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I had an in-person interview this week with a few "personality questions" that I thought were odd but still gave an answer for, but for this one I had to say "I can't think of anything I'm willing to share" and I feel like it hurt my chances. I asked for clarification on whether he meant personally or professionally and he said either is fine.

Is there something obvious that they're trying to ask with this that I missed? Is this a normal question and I should prepare a proper answer for the future?

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This is one of those questions you need to be very careful answering in case you fall into traps: revealing insanely personal things the interviewer doesn't want to know, or things most people would dislike about you that you don't share with your friends, or things they are not allowed to consider in hiring like your religion, sexuality, and so on. If you've considered it in advance, you should be able to make a story that is true and positive.

First and foremost this needs to be true. Don't think about what you can invent. Second, it needs to be a good thing, like being smart or a hard worker or very honest or patient or whatever. Third, there needs to be a reason your friends don't know. For example, perhaps most of your friends are not in your industry and don't know how crazy good you are at something that's very relevant to the job you're applying to. Or they don't know that you dream of a particular technical achievement (writing a book, delivering the keynote at a particular conference, writing a paper that becomes part of the standard for your language, etc.) Or your friends are in your industry and they just think you're talented and don't know that you put in an hour a night watching conference talks which is why you know things they don't.

This is a handy ability to have - tell us something about you - so practicing it now won't be a waste of time. The wrinkle that your friends don't know it makes it a little harder, but you should be able to, in the more relaxed time you know have, come up with something. Practice saying it in a reasonable number of sentences: 3 or 4 is probably right.

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    If an interviewer is offended by who I choose to date, then I've avoided a bad employer, not made a mistake in my interview. The level of filtering you're encouraging is excessive. While an interviewer should not ask about age/sex/religious views/etc., there is no reason to not share such things if an individual is comfortable. – Jay Jul 20 at 17:59
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    large companies have been known to stop the interviewing process if an interviewer asks a question that produces an answer that strays into these areas: partly because some interviewers want to hire certain religions or the like. It's not just about avoiding a place that would treat you poorly. Consider also that the HR screener might like to screen out gay people while the engineers would be happy to work with them. Many reasons to stay away from personal characteristics in an interview. – Kate Gregory Jul 20 at 19:28
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It's okay to decline to answer an interview question, but it most likely gives the interviewer a negative impression. You did the right thing be honest with the interviewer that you don't have an answer instead of giving an answer to a different question or making up an answer. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare and it would take a very mature and practiced interviewer to prevent the exchange from adding a negative bias to his/her assessment.

However, I think the question lies in the category of "getting to know you" and can be answered pretty safely. Part of these personal (not behavioral) questions is about being vulnerable and genuine with your interviewer (and eventually with your future colleagues). Some potential answers might sound like:

  • "Well, my friends know just about everything about me, but they're always surprised when I..." (For me: bring up my love of waterskiing)
  • "I don't know why, but I'm always a little embarrassed to share..." (I used to ride a motorcycle)
  • "There are some photos of me _______ as a kid that I'm sure my friends would love to see, but I'm keeping them quiet for now." (Making huge sandcastles)
  • "I used to _______ all the time, but I haven't for a while. I'm sure my friends would be astonished to see me _______ now." (Play handbells)
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I'm not convinced that "how should I have put this?" is always the best use of reflection time: it often turns into something excessively specific and out of reach at the time. I am spending a good few minutes just wording this answer. You couldn't have done that in an interview. Even so, there are ways of spinning your non answer that convey a more positive sentiment.

"Actually I consider confidentiality hugely important and wouldn't tell my friends a whole bunch of other people's personal or professional secrets. You'll understand that I can't be more specific here."

"Actually I am fairly open about most things, and what my friends don't know wouldn't be professional of me to share."

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