is there a hidden message in that email from your interviewer?

  • “My interviewer said she looked forward to talking soon. Is that a sign I’m getting the job?”
  • “My job interview seemed to go great – but then they said they’d get back to me even if I don’t get the job. Is that a bad sign?”
  • “They said they were looking for someone with more experience – should I not have even applied in the first place?”

Job searching is so anxiety-producing that it drives otherwise reasonable people to seek – and convince themselves they’ve found – hidden meaning in the most mundane of communications with employers. We’re used to seeing this type of over-analysis in other areas of life, like dating (“when he said he likes kids, was he signaling that he wants to settle down quickly?”), but the pressure of job-seeking brings out some of the worst.

At Slate today, I wrote about how people parse the words of every communication from employers, trying to ferret out signs about their chances … and why it’s more harmful than helpful to them. You can read it here.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Ann Nonymous*

    Everyone needs to take AAM’s advice and do your best in an interview and put it out of their mind. Easy to say; hard to do.

    1. Reluctant Mezzo*

      Writers do this with rejection slips–there was a panel at a con once called “Rejectomancy” to have some fun with the concept.

      1. Distracted Librarian*

        This post reminded me so much of the way authors parse rejections. Alison is right about the power imbalance being a big part of it, and I think the other part is emotional investment. For job-seekers, there’s the money aspect for sure, but, as with writers, there’s also the idea that acceptance or rejection is tied to your worth as a person.

  2. Beezus*

    I sort of think of interviewers like the Don Draper/Mad Men meme “I don’t think about you at all” not in a begative way just they have other job duties and lives and unfortunately it’s not that personal 99.9% of the time and lots of the phrases above Alison posted are just polite email small talk.

  3. SansaStark*

    I have such a better appreciation for changing timelines and priorities now that I’ve been on the other side of the interviewing table. We interview on a rolling basis because we’re rarely flooded with applications and even when I’m highly motivated to fill a position, it can still take a while to make an offer and the reasons behind that rarely have anything to do with how I feel about a candidate.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      It’s always some bureaucratic thing like “We’re ready to make an offer but we can’t do anything without Susan personally signing off on it and Susan’s on vacation until Friday” and then while we’re waiting for Susan to come back someone Very Important insists you at least interview their nephew’s best friend, or someone’s like “But does your department REALLY need that role?” and you have to spend a bunch of time arguing about it.

      1. T*

        This!! Or some hiring manager is being an @$$ and he is left to pick up the pieces and soften the message to you while the managers work out their ish.

    2. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

      Same for me. Although I still remember the government job I applied for and heard nothing about for several months. Then unexpectedly they emailed me asking to set up an interview. Yeah, nah, I’d be suspicious of anyone still job hunting months later.

      My policy when interviewing is to make decisions quickly because when we want more staff we usually want them now or preferably a month ago. Plus good candidates are often in a position to make employers compete for them. Poor candidates I want not to hire no matter how desperate we are so a quick rejection is a win-win.

      The ones I hate are when we’re desperate and the decision maker agrees but never gets round to actually making an offer to the candidate(s). That drives me a bit nuts and IME usually presages slow decision making elsewhere, or just poor decision making in general. But I work for small companies and often directly with or for the owner. So “you, ring candidate X and offer them the job. Do it now!” is something I can and do actually do :)

      1. amoeba*

        “Yeah, nah, I’d be suspicious of anyone still job hunting months later.”

        As someone who’s been searching for the last year and a half, this seems harsh. (I have a job, so no rush needed in theory, but I’m very ready to move on and have been applying to everything that was somewhat fitting and interesting. Unfortunately, these positions are rare and at the moment, nobody’s hiring.)

    3. Dhaskoi*

      I’ve learned the same thing from working in recruitment – there can be a lot of separation between the person who chooses you for the job and the person who approves your hiring.

  4. Mairzy Doats*

    Despite using Alison’s advice for resumes and interviewing, I continually get to the final round and either 1) lose out to internal candidates (where I am external), but am happy they are loyal to their good employees, or 2) someone decides the pay band needs adjusting and lo! it’s now less than what I currently make. It’s time consuming, exhausting, and frustrating, but I’ll keep trying!

    1. ThatGirl*

      I would argue Alison’s advice is working exactly as intended, and you are clearly a strong candidate — at the point where you’re losing out, it’s not something you had *any* control over. You’ll find the right job eventually. But I do sympathize – it’s definitely frustrating.

    2. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      No advice can guarantee you a job. And it certainly won’t do anything in the sort of weird edge cases you’re encountering – I’ve heard of job ads, even job offers, being pulled altogether in cases where there was suddenly a hiring freeze but never the “just kidding the pay is $20K less than we said it would” you’re running into – I’m wondering if there’s something about how you’re choosing which positions to apply for that you’re running into this consistently?

  5. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I’ve been in corporate staffing for decades, and also have interviewed for jobs I really wanted. I know more than most that interviewing and candidate review can take far longer than anyone expects: an unexpected internal candidate indicates interest, a mid-year budget review puts hiring on hold, candidates/interviewers need to reschedule, schedules just get too packed, priorities change…and I still tried to read between the lines of every email or text message. It’s a very understandable reaction and the worst thing to do to yourself!

    Advice? Yes, I have some:

    The hiring manager and/or recruiter should be aware and careful of the language they use with candidates. No promises of feedback by certain dates if you’re in the early interview stages, for example. No ‘the team loved you and thinks you’re the best EVER!’ even if it’s sincere, because another candidate could be even better. Also, a status update with your candidates goes a long way, even if you don’t have a specific answer: ‘I wanted to thank you for your interest, and to let you know we’re still interviewing for the X role. I’ll update you when we’re ready for the next stage, but no later than a month from now.’ Then put a reminder in your calendar a month from now to email your candidates; they’ll appreciate knowing you didn’t forget them.

    Job seekers and candidates alike are best served by not trying to find hidden meaning in every interaction with the recruiter and hiring manager. Candidates are graded on a curve, and it can change. Try not to assume the worst intentions, like ‘They’re just jerking me around!’ And try to remember things just don’t always go according to plan.

    1. Throwaway Account*

      I agree that hiring managers/recruiters should be careful of their language and give status updates if possible. But I would want the feedback that the team loved me even if I didn’t get the job.

      Avoid saying “You will definitely hear on Friday” or “we will decide by x date” but I would argue that feedback that the team loved me gives me something I can use and I want to hear it.

      And that means I do have to stop reading between the lines.

    2. Lab Boss*

      I wonder sometimes how many of these messages get overthought by a hiring manager who’s trying to be very aware of their language so they don’t give any mistaken ideas, but then the language reads as a little unnatural because it’s so precisely chosen, and the candidate notices that and concludes it’s trying to send a coded message.

      1. learnedthehardway*

        Speaking as someone who just had to tell a candidate they were still in consideration but that a decision isn’t going to happen this week (unlike what I had been told), YES – HR definitely overthinks the messaging sometimes. I do not want this candidate to lose interest or get frustrated, while I wait for the hiring manager to realize that they cannot get a more qualified candidate at the price point they want to pay. I am being VERY careful with what I say, for sure.

        1. Lab Boss*

          I’ve learned to play the game when talking to candidates but I’m comfortable with being so direct, I would be glad to hear “we think you’ll do but first we want to chase this unicorn candidate. Don’t worry, they’ll probably tell us to kick rocks and then we’ll hire you.”

          1. Lily Potter*

            Ah, wouldn’t it be great to be able to be perfectly forthright?

            “You’re our third choice candidate. #1 is our unicorn but we’re not sure we can afford her. #2 is an internal candidate that’s technically proficient but some are concerned about his personality quirks. We think you could do the job if #1 and #2 fall through, but you’re definitely our fallback candidate. Please keep in touch though!”

            An actual scenario from a past job. I felt bad stringing #3 along while TOTB deliberated far too long.

  6. mango chiffon*

    Once got an email from the HR recruiter that asked if I could get on a phone call the next day. This was after I had already gone through the screening and the actual team interviews. My dad told me that this was likely going to be a job offer (it was) but I had gone through so many rejections by that point I didn’t want to jinx it so I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much.

  7. ThatGirl*

    The only statements that mean anything are very clear – “we’d like to move you to the next round,” “we’d like to make you an offer,” “we’ve decided to go with another candidate” — anything else is just an attempt at mind-reading. And I am not a mind-reader. :)

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m guilty of occasionally trying to read minds. It’s human nature. But nothing is final until it’s final.

    1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      Seriously. I never feel like anything’s really final until I’m actually at the job on day 1!

      1. I Have RBF*


        After 40+ years in the working world, no job is truly certain until you literally start work and do all the paperwork. This means after you’ve passed the interviews, offer and salary negotiation, background and reference check, etc. I’ve been lucky enough not to have given notice before an offer gets pulled because of a hiring freeze, but there were a couple close calls.

      2. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

        Also, the best experience ever is starting a new job then a week later getting an offer from someone you forgot you even applied with. “hey, I’m popular”. Even if the offer is slightly better just remind yourself “a job in the hand is better than hoping there’s one in the bush”

  8. One of the feds*

    I’ve been seeing something like this a ton lately on the USAJobs subreddit : “This job is only posted for five days does that mean they already have an internal candidate in mind and I’m wasting my time??”

    It means nothing. It means that 5 days is the default initial positing period. It means either it’ll get extended, or enough people will apply in five days and it’ll close. I wish their were tea leaves to read, the reality is just the process is daunting.

  9. Michelle Smith*

    I definitely find this hard to do, because I have been burned so many times by hiring managers failing to follow through on the plain language of their email (e.g. we will follow up by X date, we will have a decision by X date, etc.).

    The most refreshing process I ever went through, the hiring manager actually explained to me what they meant by needing to interview more candidates (there was an HR requirement that they interview X number of qualified candidates and not enough had applied for the position; e.g. lots of people with only BAs applying for a position that was JD or PhD required). It helped me make a more informed decision when I got an offer without hearing back from that HM yet – I knew there was no way they could speed up their process for me, so I could take the offer I had or risk ending up with nothing. I chose to take the offer I had and I have no regrets. It takes so little effort to just be transparent with people so we aren’t guessing or thinking there must be something wrong with us that we aren’t snapped up right away!

  10. Throwaway Account*

    I’ve just been reviewing articles about the Hidden Curriculum in college and it occurs to me that the HC is connected to seeing hidden codes in job interviews.

    We leave high school and college with a sense that there were these hidden things that so many others seemed to know or figure out. Things no one told you but you were expected to know. It makes sense that that might extend to life after college too.

  11. Butterfly Counter*

    I’ve been on hiring committees for the last few years in an academic setting. We know our department is weak in X area. We have it covered, but would love for a specialist to come in and take it over. We often advertise that fact. However, in these last few years, a candidate NOT in X area has come in and blown us away in some other factor. Sometimes, it’s based on knowing Dr. Jones is retiring next year and though we are weak in X, we will have absolutely no Z after Dr. Jones leaves, and in walks someone great in Z. Sometimes it’s because their overall vision for our department fits. And sometimes it’s because the candidate who was best at X wasn’t interested in some other important factor of the job.

    There really are so many moving parts when it comes to hiring. Often, at the end, we wish we had the budget to offer the job to two or more people!

  12. LP*

    It’s hrs advice to take, but trying to move on as much as possible is the best move! You never know what’s going on behind the scenes, and you don’t want to slow down your applications to other places if you don’t get the job. In 2022 I interviewed for a great job at a university in the New Haven area (cough), and after two hiring committee interviews, an interview with the Director of the division, over ten short interviewed with every single division department, contacting references, and *flying me out in person* that ended with “let’s chat Monday”, they cancelled the job entirely. Turns out Manager never wanted to fill this role, Director did, and they’d been beefing about it for months, and Director eventually gave in!

  13. Bookworm*

    Yeah, I have to agree. Move on, and just put it out of your mind. WAY easier said than done as others have said but obsessing doesn’t help. I’ve definitely read too much (huge enthusiasm from an interviewer years ago led to a ghosting/absolute silence from the organization itself and from interviewer who seemed *SO* enthusiastic and is now a director-level type there, sigh).

    More recently I’ve found organizations do not follow their own timelines or only pretty much follow them if I ended up being the pick. I do understand there are challenges (plus COVID with hybrid/remote work, etc.) but it’s become very irritating and I don’t follow-up anymore after the thank you note. They want me, they’ll let me know. Otherwise, this reflects poorly on the organizations (some of whom don’t even apologize for the delay!) and there’s always Glassdoor! :)

  14. Love to WFH*

    A friend had 3 rounds of interviews for a job, and then they asked for references. They’re apparently checking them _before_ making an offer, which is how it really should be!

    Anyway, one of the people who is a reference just called him to let him know that they were actually checking. She shared that one of the questions they asked her was “Is he really as good as he seems?”

    He’s interpreting that as a positive. ;-)

  15. Cruciatus*

    This is very timely. My friend just had an interview internally at her university employer and was told she’d “be a great addition if she’s hired” and it’s just so hard to not want to read 100% into that. She said she’s trying to be patient…

    1. FearlessHilda*

      I’m in your friend’s shoes! The hiring manager asked me to line up my references at the end of the interview with her and her team. The interview went very well! I’m taking that as a good sign but still haven’t heard from HR yet (I know they are interviewing other people as well). I so want to move on but I know I just have to sit tight and wait. Gah!

  16. Marie*

    I’m on a hiring team right now. We have so many good candidates, it really is just tough and sometimes “a better fit” really is the answer. Sorry all, I know it’s hard out there. I appreciate advice from others on how language can help set expectations.

    1. Marie*

      Also, in terms of time, consider many of us are doing overtime to make up for the vacancy. While we would LOVE to get someone onboard asap to help out, sometimes it really is just about coordinating schedules.

  17. Skippy*

    After going through many hiring processes both as the interviewer and the interviewee, I tend to be highly skeptical of anything hiring managers say as it relates to the status of the search or of my application. Hiring managers want to keep applicants “warm” so they are often intentionally vague in order to keep them interested even if they’re not the first choice so the organization can switch gears quickly if their top choice(s) don’t accept. It’s not malicious in any way, but when hiring processes are so opaque, I don’t blame candidates for looking for any clues one way or another.

    The best advice I ever received is to assume that after an interview you will never hear from that company ever again.

  18. Junior Assistant Peon*

    Being on the other side of the table was an educational experience for me. I had a lot of interviewees I liked but rejected because we could only hire one person, and my boss’s foot-dragging caused several desirable candidates to find jobs before we could get around to making a decision. A lot of the things that made me insane as a candidate started to make sense!

    One thing that I observed was that most of the rejected interviewees did fine, and were edged out by someone slightly better-fitting. I used to make myself crazy wondering what I did wrong in an interview, but when I was the hiring manager, candidates seldom had any bad foot-in-mouth moments.

  19. Lenora Rose*

    Form letters are form letters, and standard business language is standard business language. If it looks (or sounds) like they used the same words they would have used with everyone else, there’s no point in trying to read the tea leaves as to what it means.

    Truly individual personal replies with no background template are rarer than folks think for interviews.

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