# Can I reject the premise of a question in an interview?

This actually came as a practice (not marked) question in a video interview for an internship at a bank, where I was asked to name my "favorite movie" and explain why.

My actual response to the question (in my head) was "I'm not sure what the word favorite means -- I don't know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of movies -- but here's a movie I like: _____ ..."

Is an answer like this acceptable or should I just give an answer they expect?

Clarifying edit

While the point is that the word isn't well-defined, I would speak the response I gave in a tone of partial humour -- the joke is to give the precise requirement such a ranking function should satisfy. I'm puzzled by the responses claiming it to be "unnecessary jargon" -- if anyone has a simpler formalisation, I'm glad to hear it, but this seems like the intuitive one.

I would convey the answer indeed as an "inside mathematical joke", and outside an interview I would just say "define favorite" (then say the precise requirements only if the other person actually wants to define it).

• I think besides the problems relating to soft skills other people have pointed out, there's a technical weakness to your proposed response. It doesn't seem like you have thought very much about the problem of preferences. Many times they are modeled via partial orderings and there are reasons for that, which it seems you are unfamiliar with. – Chan-Ho Suh Dec 27 '18 at 0:42
• @Chan-HoSuh There's no technical weakness -- a total order makes more sense than a partial order. For instance, if I declared Movie X my favourite and someone said they preferred Movie Y, my argument wouldn't be "the order isn't defined at all for Movie Y", it would be to compare Movie X to Movie Y. This is just a silly argument. – testing00k Dec 28 '18 at 7:05
• so I guess you have never heard someone say "I don't know if I prefer X to Y"? My comment was just to nudge you toward rethinking and maybe even searching through academic literature so you could see why your thinking is not flawless. Given your reaction, I'm pretty sure I'd fail you if I were the interviewer.. – Chan-Ho Suh Dec 28 '18 at 15:13
• @Chan-HoSuh "I don't know if I prefer X to Y" is not the same as "it makes no sense to compare between X and Y". Of course there are applications in which a partial ordering makes sense, this simply isn't one. – testing00k Dec 28 '18 at 15:59
• I'm getting the sense you don't understand what a partial ordering is or how it applies to preferences. An absence of a relation is simply that, and can result from many reasons, not just that it "makes no sense". – Chan-Ho Suh Dec 28 '18 at 16:06

Imagine the following: you identify a bug in a piece of production code. You go to your boss and present it to them. Your boss asks you what your favorite way to approach this problem would be, and you respond:

"I'm not sure what the word favorite means -- I don't know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of approaches -- but here's an approach I like: _____ ..."

Quite frankly, that would be a terrible response. It's very difficult to respond to, fairly blunt, and it doesn't really clear a whole bunch up. It just tells your boss you didn't think the question was well-formed with little attempt to clarify.

"I'm not sure what the word favorite means here -- If we're after the fastest approach to clear the bug, I like approach ______. For optimizing maintainability, we could go with approach ________. Personally, I think approach ______ gives us the best comprimise of the two.

Rather than simply shut down the question by claiming it's poorly formed, this second approach addresses the vague nature of "favorite", but goes a step further to try and get to the core of the question: what approach do you suggest? It's true the question isn't as specific as it could be, but you still understand its general intent (after all, you "gave an expected answer"). There's little merit to making your boss/coworkers jump through hoops to craft a fine and specific question, and doing so to your interviewer will reflect negatively.

That's not to say you should always give the stock answer you think they're looking for. It may very well be intentional that the question is vague; they may be trying to see how you respond to a poorly-formed question. I personally agree that you should challenge that question a little, but you still have to make an attempt at it instead of rejecting it out of hand. For example, I might answer with:

Well that depends on what you mean by favorite. The Big Lebowski makes me laugh the hardest, but on the other hand, Shindler's List probably moves me the most. If you mean the movie I'm most willing to watch at any moment though, it's got to be LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring.

This addresses that you think the question is imprecise, but it also still acknowledges the core question: what movie do you like the most. You've laid out your thought process and reason behind each suggestion, covering a good number of bases, and left room for your interviewer to provide a little more clarification if need be.

Regarding your edit: You can still easily keep in line with your humor approach (if it feels appropriate) after offering an initial response, I would just focus the humor on your answer rather than a potential flaw in the question. For example, in a banking interview, you could follow up the given example with (disclaimer, I am not a banker):

I find it has the smallest diminishing returns on rewatchability, thereby maximizing marginal utility per view in the general case.

I would just be sure to present it in such a way that it's clear you're joking.

• "I'm not sure what the word favorite means here -- If we're after the fastest approach to clear the bug..." is still ridiculously verbose and wishy-washy. It can be streamlined to sound much stronger as "Which approach is my favorite depends on the delivery time constraints I'm trying to meet. When rapid deployment of a fix matters, I like ________. Otherwise, I like ___________ because [maintainability or whatever]." – R.. Dec 22 '18 at 3:08
• @R.. I prefer the wording in the answer. The OP does not understand how the word favorite applies on the context of the question. This answer makes the lack of clarity clear (important for good communication) and pivots to clearer language. Your suggestion is to continue to try to use the word causing confusion in the context it is causing confusion in. – Eric Dec 22 '18 at 16:59
• @Eric: I think that's a valid perspective too. – R.. Dec 22 '18 at 17:03

Interviewers are (usually) looking at thought processes and behaviors that will fit well in their organization as much as they're looking for a specific answer - especially with irrelevant questions like that (your job probably doesn't depend directly on your movie preferences).

In other words, sometimes, they care how you answer as much as what you answer.

So, when deciding how to respond, use any context clues you have. If the job you're interviewing for has to do with mathematics or programming, something like the thought you had might delight the interviewers. If you're applying for a job in childhood education, something like that might leave them thinking it'll be really hard for you to connect with 6 year old children.

All interview questions should be answered honestly, but also thoughtfully. It's usually better to pause and collect your thoughts, then answer, versus blurting something out - before and during the interview, start gathering those context clues (the type of role, the culture of the employer, etc) and base your answer on that.

To rephrase and focus specifically on this sort of "irrelevant" question, having an answer and an explanation is just as important as the content. Consider the difference between,

I like Star Wars because it's so good!!!

Whether or not the interviewer likes Star Wars, there just isn't much depth shown here.

Versus,

I'm a fan of Tron: Legacy because it gives us the chance to explore what it would be like to spend time with someone you thought was totally gone from your life.

Now you're at least showing some thought, even if you're not challenging the question.

Or, to rephrase your proposed frame-challenging response,

I have a hard time picking a single favorite - there are lots of movies I enjoy for different reasons. Star Wars is great when I want a simple, classic scifi movie. But I'm also a fan of complex dramas or just watching a rom com with friends. I find having a single favorite movie can sometimes even parallel programming preferences - rather than have a single favorite language to develop in, I enjoy knowing several and trying to match them according to the context I'm working in at the moment.

Now you're showing some thought process, and you're tying it back into the interview context. You don't always need to have a long winded explanation and you want to avoid stretching things too much (yes, my sample answer is a bit of a stretch) but you also want to avoid missing the opportunity to understand what it is they're looking for, and show that you've got it.

• Pretty much this: the interviewer is polling for soft skills and personality types with questions like these. But even for hard science jobs those soft skills are important and an overly pedantic answer could signal a lack of social grace that can be an issue for a candidate. – Lilienthal Dec 21 '18 at 11:56
• The only right answer is your explanation for your choice, but there are a few potentially wrong answers. I wouldn't wax poetic about a love for the human centipede movies, for instance, unless the interview is being conducted by the director. – Eric Hauenstein Dec 21 '18 at 14:40
• "If the job you're interviewing for has to do with mathematics or programming. something like the thought you had might delight the interviewers" I interview programming candidates. If someone played pedantics with one of my questions, it'd be a red flag, because it shows that they're unable to see through to the heart of the question. I wouldn't want them to be constantly playing these games when Product is trying to get estimates out of them. – SethWhite Dec 21 '18 at 15:27
• The last sale expresses the same concept while simultaneously showing a willingness to participate in further dialog. OP's original phrasing shuts down any further discourse. – bruglesco Dec 21 '18 at 16:06
• @Lilienthal So saying "American Psycho because I identify with Patrick Bateman so much" might not be the best answer? – Kevin Dec 21 '18 at 17:29

It probably depends on the job you are interviewing for. Are they looking for a critical thinker, maybe an academic? Will your job be to translate management questions to technical specifications? yes, you could get away with something like this.

But mostly no. Most jobs are looking for easy communicators who can answer simple questions with simple answers.

And in this specific example "I don't know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of movies" just screams "smugness personified, who likes too-long words" so I would go with something along the lines of: "hmm, hard question to name just one favorite, but I quite like (movie)"

• Someone who's job it is to translate management talk to technical specs is the very last person who can get away with this. The job is literally to take fuzzy requirements like "favorite" and have a dialog until you get to some concrete request that you can then fulfill...and, by the way, they need to not hate you at the end of the process. Even technical people who work primarily with other technical people need to be flexible and able to translate common language into technical terms without being argumentative about it. – user3067860 Dec 21 '18 at 18:11

Is an answer like this acceptable or should I just give an answer they expect?

Based on the answer you actually gave, I think you know that the answer in your head was ridiculous, assuming you actually wanted to get the job. Playing "let's argue the meaning of a common word" with an interviewer is always a losing game.

Hold your tongue, give the expected answer, and you'll have a chance to succeed in the interview.

Save your inside mathematical jokes for non-interview situations.

• I upvoted your answer n^0 times because I wanted to show my appreciation of strength: `s = v + q/s`. I choose to decline your interpretation of the word Joe and find it's ranking function as a name to be quite simplistic for the nature of this account. – insidesin Dec 24 '18 at 6:39

I know it was just practise - this time - but, in real life, if you want the job, then you will give an answer along the lines that they expect.

Knowing that, try to give an answer that reflects you in a positive light, and, if possible, is relevant to the job that you are interviewing for.

Alas, criticism of the question risks being conflated with criticism of the questioner, so I would advise strongly against that.

"I'm not sure what the word favorite means -- I don't know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of movies -- but here's a movie I like: _____ ..."

Is an answer like this acceptable or should I just give an answer they expect?

No, probably not acceptable because you want to build rapport with the interviewer(s).
This type question would likely come at (or near) the beginning of an interview as a "break the ice" question just to get you talking. Give them a movie that they've likely heard of or seen that doesn't raise any red flags.

For example a "red flag" movie might be "Blazing Saddles" (it's about an inbred white redneck town's reaction to a black sheriff). If you've seen and enjoyed it, you realize it is a slapstick Mel Brooks comedy where the townspeople (all named Johnson) come to realize racism is bad and welcome various ethnicities to settle in their town as equals. If you just see a couple clips from YouTube... no telling what you'd think of it.

However...
If you are past the pleasantries when this is asked, it is not for 'get to know you' reasons.
In that case, they may be trying to see how you think... use what was in your head.
In other words, once you're past the banal pleasantries geek out... be yourself! (You're going to be working with these people, let them see the real you.)

"I would speak the response I gave in a tone of partial humour -- the joke is to..."

Given that clarification, I would say your response works in the 'pleasantries' section of an interview also.

• In my experience, often questions like this actually come at the end of the interview. After they've gotten through the important technical stuff, they might want to get to know more of your personality. – Barmar Dec 21 '18 at 21:48

Assuming the example given is accurate, this seems less about challenging the premise and more about being pedantic. While the argument initially makes a valid objection in claiming "favorite" is an ambiguous term, you then go ahead and name a movie anyway. Imagine an interviewer thinking, "couldn't you have just told me the movie without the lecture?"

Granted, the interviewer might also be impressed by what a clever and original response you gave. But it is clearly not reasonable to have this as a baseline assumption. Most will not. If you have reason to believe that the particular company you're talking to is likely to appreciate such a response, then you haven't mentioned it in your post.

I think usually interviewers are not clueless people who just play it be ear and hire whoever gives them the best vibe. They tend to prepare some questions, and there's usually a point to asking every question, ie. it's not irrelevant. So when you get asks you what your favorite movie is, they are probably more interested in the movie, rather than you musings on what "favorite" means. Otherwise they would have asked, "do you think it makes sense to have a favorite movie?". In theory it's possible that your remark is so witty that inspires the interviewer to become more interested in the latter question - but probably not. Besides, it's easier to compare candidates when everyone answers the same questions, instead of rejecting the ones given and answering their own.

Another issue I see here is tone. Usually it's a good idea to match an interviewer's level of speaking. If they use "like i'm 5" type language, you don't want to use big academic terms. If they use precise specialized terminology, you don't want to answer in "plain language". You can break this rule when you really know what you're doing, but in this case I just don't see what you are gaining by suddenly and dramatically escalating a simple, basic question to a high brow philosophical discourse. On the other hand, the interviewer might think you're being condescending or self-important, and get annoyed. Which you don't want.

• "I think usually interviewers are not clueless people", perhaps but that question about a favourite movie suggests otherwise. If I knew a coworker was using that question in an interview, I'd challenge her/him how an answer to the question influences the hire/not-hire decision. – Abigail Dec 22 '18 at 12:30

You may answer anything you like.

The interviewer will decide accordingly whether you're qualified and a fit for the company or not.

• You want to steer their impression?
Tell them what you assume they want to hear but it's dishonest and good interviewers will see right through it.

• if you don't want to give personal information just ignore the question

• if you don't have a favourite movie you may say that.

Personal questions are often asked to find out about interests and personality besides the professional information.

Im not keen on the first part of your answer - you should know what favourite means (; nor is it necessary to explain the erroneous concept of favourite to the interviewer - but just the end part is fine.

Unless you apply for a job encompassing Academia,Philosophy or Linguistics I don't see a reason to argue about the meaning or incomplete / non existent list of variables,assumptions or conditions to be met.

If you want it to be an inside joke you should have explained to us.
Irony is difficult to spot in writing on top of that.

Another thing:
INSIDE JOKES work ONLY if you KNOW your audience understands,
i.e. your interviewer who may just be from HR or management btw.

• The problem isn't that it's a personal question. – Beanluc Dec 22 '18 at 0:06
• @Beanluc well,that's ominous.Unless he applies for a job encompassing Academia,Philosophy or linguistics I don't see a reason to argue about the meaning or incomplete / non existent list of variables,assumptions or conditions to be met.It is a simple question about what his favourite movie is.Personal and descriptive of his personality traits.Mind you, his answer is just as good to shed a light on his personality.That's also why I said he can answer anything he wants and that is fact.If he wants it to be an inside joke he should have explained.Irony is difficult to spot in writing. – DigitalBlade969 Dec 22 '18 at 6:09

A better response would have been

Favorite? Oh, that's so hard; because, I have a lot of favorites depending on what kind of movie! My favorite Ganster movie is Scarface My favorite comedy movie it The Princess Bride My favorite sappy, impossible romance movie is, Sleepless in Seattle My favorite "just for fun" movie is Big.

and then they'll get the idea that you don't have a favorite movie, but your have many favorite movies, perhaps even to the point of creating new fictional categories to ensure that NO MOVIE IS LEFT BEHIND.

By pushing back and asking them to define favorite, you rejected the premise of their question. This is undeniably bad. Among the many things they want to know, they want to know if you are manageable. A person that won't even answer a question badly, probably will reject other commentary that doesn't fit with their mental world. So (for example) in their mind, if they asked you "why did you treat the customer poorly?" they'll imagine you'll start off on what is the definition of the word "poorly?"

What they would like in these situations, is clarifying questions, not confrontational ones. To illustrate:

I love movies, do I have to list only one? I mean my favorite Romance isn't my favorite Action flick!"

With a little imagination, you can easily come up with a "temporal" favorite, not tying you down to a strong choice:

Oh my favorites in film are so fickle. They're always coming out with stuff that's good, and sometimes I find some really old or odd movie that blows me away. Have you seen Citizen Kane? It's incredible, I saw it last week.

Or you could just go with some odd reason you liked a film, even if it's deplorably bad.

I really liked Ella Enchanted, even though it sucks. Probably because I liked the book, and the lead actress really did an outstanding job, but it seems that every other part of the film was horrible.

So now you have a few more strategies; but, remember to answer the question, and if you don't want to justify your choice, make the choice intensely personal.

My favorite is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels because it was the first film I watched with my high school sweetheart, and we would always joke about how it totally wasn't a date film afterwards.

The key to interview questions is not to answer correctly, but to let yourself shine through in a way that still indicates you are a good person who wants the job, and is going to do it well.

Unfortunately, little "math inside jokes" don't reflect these points. (Even if I got the joke).

The interviewer doesn't really want an answer to their question. They want to decide if you are a person that they should hire. Having good knowledge is helpful, getting along with others is necessary. Depending on the position you apply for, following orders may be important for some position, questioning things and improving everything as a result may be important for another position.

If the company wants someone who does as they are told, then challenging a question may cost you the job. On the other hand, if you want to be responsible for yourself and don't want that kind of job, then you didn't want that job anyway.

Giving the answer they expect from you is better to get the job. You rejecting the premise of a question, or just you giving an interesting answer may actually be what they expect from you. But always remember that an interview goes both ways.

Interview to work at a bank?

A bank deals with numbers and a thus with a lot of math (interest rates, stocks, probability, insurances, etc.)

To say: "I'm not sure what the word favorite means -- I don't know of an operationalisation of favoriteness in a linearly ordered set with an injective function from the set of movies -- but here's a movie I like: _____ ..."

Is to say an inside mathematical joke, so if you're applying for like a mathematical job in a bank, like risk analysis, accounting, etc. Then say it! I would personally hire you on the spot.

But if you're applying for like customer service or whatnot, probably not the best answer.

In the end, you shouldn't change yourself or portray as someone else, if you do, the bank in question is not worthy of you.

Either way there ain't no wrong answer, you trying to twist the answer to show some nerdy joke is better than someone who blunt out says for ex. the notebook.

It's like applying for IT job and saying: 'The amount of variables needed to process that kind of questions requires a lot of memory, but I'll go with the matrix'

It's like applying for a job in a bakery and saying: 'Any french movie will do, cause I love croissants but don't worry I won't eat yours'

Etc.

Make them want you, not the other way around.