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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates

In the December 12, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager gets fed up with behavioral interview  questions and wants to know how to really judge a job applicant. 

Question

behavioral interview

My HR department insists I use a list of 30 Essential Behavioral Interview Questions published by LinkedIn when I meet with job applicants. These are the questions 1,300 hiring managers said they use.

The questions are canned and don’t reveal whether a candidate could do the job if I hired them. It feels silly to ask these questions because it’s like dancing around the REAL question — whether the person can do the job! What do I care how they handled a difficult situation at their last job, when they have no idea what a really difficult situation is at my company?

I haven’t gotten busted yet, but I’m one hiring manager who doesn’t use the behavioral questions. Maybe there’s something I don’t get. Do you advocate using them and, if you do, please explain the benefits.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t use behavioral interview questions. Like you, I think the practice is silly — and it’s frankly lame because, as you suggest, it’s like “dancing around the real question.” Behavioral interviews are indirect assessments that create more guesswork instead of enabling a manager to directly assess whether an applicant can do the work.

You don’t say how you interview and assess job candidates, but you hint that you focus your interviews on a direct assessment of whether the person can do the job you need to fill.

If we could all hire only great people who perform to their max, we’d all be rich. But choosing and managing new hires is a dicey proposition. I’ll warn you that my approach to interviewing job applicants will result in some of them canceling the interviews you schedule. No worries — it’ll just save you time.

The problem with behavioral interview questions

Loads of candidate assessment methods have come and gone through the decades. My own approach as a headhunter is to get one key question answered before I go on to other assessments.

Can the candidate demonstrate that he or she can actually do the job?

Surprisingly, that’s left out of most job interviews. Instead of getting a demonstration, most employers do an indirect assessment. They ask job applicants the popular set of “behavioral interview” questions, hoping they can read between the lines of a person’s answers about how they handled certain situations in the past. (Job seekers: See The Basics.)

If your HR requires you to use behavioral interviews, I agree that not getting busted for not using them should be your goal!

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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions

Here’s my take on some of the lame questions LinkedIn suggests — and 3 anti-behavioral interview alternatives that actually nudge candidates to demonstrate how they’ll do the work. These are direct assessments because you’ll be talking about your team, your work, your job — not about some hypothetical situation that you don’t even know the applicant is telling the truth about.

Behavioral Question #1:

“Tell me about the biggest change that you have had to deal with. How did you adapt to that change?”

My anti version:

“We hit a challenge with the project you’ll be working on if we hire you. [Describe the problem or challenge in detail.] How would you approach that?”

That’s is a discussion about real change. You can of course ask the applicant about similar issues they’ve faced at other jobs. But if you focus on specific issues you’re facing, you’ll quickly learn not just how the person approaches work; you’ll learn a lot about problem-solving abilities that are relevant to you.

Behavioral Question #2:

“Tell me about a time in the last week when you’ve been satisfied, energized, and productive at work. What were you doing?”

My anti version:

Don’t ask a question. Invite the applicant to spend a couple of hours with your team in a live work meeting about a live project. Sit in on the meeting, but don’t say anything. Watch and listen. My guess is you’ll learn most of what you need to know about the candidate’s style and motivation, and it’ll be relevant to your setting, not someone else’s.

Behavioral Question #3:

“Describe a time when you volunteered to expand your knowledge at work, as opposed to being directed to do so.”

My anti version:

“Now that we’ve discussed the deliverables we’d expect from you on this job, please list the three relevant areas where you’d need to expand your knowledge. This is not a loaded question — I expect you’ll be learning as you go. Then outline how you’d get that knowledge and what you’d need from me to help you do it.”

I’m sure you see the difference in the questions. Though it may be interesting, I don’t care so much how you handled something at your last job. After all, I’m not hiring you for your past performance. I want a demonstration of how you’ll do this job for me.

Behavioral interview answers can be faked

Like other canned interview questions, clever candidates can study any of a number of books that list loads of typical behavioral interview questions. If you ask, “Tell me about a time when…”, you have no idea whether the experience the candidate discusses is real or from a book.

When you ask the questions I suggest, the applicant has to deal with a real-life situation from your business. You get to see how they’d handle a problem or challenge in the present or in the future. I can’t confirm what an applicant did in the past, so let’s talk shop on my turf, about the work I need done.

Learn more about the Working Interview in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, “How can I demonstrate my value?” pp. 8-9.

The book includes “How to do a Working Interview,” “What’s your business plan for this job?” and 10 other methods to show you’re the profitable hire — plus 8 How to Say It tips.

How to cull out the weak applicants

Now I’ll leave you with an unexpected suggestion to get the most out of your interviews. Let a candidate know in advance what you’re going to ask about.

Surprise every candidate. Call them in advance of your interview. (If they’re worth a face-to-face meeting, they’re worth calling first!) Outline the work, projects and challenges you want them to discuss with you and your team when they arrive. Let them prepare, just like you expect your employees prepare when you give them an assignment.

Heck, help them prepare. You want them to succeed, right? The best candidates will show up ready to rumble. (Check this article I wrote for CMO.com: Why You Should Treat Job Applicants Like Consultants.)

If you’re a job seeker, be ready for this kind of job interview! You cannot fake it, but you can Prove you deserve a higher job offer.
Those who don’t want to do the preparation such a “working interview” requires will cancel their interviews. They’re the weak candidates.

Like I said, that saves you time.

The best candidates will be prepared, ready to rumble, and excited about talking shop with you and your team. You’ll actually see their behavior in your real-life work setting!

Do behavioral interviews work? Or are they just another trick that prevents a manager and job applicant from getting to really know one another? If you’re a manager, how do you directly assess someone’s ability to do the work during a job interview?

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32 Comments
  1. Nick, I agree with folks who think behavioral questions prove little or nothing. All too often, interviewers who may not be the actual hiring manager(s) ask these silly, canned questions and they really show a lack of imagination and appreciation for what the position that needs filling is all about.

    However, one of your suggestions that I disagree with is the pre-interview call where you give the candidate an assignment just like current employees is a situation where I see a potential for great abuse. My friend Dee (who often posts comments here) has said several times that she has been requested or required to provide samples of work or is given an alleged hypothetical assignment that actually ends up providing the hiring company with free labor. My brother, whose career has been spent in marketing communications told me the same thing and now, categorically refuses to do so.

    As for questions about change: where I work now as a contractor in IT Strategic Sourcing, we have a relatively new director, an Industrial Engineer by education and temperament who is more focused on “process” than results. He also comes out of the consulting word and I suspect he’s never really done the heavy lifting of real negotiations, vendor management, contracts administration and all of the other tasks associated with what we do.

    We recently had a vacancy in our department that he filled internally. The candidate he hired had ZERO Sourcing experience, came from Finance, also had a consulting background and an MBA from a top name business grad school. When I questioned him on what he thought his contribution to the team was, he answered too glibly, “my complete understanding of finance.”

    Well gee, that’s great, but have you ever negotiated a deal to a successful outcome? How do you manage difficult suppliers as well as major internal stakeholders? For my questioning, I received back the “deer in the headlights death stare.” Remember, this was an internal candidate and NO outside applicants were interviewed. This individual has been in the job six months now and has contributed ZERO by way of documented cost savings.

    He does do nice charts though!

    Had I been the hiring manager, this candidate, who is a really nice person would still be in Finance as he lacked the minimum necessary experience to do what we need done. To top it off, he is assigned to one of the most demanding spend categories we have with the least cooperative senior stakeholders.

    Behavioral interview questions would not have helped here, either. But experience counts, as it almost always does in that even by itself, past experiences can help prepare a person for significant problems that can pop up. Companies that do not use the candidate’s experience in similar roles do themselves, candidates and recruiters huge dis-services during the hiring process.

    For myself, when I see a laundry list of behavioral questions thrown at me, I try to turn the interview back in the direction of what the hiring manager needs done and how my background will help them. Everything else is just a massive time waster.

    • @Paul: I regularly caution readers about not falling into the trap of doing free work during the interview process. Certain Silicon Valley companies used to be notorious for this when they “interviewed” engineering candidates. “Here, go spend 2 weeks on this design, send it back to us, and we’ll use it to evaluate you.” They’d take the work for free and never call back. It’s a nasty thing to do.

      There are simple ways to draw a line when demonstrating what you can do, with a knowing smile, and sometimes with a friendly offer to step in on a consulting basis to do the work “while you find a suitable candidate.” Many ways to get around inappropriate requests. Nonetheless, I think it’s key to show what you can do.

      Loved your story. Consultants do take care of their brethren.

  2. Nick; This is a question as well as an answer. My question is: should I really be bonding with my co-workers? Now my answer to the behavioral question.

    This is what I did that got me a temp job. The co-workers were a generation and a half younger than me, they had little experience and no direction in their careers. Most of the time I would be dealing with a lot of insecurity and baggage but made them look at their own hangups and getting them to work around it. They were so thrilled to work with me and viewed me as a mentor to learn from and treated me like a rock star. The actual quantifiable core tasks in reality was nothing job. What I got out of the deal was a big leg up on tuning my soft skills.

    Needless to say, even though the position ended, These “kids” are looking for and angle to get me back in the organization in some other capacity. The rest of the management team has has as much charisma as a toad on a log.

    This would be my reply
    Q. Tell me about the biggest change that you have had to deal with. How did you adapt to that change?
    A. You must have some real sticky wicket problems here, tell me specifically about them and this is how I would solve them
    Q. “Tell me about a time in the last week when you’ve been satisfied, energized, and productive at work. What were you doing?”
    A. I just met one of my new co-workers to be. He was bright, cool and awesome but so insecure .He has much to offer with my leadership. I want to meet the rest of the group, where are you hiding them?
    Q.“Describe a time when you volunteered to expand your knowledge at work, as opposed to being directed to do so.”
    A. I didn’t wait for the time for the opportunity to volunteer but preemptively took action as the next logical step in directing the team solve a vexing problem involving leadership that was way out of my wheelhouse as far as any kind of formal training and education would provide.

    • Eddie,
      I too took a seasonal job last summer where I was the oldest one there even older the management staff. Most everyone was a college student pursing physician degrees. We were all newly certified EMTs.
      Since I’m officially retired from Engineering and don’t really need to work, I decided to have some fun with the interviewer. Also I was invited to apply by the manager of the dept and they were desperate to staff up for the summer. I suspected that I could answer these goofy behavioral interview questions any way I wanted short of outright swearing.
      So here was one of the questions and my response
      Sub manager: “How would you handle a dispute with your manager, and don’t say you would retire”
      Me: “I would give her fair warning, then announce my retirement if I didn’t get satisfaction. I find this approach cuts through the BS quickly”
      Sub manger: “You can’t answer that way”
      Me: “Well, I just did, next question”
      I was hired and had a great season working with the kids and plan to do it again this year. I just received a hand written note from the manager asking me to return without needing to interview again.

      • @Felix: Great answers! Maybe we oughta collect about a hundred and package them up. Come on, folks — let’s have more!

    • @Eddie: You just explained why employers demonstrate rank stupidity when they edge older workers (aka, institutional knowledge) out, or refuse to hire them.

      But you’re also a relatively rare example of an older worker who knows how to deftly be a mentor who is respected by younger workers. That makes you incredibly valuable. I wish more workers “up there in years” would learn how to cultivate that kind of air and behavior.

      “Millennials” (translation: the current new generation, in any time period) are not given enough credit, on the whole, for recognizing mentorship. Thanks for the reminder!

      You should absolutely be bonding with your co-workers. Here’s why. There is no such thing as a “company” or an “employer.” Just groups of people working together. Solid groups of people survive any corporate structure and often wind up working together again, elsewhere, because they value one another so much. Keep on truckin’ with your co-workers!

      BTW, I love your answers!

      • Here is the rest of the story: My farewell memo to the CEO (redacted)
        From: Ellen
        To: Ed
        Subject: Re: Thank you

        Ed

        Thanks for the note. I hope your time here at XXX was fun and productive and wish you the best in your future endeavors. I am off
        site today and am assuming I will be missing your last day. If not will look for you tomorrow.

        Very best
        Ellen

        On , Ed wrote:

        Ellen, the first time I have seen you were about 4 days after I started work at XXX. At the corner of my eye I saw at a glance this
        woman who looked so strikingly similar to my Mom. I thought this may be someone’s’ mom dropping by to deliver their forgotten
        lunch. Not something out of character my Mom would do, in fact I repaid her the favor when she was working up the road where I got to meet my surrogate brothers and sisters there.

        You had walked on but I had the presence of mind to ask who the woman was. The answer was she is the CEO. Then it dawned on me. I get it; She is Mom to all of us.

        Ellen, thank you for granting me the honor and privilege to work with your “children” They’re so cool and they are just so awesome.

        Don’t lose sight on the small stuff. Life is too short.

        Ed

  3. Ask a silly canned question, get a silly canned answer.

    • @Rich: I call them “The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions.” The classic: What’s your greatest weakness? And the classic answer: Chocolate.

      • which brings to mind one of my favorites, probably urban legend, but nevertheless a great recruiter story.

        Recruiter to hardened retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant “What is your greatest weakness”

        Gunny. “Honesty”

        Recruiter. “I don’t think honesty is a weakness”

        Gunny. ” I don’t give a shit what you think.”

      • I read that a young lady answered: “Shoes’, to the greatest weakness question and apparently did get the job.

      • What do I say if “chocolate” is true?

        Asking for a friend… ;)

        • @Karsten: Please tell your friend it’s fine to say chocolate. But then the friend should ask: “What’s the biggest weakness in the way this job is being done now? I’d like to outline how I’d do it better. I think that will tell you a lot more about me than chocolate.” While smiling, of course.

          If the manager can’t answer meaningfully, end the interview.

      • @Nick: How would Superman answer that one in an interview? “Besides caring too much? I’d probably have to go with Kryptonite.”

        https://condenaststore.com/featured/superman-sits-at-a-job-interview-jason-adam-katzenstein.html

        (You know that things are out of control when stupid interview questions are the subject of New Yorker cartoons!) Here are a couple of other captions from New Yorker cartoons (by Drew Panckeri):

        “My greatest asset is my ability to tell you exactly what you want to hear.”

        “In five years, I see myself with the same job title, about the same salary, and significantly more responsibilities.”

        • I had an interview a few week ago where they actually asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I think this is one of the all-time dumb questions. I told them that I don’t think that way, life has too many surprises, so I think in terms of keeping my options open and looking out for new opportunities.

          I didn’t get the job.

  4. Agree with Rich. The whole approach of a fixed set of questions, behavioral or otherwise goes against the grain. It insults the intelligence of both the applicant and the interviewer. Especially, especially when there’s 20 of them. As if word doesn’t get around that this company rigidly uses the canned question approach, and that the applicant can’t go to the same source, and research “ideal”/canned answers as Rich notes. Canned questions are particularly annoying when you doing phone interviews. If you’ve ever been interviewed via a list of questions, you’d know why it’s counter productive. Apparently those HR people didn’t eat their own dog food.

    I much preferred conversations, & I’d allow plenty of time for them. I’d have questions of course, but they mostly differed as you’d expect for different people. In a good conversation most of the answers to my questions would come out and vs versa. And I liked to walk and talk, show people around, so they could see the environment, real people. And as Nick noted, invite candidates to talk to people that worked for me, sit in on meetings etc., have someone(s) take them to lunch. Give them a chance to get an answer to what should be top question of theirs…”What’s it like to work here, work for him, what do you do? what’s a day in your life look like.

    I’ve talked with managers who worked in companies that followed the mandatory question approach. they viewed them as time wasters and as such would start an interview by saying “I have to ask you these questions…so let’s get that out of the way so we can talk”

    I did have some favorite questions I’d ask, but my objective was to try and get some apples to apples comparison between candidates.
    1. As an in-house recruiter, “what do you know about the company?” You may think this is stupid, but you’d be amazed at the # of people, some high priced professionals, who’d walk in, knowing nothing about the company they would claim they could add some value to.

    2. An icebreaker, if it didn’t come up. “Tell me about one of your memorable accomplishments, one which gave you a lot of satisfaction…(clarifying ANY accomplishment, work, non work related etc. This was particularly helpful to a recent grad with no work experience or someone trying to change careers. This was an overt opportunity for the candidate to drive the discussion, talk shop, show some passion,

  5. It has been my hypothesis that behavioral interviewing, competency-based interviews, and STAR (situation, task, action, result) all came to the for with HR’s coup taking over the entire hiring process, especially the initial stages.

    HR and most modern “recruiters” are unqualified to read resumes, much less interview anybody. A “talent acquisition” manager, most likely with a degree in HR, sociology, or women’s studies, has no education or experience in any functional discipline–accounting, IT, finance, marketing, transportation, logistics, and supply-chain, etc. So they are incapable of carrying on a conversation about the subject at hand–the work to be done, the candidate’s prior experience and accomplishments, and what the candidate can contribute to the role.

    In step the creators of the behavioral claptrap to save the day to allow the HR flunkies to ask canned questions. The candidates who do well with such approaches are smooth talkers, good conversationalists, extroverts, and even consummate bullshit artists. Introverts don’t fare well.

    The most ridiculous thing about all this is that these methods are promoted on the basis that “past “behavior” is the best predictor of future performance,” which of course assumes that the methods truly do reveal past behavior or performance, rather than how good a line the candidate can spin.

    They never want to talk about your past accomplishments, especially ones highlighted on your resume–too much substance there (which they can’t comprehend).

    How did businessmen and businesses manage to survive and thrive from the 19th century up through the late 1990s without the panaceas being employed now?

    • Well said, Bill Freeto. HR has invented goofy “methods” and “best practices” because HR is simply not qualified to figure out whether a programmer, marketer, engineer, accountant, or anyone else, is qualified to be hired. So HR focuses on “criteria” manufactured to justify its role in hiring. Which should be limited to handling payroll and benefits.

  6. This is the same method that Gen. George C. Marshall used to promote Dwight Eisenhower after the Pearl Harbor attack. From https://history.army.mil/brochures/Ike/ike.htm :

    “Marshall knew Eisenhower by reputation as a man who would assume responsibility, but he put that reputation to a test immediately. When Eisenhower reported for duty, Marshall posed a problem to which he already knew the answer. He asked for a recommendation on how the entire Pacific strategy should be handled. Eisenhower returned to the Chief of Staff s office a few hours later and briefed a strategic concept with which Marshall agreed. The Chief of Staff ended the interview with clear instructions. ‘Eisenhower,’ he said, ‘the Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.'”

    Eisenhower’s plan for the Pacific, which was also Marshall’s plan, was to abandon the Philippines and take a defensive approach to Japan until Germany was defeated in Europe.

    There’s a great account of this in the book The Generals by Thomas Ricks, a book that has great examples of how to promote and how not to promote people into higher positions.

    https://www.amazon.com/Generals-American-Military-Command-World/dp/0143124099/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1513118706&sr=8-2&keywords=the+generals

  7. Yes, Bill Freeto, thank you for putting into written form what I’ve thought for a long time.

    Most interviews I’ve experienced were more or less an acting performance, focusing less on a true back-and-forth conversation about the position and more of being able to “field” the banal questions that do not allow me demonstrate my skills and history. One only needs to read one or two articles about “what to say when the interviewer asks this . . . ” to feel like there are expected answers to rote inquiries. The process has become a lesson in telling clueless people (HR and the like) what they want to hear while being charming and looking the “part” – (‘Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’).

    One place in particular had a process whereby the candidate was scheduled to speak with four people separately, all of which had a series of four different questions from which the candidate could select one question to answer. The kicker? None of the questions was at all related to the position – pharmaceutical research monitoring – absolutely none of them. No, these questions revolved around hypothetical SALES situations.

    I think I may have answered one question before finally looking like a deer in headlights and stated that I couldn’t pick any more questions because they were not relevant to my work in any fashion.

    Of course, that meant the interviewer had to scramble to think of something to ask me to continue the interview (Hmm . . . . what to say? What to ask? OMG!!) How dare this candidate deign to refuse to answer our perfectly-crafted questions! Yes, we (HR) will be sly and oh so manipulative with these questions specifically designed to throw candidates off guard. Anyone who dares to question this plan is rude and unprepared!

    Somehow I managed to briefly talk to all four people but I knew it was a dead-end deal. I imagine my post-interview review went something like this: “Who does she think she is?! She certainly can’t do the job nor would she fit in because she is not a team player” The assumptions go on and on.

    Only on rare occasion have I felt like I was talking to colleagues, enjoying a banter and camaraderie that has almost nothing to do with “getting” the position as it is a great exchange of industry ideas and perspective. This only happens once you get past HR and their crazy games.

    Least of all to mention is the phone screen performed by some twenty-something HR-minion whose only comment after everything I say is “awesome!”

    • @Face: When the interviewer stumbles or doesn’t know what to ask next, help them out. “Why don’t you lay out a live problem you’d want your new hire to handle. I’d like to show you how I’d tackle and do it. You might find that gives you some insight into whether you should hire me.”

  8. Hi Nick. Yes, I agree with your approach. I failed to mention in my post that I was able to introduce a few examples of my problem-solving and overall work competencies as best I could.

    My point being that it seems because I had the audacity to stray from their questions, my candidacy was rendered moot and I doubt that anyone heard a word about my skills and history. My guess is that in their opinion, because I was “incompetent” to answer their questions, I was “incompetent” to perform the tasks the job required.

  9. Love the answers “chocolate” or “shoes”! I’ll have to try that the next time I get that question.

    This is just more busy work for HR (justifies their jobs) and more hoops for candidates to jump through. I understand that fit is important, but there are better ways to figure that out without resorting to silly, inane questions.

  10. Beyond behavior questions . . I spend time observing body language. Studies have shown 55% of communication is body language. I recognize a phony based on no eye contact, weak handshake, shyness of confidence.

    • That’s terrible. Some people do not make much eye contact for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with their capability as employees. IIRC, people with autism often do not make much eye contact. In some cultures heavy eye contact is seen as disrespectful or aggressive. That’s just a couple examples off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

      • @Margaret,

        Bill mentioned introverts, which is what I was thinking at first, but you raise an excellent point. Those with autism, Aspergers, etc. might be good hires but they’ll be “off” socially. And you’re right about how eye contact and even shaking hands are considered in other cultures. In today’s world, the chances are greater that you will be working with or dealing with people from other countries and other cultures. If I know that making eye contact is a no-no in Japanese culture, or that a Muslim man won’t shake hands with a woman, it doesn’t make them incapable employees, especially if the jobs are behind the scenes and they’re not dealing with clients/customers.

  11. Wow…people who are shy, are introverts, and do not live up to our society’s fixation (or fetish) with extroverts are “phonies?”

    For an antidote, try out Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (or her TED talk on the subject).

    And don’t forget the old line “still waters run deep.”

    • It seems that in many ways the interview process is geared much more towards extroverts than introverts.

      For example, the panel interview where the extrovert might excel but the introvert would do much better in a one-on-one situation with an interviewer and build a rapport with the hiring manager. How can you build a rapport with six people at once, unless you are an extrovert?

    • @Bill: You beat me to it, but I was also thinking of Cain’s “Quiet”. There are many jobs in which an introvert would be the better hire, but not if the standard to meet is that of the extrovert.

  12. I LOVE the advice to help candidates prepare. Far too much interviewing relies on the element of surprise and the on-the-spot answer. It’s especially dumb when the job would normally require thinking, consulting with colleagues, and problem-solving over the course of days, weeks or months. I think employers favour the on-the-spot approach because it *seems* like a rational way to eliminate candidates (and I do think many selection processes are about finding reasons NOT to hire this or that candidate and whoever’s left standing gets the job). I also think this is to assuage the interviewer’s guilt about rejecting candidates.

  13. A colleague of mine and I both answered the question “what is your biggest weakness” the same exact way… she told a LIE and got the job while I answered honestly and did not. We were interviewing for the same sales role but for different territories. I answered “public speaking and I joined Toastmasters to overcome it” and even shared my ‘Rookie of the Year’ award to legitimize my answer to this ridiculous question. She later told me she answered by talking about Toastmasters because she knew I had joined and couldn’t think of anything else.

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