Say It With Confidence!

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When we are submitting a cover letter to a perspective employer, we want to showcase our skills and to communicate the fact that we have confidence.  In work preparedness classes we promote the idea that confident vocabulary and sentence structure is essential to having our cover letter read.  But where is the line between confidence and over confidence, and how do we teach that to our students?

I once received a homework assignment that was a sample cover letter written by a student.  The format was good, the sentences well formed, and there were no spelling mistakes. However, a few lines made me wince:  I am brilliant.  I am the best person that your company could hire.”  This surely was confidence, bordering on hubris, that may in fact have the same effect as grammatical error on the reader of the letter.  If I were the hiring manager, I’m not sure I would have read much further. So, where do we draw the line?

Where’s the tipping point?

When we tell students to portray confidence we also need to be clear that there is an upper limit.  Some of the vocabulary and structures could convey too much confidence.  It is difficult to determine where that line lies. Talking about our own personal attributes, it can be quite tricky to hit the mark in that zone that combines enough humility with confidence.  At the same time, the danger in sounding under-confident is just as real as that of sounding overly confident or smug.

Superlatives vs. Comparative Adjectives

It often comes across as conceited when we describe ourselves in the superlative form.   If I say or write: “I am the best writer” or “I am the most innovative teacher” it has the potential to cause you, the reader or listener, to think “You are the most arrogant person I’ve talked to today!”  Using these superlative forms makes it sound as if I think I’m better than everyone else, which can be off-putting.  But if I change it around and use a comparative adjective to describe myself, I don’t sound so conceited: “I’m a better writer now that I’ve had lots of practice.” It also helps that I’m actually comparing myself to myself and not offending anyone else. 

“Showing” vs. “Telling”

Obviously, selling oneself is a difficult task.  We tell our students that in order to be successful in landing a job they must “sell” themselves.  But what does this mean?  How do we teach our students to do this without sounding boastful, or false?  We can give our students the tools they need to portray a confident image by not only getting them to practice the use of comparative adjectives when describing personal qualities, but also to demonstrate these qualities by using examples of how they have approached a problem in the past, and how their approach has resulted in a positive outcome. By doing this, they are not directly stating their skills, but are showcasing them in an effective, evidence-based way.

How is it done in Canada?

The line between confidence and over confidence is a very nuanced component of our culture.  Most of us, who having been immersed in it long enough, have an implicit feel for the appropriate level of confidence that is expected in particular situations.  While it’s difficult to teach this appropriate level explicitly, the use of comparative adjectives and real-life examples can be useful techniques for striking the right balance. However, using these structures is not the only way to balance our confidence levels. 

How do you think it can be done effectively?


4 thoughts on “Say It With Confidence!”

  1. As well, the line between factually representing yourself and boasting is not just a matter of vocabulary but also of custom – and the hiring climate is changing, according to business reporter Leah Eichler. In January 2015 she wrote about recruiters and their work with the headline “Recruiting has changed and so should you”:

    “While blowing your own horn online can sometimes get you in the door, it rarely wins you the job…
    ‘One of the top criteria of a top-ranking candidate is humility,’ said Mr. Naufal [of Boyden Canada, an executive search firm], who advises any candidate looking to move into the C-suite to be wary of coming across as too boastful.”


    1. “Humility… one of the “soft skills” that is so important to possess, but so difficult to teach explicity! It’s interesting that the hiring climate is changing, as Leah Eichler states in the article, and that humility is a quality that is valued by employers. Teaching students to use language structures that help to put the interlocutor at ease and to help the speaker be perceived as humble, can go a very long way, especially in how the student is perceived in written profiles like LinkedIn, or in a job interview situation”

  2. While striking a balance between superlative and comparative adjectives is necessary, a lot also depends on the want ad lingo, as well as the research into the firm’s mission statement, productivity achievements, record of hire-ability, etc. These are some of the other variables that the student should be made aware of, particularly as the new way of recruiting practices, also weighs in on the exact wording, that the automated system of the company seeking employees, has set as employment criteria.

    1. Yes, it’s always important to teach students to really focus in on what the ad is asking for. Understanding what the “want ad lingo” is really asking for can be difficult, not to mention how difficult it can be to “read between the lines” in interview questions. Striking a balance between superlatives and comparative adjectives is only one of the challenges that ESL speakers face in an interview situation. As you’ve noted, finding ways to make our students aware of so many other nuances and hiring practices is also critical for their success.

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