am I too quiet in interviews?

A reader writes:

I’m an experienced senior personal assistant. I’ve worked in the public sector and for large financial institutions supporting directors. I’ve had a dozen interviews in the past two weeks, including second interviews, but no job yet.

What I’m confused about is that when I get feedback, it’s so mixed! A couple of places kindly rung to tell me that I came across well — confident, pleasant, gave good answers — and there wasn’t really anything negative to tell me, but an internal person or someone with more experience was given the job.

I’ve just had another feedback phone call which has left me feeling puzzled. She said I came across as “too quiet” and that because the firm is one of the Big 4 professional services companies, they need assertive PAs who can push back. The recruiter recommended getting more experience at smaller companies (I have over seven years experience at large companies) and then applying again.

I thanked her politely. But I’m a bit stung, as I think the interview went really well and the interviewer said he could see me working for this introverted partner as I “have high emotional intelligence and could bring him out of his shell” and that he would love for the current PA to meet me in the next stage of the process so she could confirm personality fit with this partner. I wish interviewers wouldn’t say misleading things like this!

What do you think? Is being introverted a problem at work and in interviews? I know I’m an introvert, but I’m also mindful in interviews of giving confident answers, speaking clearly, and body language. I used examples of times I’ve had to be assertive at work to illustrate that I can push back against demanding bosses.

Well, first, I wouldn’t put a ton of weight on the feedback of one person who doesn’t know you well unless it resonates with things that you already knew or suspected about yourself.

It’s also possible that “you’re too quiet and we need assertive PAs who can push back” actually means “you will be working with really difficult people and we’ve found that only people with the toughest skin thrive in this job — and you seem more normal than that.”

Or it could simply mean what it says on its face — “the role requires someone who can be very assertive and we didn’t see enough evidence of that in you.” It’s certainly possible to be too quiet in an interview (for most jobs, or for very specific ones that require something different) or not to come off as assertive/forthright enough for a particular role. (For what it’s worth, that’s a separate thing than introversion. Introversion isn’t about being shy or quiet, but rather about where you draw your energy from — being alone vs. being with others.)

The interviewer who told you that he could see you working well with the partner and that he’d love for you to meet the current PA in the next step of the process wasn’t necessarily being misleading. It’s entirely possible that those statements were genuine … but there are all kinds of other things that could have gone into the decision, including just feeling differently after having more time to reflect or after talking with other candidates who presented different strengths.

If you’ve been successful in your career up until now and if you’re otherwise getting good feedback from other interviewers, I wouldn’t worry about this one-time feedback too much. That said, if it does resonate with you as something that could be true, you could always seek feedback from other people who know your work and see if they think it’s an issue (either for real or in how you come across initially). But I wouldn’t let one lone person’s secondhand feedback unsettle you too much.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. FTW*

    Advice for a Big 4 firm is spot on. Admins typically support multiple partners, and keeping one in line, let alone several, required a high level of assertiveness.

      1. some1*

        Anticipating needs. Who will need a normal amount of support, and who will need reminders that it’s her day to be Snack Parent at her daughter’s soccer game so does she want to have you cancel her 4:30 or remind her to go to the grocery store at lunch?

        1. Jillociraptor*

          And being able to strike the right balance when you have to knock them around a little bit. As an admin you have to be able to push your exec when they’re not on time for something, when they want something that transcends the laws of physics, when they say they want to meet with Bob but you know they need work time for X priority.

    1. Blue Anne*

      I’m going to have to agree. Just came out of the Big 4, and our team had a couple of awesome admins who definitely held their own with the partners. I don’t think the department would have been nearly as effective if they hadn’t.

    2. Janie*

      Also spot on for many law firms/lawyers. Admins at my old firm needed to be able to push back at appropriate times and handle frequent insults from the jerkface partner they were working for.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Or it could be they wanted to reject you and didn’t know how to properly tell you that without hurting your feelings.  In the dating world, it can come out as, “Things are really busy at work so I need to take a ‘break’ from this relationship until things calm down.”

    There’s also a decent chance that they were being honest with you.  AAM is right in that the benefit of time and/or looking at other candidates can change a perspective or two.  That’s what interviewing is all about.  You might have been “too quiet” for THIS specific scenario; there’s no way this person can know if you’re “too quiet” overall because s/he doesn’t know you.

    If this is the first time you’ve heard it and you’ve never thought about yourself, then I’d leave it alone.  But if you hear it again, then you’ve got to seriously consider this as a potential flaw.

    That said…many years ago, a temp agency sent me to a think tank for an admin/program assistant interview.  I was right out of college and looking to get my foot in the door.  This was pre-internet so I didn’t know anything about this think tank.  All I could see was JOB, JOB, JOB!  I thought the interview went well, but the think tank called my temp agency and told them they didn’t want to hire me.  The interviewers were stuck on the fact that I said I was “willing” to to admin work.  I felt horrible and embarrassed.  

    It wasn’t until many years later I realized I had all this Democrat experience on my resume and this was very much a NOT Democratic think tank.  (Way opposite side of the political spectrum.)  The interviewers only said that because they needed to reject me without looking petty.  Plus I imagine they were more mad at the temp agency who should have known better.  Also the word “willing” means to be ready and eager to do something without persuasion so if that’s all they had on me, I never should have lost sleep over it.

    My point is don’t let a one off comment get you down too much.  Most times employers have their own stuff going on, and in these feedback conversations, you can suffer the brunt of collateral damage.

    1. SMGW*

      I don’t know, if I interviewed someone for an admin position who said they were “willing” to do admin work, I’d be put of as well. Did they actually tell you that they only gave you that reason to avoid looking petty but that they really rejected you due to a difference of ideals?

        1. Narwhal*

          Yes, it’s one of those words where the actual definition has sort of been lost. No one would say they were “willing” to go pick up their Mega Millions winnings even if they were ready and eager to do it without persuasion. Most people would use “willing” more in a sense of, “I am willing to pick up your mother-in-law at the airport if you can’t do it.”– I’ll do it, but there are things I’d rather being doing.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Agreed! The subtext is close to “well, if I have to, then I will.”

            I actually wouldn’t think they’d have an issue just coming out and saying it was the political differences if that’s what it was — “we’re looking for someone with a commitment to our mission — or at least without a history of working against our mission” is pretty par for the course in D.C.

    2. Shannon*

      I’m sure that you’re right, that they were looking for a reason not to hire you considering your opposing political views and couldn’t say it, but, without more context, I’d also be put off by someone saying that they were “willing” to do admin work when you are applying for an admin job. My knee jerk reaction is that of course you should be willing to do your job, and that saying that you’re willing implies that it was a possibility that you’re not or comes off like you’re doing them a favor.

  3. Lily in NYC*

    One of the first times I ever conducted an interview for was an intern position. We were told we had to give it to our HR director’s niece (sigh). She was so incredibly shy – she turned bright red any time she had to speak, spoke in a very quiet voice and gave one or two-word answers. We would never have hired her if we hadn’t been forced to. Well, it was a lesson learned because once she warmed up (which did take a pretty long time) she was incredible. We ended up hiring her full-time and she was fantastic – and by the time she left she was still quiet, but much more assertive and confident. It showed me how I was biased towards schmoozers, which isn’t fair. But I didn’t like the nepotism aspect (her aunt got fired for multiple instances of poor judgment).

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Ugh, I meant to say to OP that I’m wondering if maybe one of the people you’d be supporting is a known jerk and they weren’t sure if you’d be assertive enough to deal with him/her.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Or, if he’s a known introvert, maybe they felt he needed someone more outgoing in order to counter him.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I had a very similar experience early in my career! I participated in an interview process for an intern who had attended the alma mater of our ED. She was painfully shy and quiet in the interview (literally covering her mouth when she spoke), and had our ED not been an advocate for her based on their shared educational background it’s very unlikely we would have hired her. She turned out to be a star and has since eclipsed me in our field!

    3. Dan*

      You know… there’s a difference between hiring an intern and a full time staff person who needs to interface with clients. I’d be willing to cut interns slack, knowing that they will need to be mentored/guided. That’s kind of the whole point — org gets cheap labor, but has to deal with inexperience.

      But hiring staff to interface with clients? Yeah, if you need somebody who can be “on” the first week, then by all means, screen for that.

      1. CoffeeLover*

        I agree. This really depends on the role. In my line of work, shyness in an interview would not fly. If you can’t be charismatic in an interview, how will you deal with a client grilling you with some tough questions? How will you build strong client relations quickly?

    4. Beezus*

      That was me in my first (retail) job! I was extremely sheltered growing up and I was painfully shy and afraid to talk to people; but, once I was in the job for a few months and understood my role and the norms around my interactions with people, I blossomed and became more assertive and found a sassy, wisecracking sense of humor I didn’t even know I had. I still remember one of the store managers remarking at how much confidence I’d gained, and it still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Oh my god, this is me 100%. I’d had crap retail jobs followed by some truly toxic temp admin jobs and when I started my current position I was wary and withdrawn and terrified to cross anyone in even the mildest way. Anytime anyone was even slightly unhappy I thought I was going to get fired. When the VP of our department stopped by to say hi when he visited our branch, I was intimidated so badly I was almost shaking.

        That was two years ago. Now I will happily sass the VP when he visits us and can hold my own against marauding colleagues in other departments with confidence, because my team took the time to mentor me and help me start to trust in my own abilities. My closest coworker actually got a bit teary-eyed a few months ago when commenting on how different I sound after I’d gotten off a conference call with several members of the executive team. And I genuinely hope someday I get the chance to do the same for someone else.

  4. BRR*

    Do you act differently in interviews? I interviewed someone and they were really quiet and the role needed someone assertive. She was incredibly impressive so we hired her and she was a little more assertive in her position than as a candidate which was perfect.

  5. Cristina*

    Sometimes people say quiet when they mean they want you to show more visible energy, not that they want you to say more words. Things like leaning forward in your chair a bit, smiling, making eye contact, and referencing statements that the interviewer has made might help to show that energy and enthusiasm. And even if by quiet they really meant quiet, these still wouldn’t be bad things to do.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Really good point. I interviewed for someone and I mostly said, “aahhh” and “hmmm” but I was actively engaged in the conversation. I was offered the job. Not everything has to be in words, OP, sometimes a well-placed knowing smile can get you more points than if you said something.

  6. Myrin*

    For what it’s worth, there are actually several definitions of being introverted, the “where you draw energy from” thing is just the current one. I distinctly remember it meaning “someone who enjoys being alone” just a few years back (I identified very much with that earlier use but not at all with the current one, I honestly can’t even identify with the feeling of “getting my energy” from somewhere). Additionally, it’s used differently in other languages (in mine, for example, it really is a synonym for being quiet and withdrawn into oneself) which is why I’ve basically stopped using it at all because it has a million different meanings. This always makes it kind of hard for me to give answers to “is being introverted a problem in x situation” because, well, it could be depending on what you mean by that.

    Regardless (I’m rambling, sorry!), Alison’s answer is spot-on as usual and there’s probably no need to feel stung about it since – just from your letter – you do come off as a very mindful and engaged person and it’s not at all impossible for someone to just have a different read on you than basically everyone else.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      I don’t want to derail, but the definition Alison used is the right one. The equivalent term in your native language may have other meanings, but Alison is talking about how it’s used in English and as developed by Jung, so it’s not just the most current usage. The terms extrovert and introvert, as defined by Jung, do relate to how our energy flows. And introvert in that context doesn’t necessarily mean “enjoys being alone” so much as it meant “spends time in their own head”.
      (and either way, Alison said it doesn’t mean shy or quiet, and in English, it doesn’t)

      1. JaneB*

        The way I understand the ‘energy source’ aspect of the definition, suppose you just had a really dreadful week at work – urgent deadlines, key people off sick, the copier broke down, you made a stupid mistake and got reamed out for it, you argued with your office buddy – everything has gone wrong. You have the choice of spending Friday night home alone with a book, all technology off line, or of going out to meet your good non-work friends for a few drinks and a good gossip, maybe over a meal. Which one would actually make you feel better? A classic intravert in the sense Alison uses it would pick the alone/disconnected time over the social time, and the extravert the opposite.

  7. Not So NewReader*

    I could be wrong, OP, but I think you might have dodged a bullet. They could be screening for people who have an extra thick layer of skin because one or more people are known to be very difficult to get along with. Or it could be that there are two people in competition with each other and they would use you as a pawn in their fight with each other. It’s hard to tell, but if this is the only person who said this to you, it’s probably a problem on their end not yours. Just my thinking though. Don’t let this stuff wear you down. Trust that you will get into a work environment that is a positive one.

    1. fposte*

      Or just dodged a poor fit, which can feel a lot like a bullet. If you have to be somebody you’re absolutely not to get a job, it’s not likely you’ll thrive there.

  8. Kevin*

    I spent only eight months in a Big 4. It was the most miserable professional experience of my life. A senior partner bragged how much money he made underwriting mortgage-backed securities, those very same that caused so much damage when they all blew up. Perhaps by “too quiet” they mean “we think you’re a normal person and only egotistical maniacs thrive here.”

    1. Blue Anne*

      Big 4 partners are hit and miss. Some of them are lovely. I worked under one who was a super nice guy and very funny. He’d do things like walk by and surprise high-five me while I was stretching my arms up. He took all the first years out to dinner, and so on.

      On the other hand, one of the other partners I worked with was just not concerned with being civil to people below him. He did things like just throwing a pile of folders onto the admin’s desk, saying “File these”, and going away again. At the Christmas party, he was introducing the new members of the team to his wife, and when he got to a woman who was on secondment for a year with us said “This is Cersei, she’s temporary” and turned away to talk to someone else!

      His admin actually managed to knock some politeness into him somehow. Maybe the firm OP interviewed with were looking for someone to handle a situation like that. In which case… definite bullet dodged.

  9. EA*

    Personally, I’d say bullet dodged. I could make more money as an EA if I went into a rougher industry (like the big 4). But I prefer a better work life balance and a boss who isn’t an ass.

    On the other hand, if you are looking for a certain industry due to the higher salary attached – I would say practice speaking louder/more assertively. Body language is also important. Sometimes being nervous can also come off as being timid, so look into that. Not to say you should be something you are not to get the job, but you seem to think you can be assertive in real life. Places like the big 4 are looking for hard-charging EA types. Controlling, overly organized, and not afraid to get yelled at by a boss in order to keep all your balls in the air. Really, they want a tough mom to babysit the executives.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Yeah, and I think that most “professional services” type places are the same way (law, consulting, executive search, etc) – the worst bosses I’ve had were at these places. I worked as the EA to the president of a 10,000 employee executive search firm, and my boss was so evil that she got demoted back to Partner – she got demoted solely because she couldn’t control her temper and even yelled at a visiting Senator once! This is the same woman who called her other assistant while the assistant was in the middle of giving birth because she couldn’t find a file. I have never hated anyone as much as this woman.

  10. Lillian McGee*

    This is exactly why I try to put it in our hiring teams’ heads that you should not hire based on charisma alone! I’ve had a couple experiences where the team was blown over by an interviewee’s personality so much that they overlooked other signs that they would be problematic, hired them, then had to deal with a fun-to-be-around but ultimately poor performer.

    This last time I stepped in and said no no… we can’t ding the quiet one for being quiet. Look at her accomplishments, talk to her references but do not interpret shyness or nervousness as lack of enthusiasm. We ended up hiring the quietest interviewee I ever had and we were right to do so!

    That being said, working here doesn’t require an exceptionally thick skin, so shy people do just fine. But there is something to be said about in-the-moment nervousness at an interview that could translate as shyness or weakness when it shouldn’t. I’d keep a “tell me about a time you had to assert yourself…” question in my back pocket for those people.

    1. Bea W*

      Also, quiet != thin skinned. Another misconception. Sometimes quiet around difficult people is simply not giving a feck. Some people are quiet because they aren’t rattled, and just go on about their business. This can be a real asset when working with people of a certain level of difficultness.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        This. I come across as pretty low-key, but I was always able to handle both of my difficult bosses. I supported two bosses who were both prone to yelling at times. I just never responded to the yelling, but just carried on my side of the conversation in my normal, calm and quiet tones as if the person in front of me wasn’t yelling. Responding only to the work content of what they were saying, and not the emotion behind it, always seemed to defuse them eventually, and then we could have a productive conversation. I doubt if anyone would be able to tell from my outward demeanor that I could hold my own with a boss like that, but I can.

    1. SMGW*

      “Charlie, tell the President he will eat his salad, and if he doesn’t like it, he knows where to put his salad.”

    2. SL #2*

      I’ve been watching the West Wing for the first time and, well, I got to that episode (you know the one), and I was bawling.

      Mrs. Landingham is who I aspire to be when it comes to being a great EA.

      1. CMT*

        Pretty much any mention of Mrs. Landingham make me sad because I just think about that episode :(

  11. Dan*

    This is another area where job hunting is like dating. When you get rejected, the implied two words at the end of the sentence are “for me.”

    The reality is, you are who you are, and it’s not necessarily going to be a match for everybody. Whether or not you need to change depends on how you feel about yourself and your dating/job prospects. Just because one person doesn’t date tall men doesn’t mean nobody dates tall men. But if you get consistent feedback that you find limits your pool, and you want to do something about it, THEN take action.

    I got rejected for a banking job based on “fit” reasons. They were pretty blunt about it. Did I need to “change” in future interviews? Well, I get jobs that I like and am happy with, and I’d rather they know who I am during the interview stage so there’s no surprises later. It’s worked for me so far.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      LOL, that “implied two words at the end” thing reminds me of adding “in bed” to the end of whatever your fortune cookie says. Hilarity always ensues!

    2. non-profit manager*

      This is good advice and so true.

      I was let go from a job where I never seemed to fit in. No one ever said anything about it, but I could see it and feel it. Looking back, I am glad to be gone. Where I am now, I can be myself and I am thriving.

  12. Sharon*

    When I’ve gotten the mixed messages like this in my interviews I always wonder if the HR person relaying the feedback was confused and thinking of a different candidate. I don’t have a good answer to the OP, but empathy!

  13. AnotherAlison*

    Eh, I got that exact feedback once. I’m an introvert, but I’m not lacking assertiveness by any stretch. I was fairly pissed off at the time because I jumped through hoops for about 4 months for that position and didn’t get it. The job was an analyst reporting to an SVP who reported to the CEO. They didn’t think I could work with SVP-types, even though I had been doing that for several years already. Now I feel like that SVP really just didn’t get my personality type and it probably wouldn’t have worked.

    Someone I work with currently “gets me” better, and will sometimes give me feedback that I need to speak up more, but he understands that my not speaking up is not about being timid. . .it’s more my style to take in the information and then weigh in once others have said their piece.

    As others have said, consider it a bullet dodged.

    1. KimPossible*

      I’m a few days late, but I wanted to echo this. I’m from the US, but am an introvert. I can assert myself when necessary and I love going to team social events, but I don’t really walk around the office to chat unless it’s work related.

      I worked in the UK for awhile and interviewed for a data analyst position. I didn’t get it and the feedback I received was that I was so outgoing and friendly in the phone interview that they thought I would be bored in a position where I have to work independently most of the time. I’m now working in the US and my manager is the textbook definition of an extrovert. He has a really hard time with the fact that I don’t socialize during the work time as much as he does, and is constantly making jokes about me never leaving my cube.

      As long as you aren’t receiving the same feedback repeatedly, it’s probably more about just finding a good fit.

  14. Nate*

    I am a quite person. That said- in interviews, I act more outgoing than a tend to be in real life. If you are really, really quiet, no one is going to hire you.

  15. PolarBear*

    Hello, I’m the OP!

    Thank you Alison and everybody else for your comments.

    I did have another interview for a large bank where I got through to the final stage. My feedback was that I was “lovely but too nice.” They had a point – the director I was working for seemed pretty challenging in the interview! Think it’s definitely for the best I didn’t get that in terms of personality fit.

    Anyway, I have been offered another 1:1 role this week! I will be PA to a Director in a very large, international bank but not in very fast paced role like a trading floor, think more IT and tech focused. He seems like a friendly, down to earth guy and he made a point of saying that they are more laid back than other departments.

    Hopefully it will be a good fit! :)

  16. Bea W*

    Ugh. Quiet != not assertive. That person is either clueless or saw something else in the way you held yourself that communicated “non-assertive”. I can’t tell you which one it is, but some people equate loud and pushy with assertiveness, and they are definitely not the same things!

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      That is so true. I thought that some of my loud and pushy coworkers were more assertive than me until I saw them unable to cope or communicate with a new boss with a big ego and a brusque, curt style. Seeing them shut down with him while I managed to form a good relationship made me appreciate my strengths more.

  17. Murphy*

    Introversion isn’t about being shy or quiet, but rather about where you draw your energy from — being alone vs. being with others.
    Thank you for this! I’m a big introvert, but I’m by no means quiet, shy, or a wallflower. I’m always one of the loudest people in the room who talks a lot. Too much, often.

  18. techfool*

    I don’t think you should worry about it. A big part of being a PA is having the right “chemistry” with the person you’ll be assisting. You may have very well dodged a bullet if they thought you were too nice!

  19. CADMonkey007*

    This happened to me recently! I thought I did everything right only to find out the hiring manager thought I was “shy.” I know I can come across as reserved in first impressions but the fact the word “shy” was used really bummed me out. :(

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