why is it bad to sound naive when applying for jobs?

A reader writes:

I’ve seen you throw around the word “naïve” several times in your How-Not-Tos for cover letters and resumes. I actually find it a really helpful insult when I recognize things that I’ve been doing wrong. But still, being 22, I am kind of professionally naïve. Surely there’s got to be something beneficial about showing my sincerity and eagerness in a cover letter, but I also don’t want to sound like an intern.

Here’s the more pragmatic question: In several of my cover letters I’ve directly addressed that although I’m technically qualified, I understand that I’m not going to be the most experienced. And then I say something like, “what I lack in experience I make up for with an eagerness to learn.” Most recently I said, “If ability is driven by energy, I may still be your most qualified candidate.”

Good? Bad? Should I fake it till I make it? Or should I beg?

Well, first, sincere and eager aren’t the same thing as naive. Sincere and eager are good things. Most employers want them. Naivete, though, is something different; it’s the lack of knowledge.

Now, of course when you’re new to the work world, you’re starting out with a certain amount of lack of knowledge, and there’s no way around that.

And some forms of naivete aren’t bad at all, and can even be kind of charming. For instance, I once hired a recent grad who insisted on calling me “Ms. Green” for his first few days before I could get him to stop. He was naive about typical forms of address in most offices and the fact that professional adults generally call each other by their first names (with some exceptions), but that was fine. He was inexperienced, it did no harm, and it was easy to smile at.

But the kind of naivete that we usually talk about here — when it’s in the context of Don’t Do That — is different. Those forms of naivete can signal to an employer that you’re going to require more hand-holding or be higher-maintenance or just be more of a pain than they’d ideally like to take on.

I figured it would be useful to talk specifics, so I searched for past posts where I warned someone that a behavior would seem problematically naive. Here are a few of them:

* In this case, a reader wanted to call a company that had frozen their hiring and try to personally convince their CFO to restart the hiring for the position he wanted. I told him he’d come across as naive (and overstepping and presumptuous). Being naive about something like this isn’t likely to get dismissed with an indulgent smile; it’s likely to make the company think that you have such a lack of understanding of professional norms that you’re likely to continually alienate coworkers and clients.

* In this case, a reader wanted to ask for a raise after only two months on the job because she regretted not negotiating initially. I told her that she would look naive and like she didn’t understand how business works (and that her employer would be annoyed that she didn’t think through the salary before accepting it). Being naive about something like this is a problem because the person’s lack of understanding of business conventions is directly causing a problem for the company: Now they have someone asking for something totally unrealistic, thinking it’s realistic to get it, and probably being dissatisfied when they can’t. As a manager, not only is that a pain in the ass to deal with, but it also makes you wonder what other unreasonable expectations the person has that you’re going to need to fend off too.

* In the recent letter from someone whose mother was telling her to call employers daily to ask for an interview, I said that doing that would come across as naive at best and and rude at worst. In this case, “naive” wasn’t horribly damning (although “rude” was), but the point was that she wasn’t going to portray herself in a way that would be helpful. You don’t want to take an action where the best that could be said of you is that you seem naive. When you’re trying to convince an employer to hire you, you want to seem attractive to them. Standing out by displaying a total lack of understanding of how hiring works isn’t going to be appealing. It’s going to be a negative, not a plus.

Now, as for your question about language in your cover letter, there’s nothing wrong with “what I lack in experience I make up for with an eagerness to learn.” You’re going to need to back it up with more compelling specifics, but there’s nothing problematic about that statement. And it’s not naive — it’s eager, but like I said above, those are two different things, and eagerness is good.

And your second sentence — “If ability is driven by energy, I may still be your most qualified candidate” — isn’t too bad either. I don’t love it, because I dislike anything where an applicant claims that they’re the most qualified candidate for the job (since they can’t possibly know), but it’s a reasonably engaging way of saying something about your energy and enthusiasm.

Neither of those really sounds naive; they sound eager, and that’s a good thing. They’re very different from the examples of problematic naivete above.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Anlyn*

    What if she phrased it, “If ability is driven by energy, then I believe I am an excellent candidate for this position because [cite reasons why]”? That takes the comparison out, while still showing enthusiasm.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It would be stronger to leave that all out and just start with the reasons why she’s an excellent candidate. You don’t need to say “I believe I am an excellent candidate because….” You can just start with the part that comes next. The employer knows you think you’re an excellent candidate since you’re applying, and it’s stronger to just launch into why.

      1. Rob Bird*

        I agree. To me, this is a subjective statement. It’s equal to telling me you are a great writer. You may think so, but my idea of what a great writer is may be different.

        Instead, tell me what you have done and how it realates to the position you are applying for. Let me make my own decision about who is best.

  2. Chinook*

    I like your example of good naivete, coworker calling you Ms. Greene, because it highlights that, when in doubt, it is always better to be over polite and considerate. No one feels awkward about telling someone to relax and be more casual. As well, your 3 negative examples are all cases of someone being rude and presumptuous whereas, if they had erred on the side of politeness, there would be no issues.

  3. Joey*

    My BS meter goes up when I see statements like that. They’re even worse when there’s no substance behind them. I think the best thing you can do when you write a cover letter is to ask yourself whether youre providing proof or evidence that you’re great. Not just a self assessment of your greatness.

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Yes – this is so well put, Alison.

    As a manager, here’s what I’m looking for:

    People who can do good work and aren’t a hassle to deal with. That’s ALL. Seriously, that’s all I want. And if I have to choose between the two, I’d rather the drama-free person than the extremely competent one. I can teach you the skills of the job. I can’t necessarily teach you the norms of professionalism, at least not before you make some boneheaded move that causes me a lot of grief. If I doubt your professional judgement early in the process, you’re not going to get very far.

  5. Anonymous*

    I think the issue is the use of the naive, which I would argue is not the best choice of word to describe what the OP is referring to. While the definition of naive does mean lack of experience, I think it really implies some who is unsophisticated, doesn’t question data/information, and/or is innocent/guileless.

    I think the above examples can be more accurately describe as poor judgement or inexperience. The connotation naive or naivety implies something else.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I wondered if the OP didn’t really mean “naive.” But she specifically asked about times when I’ve referred to something as naive in talking about what not to do, and those uses have been very much about “lack of understanding how things are done” rather than “guileless.”

      I think that the OP is hearing all these exhortations to not sound naive and thinking it also means “don’t sound too eager/sincere or even unsophisticated,” when they’re actually two very different things.

      1. Yup*

        Yes, I think there’s a distinction in this conversation between “naive due to lack of experience” and “naive because unwilling/unable to accept reality.” The former is teachable, that latter is a problem.

        I have 10+ years professional experience in my field, but I consider myself naive about elements of my new job. Simply because, they’re new and unfamiliar. Presumably I’ll get savvier and less surprised about them with more exposure. But if in 2 years (or whatever) I’m still surprised that repeated reality doesn’t match how I *thought* things worked, well — that’s not good.

  6. Rob Bird*

    “You keep using that word……I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya

    1. The IT Manager*

      According to a couple of online dictionaries naive can mean
      – having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous
      – Showing or characterized by a lack of sophistication and critical judgment

      So naive can mean both a lack of experience which is not a negative and can be rectified and a lack of (critical) judgement which is a negative.

      With the examples Alison used the individuals showed a lack of judgement and that’s certainly a negative characteristic for an employee or potential employee. Someone who shows a lack of judegment during the hiring process is probably not going to get the offer.

      TL;DR Naive has multiple meaning and at least of them is something you don’t want in an employee. That’s how Alison often uses it. Perhaps as a gentler way to tell a LW that they’ve made or are about to make a really bad choice.

  7. Diane*

    OP, this is a great question. When I think of examples of naivety in past interns or team members, I picture moments when they seemed unaware or even unconcerned about professional norms. In some cases, it’s a matter of teaching the nuances of a given field or workplace (things we all have to learn), but as Alison and others have said, it’s hard to teach good judgement, collegiality, and common sense.

    Good naive: I supervised an intern who was eager to learn but unsure of herself. At first she sat near my desk and asked for constant feedback, but she responded well to training and big-picture discussions about feedback vs handholding, and gained confidence to take more initiative.

  8. The IT Manager*

    LW In my opinion professionally inexperienced (which with are) does not mean naive. You don’t have to be naive. Choose not to be.

    1. A Bug!*

      Agreed. Although “naive” is a technically appropriate word for being professionally inexperienced, I don’t think it’s the best word for it. Because naive has multiple meanings which are applicable in the same context, the intent isn’t necessarily clear.

      Which I guess could be a criticism of AAM’s use of the word as well; I found that I understood her intent just fine but the existence of this letter indicates that it might not be as obvious as I would have thought. I don’t really know what I’d substitute, maybe “oblivious” or “unmindful”.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I think the use is fine. It generally has an implied “disproportionately” in it–you don’t call a toddler “naive” for being surprised when somebody produces a quarter from his ear.

    2. Catherine*

      I’d characterize the difference as being an ingenue rather than a naif. An ingenue is fresh and charming and in a fleeting state of being a blank state. A naif is someone who should know better. But the thing about being an ingenue is that being fresh, energetic, and willing to learn are all positives on the job market whether or not you are experienced. So don’t focus on the inexperienced part.

  9. Holly*

    My first two weeks into my first real job I kept calling my boss “Ms. Curry.” Finally she looked at me and said “You know you can call me by my first name, right?” But she took it in good spirits. Everyone working there but my boss thought I was 16 anyway.

  10. The Snarky B*

    This reminded me of the post where the LW wanted to get the CEO’s assistant to do work for him because he thought somehow it would give him an edge or make him look ambitious.

    Another thing:
    Sometimes the last name thing is more of a custom/depends on how you were raised. I live in/am from NYC and in my experience, people whose parents moved up from the south, people of color, and people from immigrant families are all more likely to do it than other people I’ve worked with in the city. Had to learn that the hard way when many friends’ parents thought I was rude growing up for calling them by their first names (at age 18, 23, etc..).
    It carries over to the work force pretty readily- I’ve worked in offices with mostly black women (like myself) and it’s been the custom to call everyone (even someone’s 10 year old daughter) “Ms. ThisorThat”

    1. Kou*

      I was JUST about to mention this to the comment above yours– I grew up working class in the south, and damn it, you did not call certain people by the first name until they told you it was ok. Other people’s family members, higher-ups at work, whathaveyou. I still do it, it just doesn’t sit right with me any other way.

      And of course you know the time you don’t do it will be the time someone actually expected it. That would be the story of my life, anyway.

      1. Professional Merchandiser*

        I live in MS., and we ALWAYS addressed others by their courtesy titles unless invited to do otherwise. It was considered rude and pushy to call someone by their first name right away.

        Things are not quite so formal now, but it pays to be sensitive to the atmosphere around you. If you hear everybody using first names, then sure, you do, too.

        Or pay attention to how the person announces him/herself. If they say, “Hi, this is Bob…that’s a sign to use first names, but if they say, “This is Anne Smith…” I would go with Ms. Smith until invited otherwise. That is not being naïve, that is good manners.

    2. Editor*

      We moved from a small city in upstate New York to a rural area in a southern state when my children were in elementary school. My daughter’s sixth-grade teacher complained to me that she was disrespectful. I asked what had happened.

      It turned out my daughter answered the teacher “yes” or “no” instead of answering “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am.” I looked at the teacher and asked, “why would you expect her to say ‘ma’am’?”

      The woman was really taken aback. It never occurred to her that my children had grown up in a different tradition. When she scoffed, I pointed out that my daughter’s fourth grade classroom was team-taught by two women who insisted on being addressed by their first names. She didn’t want to believe it. I told my daughter to try to conform with the new normal, but she continued to have trouble with that teacher and I think part of it was that the woman continued to feel disrespected. Part of it was that we discovered she’d marked some correct answers as wrong on a couple of tests and homework sheets, and she didn’t like being caught out, even though we never told the principal about it.

      But I guess that discussion of manners really did convince the teacher that Yankees were rude barbarians.

    3. GeekChic*

      I was raised to address people as Sir / Ma’am and then Mr. / Ms. Lastname – and I’m Canadian. It was reinforced by several years in the military.

      I have no difficulty addressing people by first name once given leave to do so. I do get irritated when people call the manners I was raised with “archaic” or “naive”. They are simply different.

      1. Catherine*

        Yes, I don’t mind calling people by their first names if they prefer it, but I’m always a little put off by the “It’s okay to call me…” phrasing many people use when stating their preference–as if they’re somehow making me more comfortable instead of asking me to help them feel more comfortable.

        (Everyone, please practice and use this phrase: “Please call me _______.” Very simple and useful and polite and probably only inappropriate in situations where terms of address are covered by protocol.)

        1. April*

          Well, if they are trying to make you more comfortable rather than themselves, why is that bad? It is a good thing to put others’ comfort ahead of your own. (Hasn’t that sometimes been said to be the essence of good manners?) I would have thought that level of caring would endear someone to you rather than annoy you.

          1. Anon*

            It’s the implication that the other person is uncomfortable with using the last name. People who default to addressing others by last name are perfectly comfortable with that – there is no reason to say “you may call me firstname” as if you are bestowing a favor.

  11. Lily*

    Thanks for the explanation! I’ve been wondering why I was so put off by a conversation with someone who thinks that our pay rates are unfair and is still convinced that I can get an exception for HER. I have the authority to hire / fire but not determine her pay rate, but she just doesn’t believe me.

  12. Hello*

    I really enjoyed this post and your comments.
    What are your thoughts on saying “I am excited about this position because the qualifications you seek match my background perfectly.” (and then launching into a narrative of evident accomplishments)

    In one case, that was absolutely true… but then I used it in a recent draft and just felt awkward about it. Curious how that is received by managers…


    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I think that’s fine — but not especially strong. Try taking it out and then just launching into why it matches you perfectly, and see if that works!

  13. Erin*

    I think the truth is that young people just entering the workforce may very likely be naive in unattractive ways. They may not be aware of business customs, or appropriate behavior or dress, or the correct way to address different people in different settings (which is often very nuanced). As a young person, you will probably make some mistakes and they will probably cost you something in the short term. This goes double if you’re entering, for example, a white collar professional environment and your parents were not white collar workers. The expectations and norms may simply be different and what some people learned and absorbed as kids and teenagers, you have to learn from scratch now.

    As for what employers expect when hiring entry-level staff, I think they expect you to be naive and lack judgment in some of these areas. If they’re smart, they have a process for keeping you away from clients/the public until they are sure you’ve been properly trained and won’t do something inappropriate and potentially damaging. But most do expect you to have a level of judgment commensurate with your level. Think of it this way – if you’re dealing with a group of 6 year olds, you expect them to blurt out inappropriate things, have trouble not talking over each other, and doing other typical 6 year old things. You do, however, expect them to be toilet trained and know not to bite and hit each other. (Things you wouldn’t expect of a group of 1 yr olds.)

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