how to answer when an interviewer asks “what do you do outside of work?”

what to say if an interviewer asks about your favorite books or movies

I’m traveling to do some book promotion this week, so I’m running some reprints this week. This was originally published in 2014.

A reader writes:

I have a question about an interview that I’m pretty sure I bombed recently. Things were going fairly well until my interviewer asked me for my favorite book and favorite movie. I completely blanked and took way too long to answer, and I’m not even sure what I said for them (I think I said Little Women for the book). I spent so much time preparing to talk about my background and experiences and the job that I wasn’t prepared for more off-the-wall questions (my fault, I know).

My question is, what are interviewers looking for with these questions? I mean, obviously I guess they want someone who is intelligent, can think on their feet (which I did not do), and has varied interests, but how do you convey that with these types of answers? I can come up with an answer to the book question now (I’m planning to say I’ve been into Neil deGrasse Tyson’s books recently, because I have), but I’m stumped as far as movies in case I get asked this again. My movie tastes aren’t exactly sophisticated (Mean Girls? Boondock Saints? Fight Club? When Harry Met Sally?). Is this a question you find helpful or not?

I don’t ask these sorts of questions unless I’m really having trouble getting a sense of someone and am looking for ways to draw them out, and then I might – but some interviewers use them routinely. They’re mostly just looking to get a better sense of who you are — to flesh you out as a person who they’d be working with day in and day out rather than just as a resume and work history. Sometimes hearing that the guy who seemed shy and a little stiff actually loves Wes Anderson movies and Sarah Vowell can show a different side of him and make him more relatable.

Obviously, there still are bad answers. If you said Twilight, I’d wonder about your judgment for saying it in an interview — although it wouldn’t stop me from hiring you if you were otherwise great (but 50 Shades of Grey might). But generally answers to these questions fall in the “mildly interesting but not terribly important” category.

Say it with confidence and genuine enthusiasm, and you’re probably fine. People who are passionate about things are interesting.

That said, are there interviewers who have rigid ideas about what answers are okay here and which aren’t, and who will read all sorts of things into your response? Sure. But that’s true of most interview questions.

Personally, for movies I’d probably go with, “I’m not sure about a favorite, but I recently saw ____ and loved it. Have you seen it?” (Fill in the blank with something of reasonable quality.) And for books, I’d go with “I’m currently reading ___ and I just finished ___” or “I tend to read a lot of (fill in genre here) and recently finished ____.” Of course, some genres are safer than others — some people have weird biases against sci-fi, fantasy, and romance. But historic fiction, contemporary fiction, nonfiction, biographies, 18th century British novels, etc. are all fine.

Overall, though, I just wouldn’t read too much into the question or stress too much over your answer.

what to say if an interviewer asks about your favorite books or movies was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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