can do for me -- and for my organization.

Blah Blah Blah (Iggy Pop)

Far too many applicants, both in their covering letters and during interviews, talk about how great it would be for them if they could work for us ("I've always been interested in foreign languages and this would be a great opportunity for me to develop my skills in this area, blah, blah, blah…").

Stop! I'm not listening any more. Tell me instead how your skills and experience will enable you to do the things we asked about in the job advertisement. You have to solve my problems, not the other way round.

So, before you apply for a job -- or go into a job interview -- remember the words of a US president. No, not Barack Obama and his "yes, we can" mantra, but John F. Kennedy, who in his inaugural address in January 1961 said: "…ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country".

If you replace "your country" with "this company", you won't go far wrong -- whether or not your conditional sentences are grammatically correct.

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight", das alle zwei Monate erscheint. Er ist Brite, lebt seit 1989 in München und hat ein Vierteljahrhundert Erfahrung im Umgang mit Bewerbungen. McMaster ist ausgebildeter Lehrer für Wirtschafts-Englisch und Koautor des neuen Buches "Communicating Internationally in English".

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