As a teacher, I’ve learned that at least one student a semester will ask something that isn’t really any of their business. While most instructors tend to ignore or dismiss such questions, I try to give them some kind of answer. Is it the answer I’d give a close friend? No—not by a long shot. But I give an answer, especially if I can relate it to something that might benefit the student at a later date.
When I answer my students and give them a slightly different answer than what I’d give my friend, am I engaging in dishonesty? Or am I merely employing a conversational tool that I’m within my rights (and in some cases, my duty) to use?
Today, I’m here to suggest that I’m performing the latter (and that you should do the same). I’m not lying, or skirting the truth. I’m engaging in a valuable practice known as “filtering” my
persona. By doing so, I’m respecting my right to privacy, taking ownership of my narrative, and maintaining my professionalism—three practices that make for a saner, happier self at home and at work.
When it comes to an interview or a potential networking opportunity, sometimes we give an honest answer because we’re surprised. We tell the unvarnished truth, without thinking of our professional persona or the motivation behind the question, because we’ve been caught off guard.
Sometimes we reveal more than we intended because we get too comfortable; we buy into the illusion that the interview or meeting really is just a conversation between friends (it’s not).
Unlike other missteps, these slips of the tongue can be easily remedied as long as you prepare and take your time.
If you prepare, there should be fewer surprises; and if you’re surprised, remembering to proceed slowly can give you a chance to catch yourself before you reveal more than you’d prefer. In these moments of surprise or disease, it can also be helpful to proffer a clarifying question—while you get clear on what your interviewer or new acquaintance really wants to know, you can make sure you don’t offer up information they haven’t asked for.
Honesty vs. Obligation
As I’ve thought back on past encounters, however, I’ve also come to believe that we offer up more information than we need to for a third reason: because we feel obligated.
It’s the job you’ve always wanted. It’s the job you need to pay your bills. It’s the location you need to cut your commute in half. It’s the networking opportunity that could open all of the doors that seem cemented shut.
In these moments, our anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams turn an interview or a conversation into something resembling a hostage situation: If we give a potential employer or contact everything they ask for (and some things they haven’t thought to ask), they will give us what we want. If we give them all of our honesty, they will owe us a job or an opportunity.
In these moments, our desire for an outcome can outweigh our common sense. Suddenly, we find ourselves answering questions that an employer isn’t even legally allowed to ask.
Why do we give it (ourselves) up?
When it comes to interviews and building professional contacts, it’s okay to be genuine, to be honest—as long as you remember to be strategic.
It’s not lying to give your responses using more formal language than you’d use with a group of friends. You aren’t being dishonest if you don’t mention your spouse’s military affiliation while defining your own short and long term career goals (it’s illegal for an employer to ask about your marital status anyway). You should not feel compelled to offer up information about an ailing parent, a spouse navigating health challenges, or plans to become pregnant.
This is not a matter of being honest or dishonest: it’s a matter of seeing the difference between your professional identity and your personal life. They are not one in the same—and recognizing the difference between the two shouldn’t put you in a state of anxiety. Instead, learning how to create these partitions between your personal and professional life can be liberating.
You are not obligated to give all of yourself to any corporate organization. In the civilian world, there are parts of your life that solely belong to you.