[Content Notes: Holy Heteronormativity Batman, dehumanising language, death by abandonment, violent riots]
Last August I went on a job interview (for a position I ended up holding for less than a week, I quit in disgust after six days; I’ve told that story elsewhere and would prefer not to rehash it here for the time being), during which I was asked a question which, every time I think about it, seems stupider and stupider. Yet, for some reason, I can’t get it out of my head; every now and then I find myself ruminating on it again and I keep having Thoughts, so I am going to overanalyse the hell out of this thing and see where it takes us.
Here’s the question, as it was presented to me, a cis man (though this is a paraphrase, I don’t remember the exact wording):
“You are driving through the desert in a small, two-seater sports car when you see three people stranded by the side of the road. They are: your best friend; [the love of your life/a hot girl]; and an old woman. What do you do?”
The reason I’ve placed some text in brackets is because the guy asking me the question couldn’t quite remember how he was supposed to ask it, and said first one and then the other; he continued to use the compound phrase whenever it came up in the subsequent conversation, also. The fact that he apparently drew an equivalence between those two phrases really creeped me out even during the interview (I warned you this was going to be heteronormative! Also, holy shit is that objectifying, Mr. Interview Guy, are you seriously trying to tell me all women are interchangeable?), and I think I should have taken that as a red flag and considered it before accepting the job offer, but that didn’t occur to me until after the entire fiasco was over and done with. Needless to say, the stupidity of that equivalence pissed me off right from the start.
One thing that keeps going through my head when I think about this question is, um, what the fuck? How on earth does a situation like this even occur? What kind of idiot drives a sports car through the desert? Why are these three people conveniently stranded there, when I can’t think of a single thing they could have been doing that would have had that results (I suppose MAYBE it could have been a plane crash and they were the only survivors, but then why am “I” the only person able to effect a rescue and so horribly underprepared to do so?). It’s so obviously contrived a question that I wonder whether there’s any merit in seriously engaging with it. However, clearly, I am incapable of listening to that voice of reason and will continue talking about it anyway.
My first response was something like “Well, who cares if the car is too small? Let’s squeeze everyone in, what’s a little discomfort to two people’s lives? If the car can’t handle the extra weight, let’s remove the seats and/or throw away cargo, etc, the situation is serious enough to call for it”. I was told that that’s not a valid answer to the question, and that no matter what I do I can only fit one person in the car. “You have to make a decision.” Um, again, WTF? You’re interviewing me for an engineering position and you don’t like the answer that could involve actual engineering? Anyway, disregarding that, my next question was whether I could make multiple trips and/or call for help to have another vehicle sent; I was told that it would be too late and the two people left behind would be dead by then, so I would be forced to choose one. (Again note the contrivedness of the scenario; I am reminded very forcefully of this).
So I said next “Well, I’ll stop the car and get out, and we can discuss it. I’d like to know what everyone else thinks, maybe we can come to a consensus or, failing that, their preferences will at least help me make a decision.” Reasonable, right? Wrong. Interview Guy basically told me to go fuck myself. Here is, in as close as I can get to his own words, what he said:
“As soon as you stop the car and get out, there will be mass panic and a fight will break out as everyone scrambles to get in. Everyone dies. You have to make a decision.”
Firstly: fuck you, Interview Guy, PEOPLE DO NOT WORK THAT WAY. Secondly, FUCK YOU, INTERVIEW GUY, I KNOW MY PARTNER AND MY BEST FRIEND BETTER THAN YOU, even if maybe some people would act like that in that situation, we certainly wouldn’t and I doubt an angry old lady could singlehandedly kill the three of us, especially if she’s also been stranded in the desert for a while and likely exhausted and dehydrated (though if she could I don’t think I’d mind such a badass old lady being the survivor). Of course I didn’t think to say any of that in the moment, I just mildly said something like “I don’t think that would happen, you’re trying very hard to force me onto rails here” and moved on. By that point I felt pretty thoroughly that he was attempting to insult my intelligence and railroad me back onto his script, and I was getting frustrated. Not to mention that it felt kind of like he was trying to gaslight me about how the world works so that I’d engage with him about his contrived little scenario. I think at that point I basically gave up and said “Okay, we’ll draw straws then, or play Rock-Paper-Scissors, whatever. We’ll decide it randomly in a fair and equitable manner.”
So did that appease Interview Guy? LOL how naive of you to ask. Here’s what he said to me: “The question was intended to test decisiveness. The only way to fail it is to refuse to make a decision, like you did.” FUCK YOU, INTERVIEW GUY. I did make several decisions, he just decided to invalidate them because they didn’t fit the script in his head. I told him I didn’t think the question actually measured that, that I had been approaching it from the framework of ethical theory, and that in general I thought it was a very bad question; I think I also told him that I objected to his assumption that making a snap decision is necessarily better than thinking it through. He basically said that he would take note of my objection but that he wasn’t interested in having that conversation. That was actually the end of the face-to-face interview; after that they took me on a tour of the premises and had me sit for some kind of written test, then sent me home. Apparently my “failure” on that question wasn’t enough to disqualify me from the job, because they called to offer me the position while I was still in the car driving home (whoa, that was fast).
Anyway, spoiler alert: a couple of weeks later, a few days after I’d started working there, the manager (hereafter Manager) and my supervisor (formerly Interview Guy, hereafter Supervisor) noticed I felt very uncomfortable in the work environment and pulled me aside for a chat. That chat was quite extended (it went on for nearly three hours), and their obtuseness during it contributed strongly to my decision to get the fuck out of there, but of immediate salience is the fact that that question came up again. Manager corrected Supervisor on its purpose; apparently, according to Manager, it’s supposed to be a ‘personality test’. That makes more sense than the decisiveness thing, at least, though I find it hard to believe it gives them much useful information unless someone responds to it like I did (which, they told me, had never happened to them before; I’m not sure whether or not to believe it because they were gaslighting me quite a lot during that conversation). We continued to discuss that question for a bit longer, and I mentioned I had thought of a few alternative responses I thought might be morally defensible within their framework, which I told them about:
“I’ll get out of the car, and stay with the old lady to die; she’s lived the longest life so in that sense has the least to lose, so I’ll save my friend and my partner, both of whom I care deeply about.”
“I’ll get out of the car and ask my partner if she would stay with me to die together; we’ll let the other two go on to safety.”
Notably, both of those responses involve “my” (the presumed decision-making agent’s) death; I’m not sure what they made of that. For that matter, I’m not sure what I think of that…
Manager appeared dumbfounded by my response(s) to the question, once told what it had been and apprised of the alternative ideas (he hadn’t been there during the interview); he seemed to imply that it helped him to understand why I was so uncomfortable there and that he might not have given the go-ahead to hire me had he known about it. From this, I gathered (though it was not said) that they thought it unusual for someone to be driven by a sense of empathy and morality, and that such a person was unwelcome at their company. I honestly think Manager may have been reluctantly impressed despite himself, though.
They did tell me during that conversation that my responses were extremely atypical, and gave me some examples of things other people had said: apparently most people choose the friend or the love interest, though on at least one occasion they had someone say “I’ll just keep driving, fuck them all”. According to them, nobody else questioned the premise itself, though as I said I’ve no idea how much I should trust what they said about it during that conversation because they were gaslighty enough about other things.
I also spoke with one of my (briefly) co-workers, who said that he’d been metagaming the question when he responded; he chose the “best friend” option, thinking the interviewer wanted him to “show loyalty”. Perhaps he had some insight into the thinking of the people who designed the question there; that certainly seemed like plausible enough reasoning to me, from what I understand of how these interviews operate, though it complicates thinking about this even further. Going by that sort of interpretation of the response, what would the other options show? Choosing the romantic partner/attractive person option could also be interpreted as “loyalty” if the former; if the latter, what is it, desperate horniness and willingness to coerce consent? Wonderful. And choosing the old lady says what, “respect for elders” and/or “respect for societal norms”? Come to think of it, if they ask the “best friend versus romantic partner” version, what are they looking for, an expression of misogyny as “bros before hos”? What a hopeless muddle; what an awful question.
As a bonus, some time later I thought of what I think might be my best answer yet to this question, if rather flippant:
“My best friend and my romantic partner are the same person, so it logically follows that there are only two people stranded at this location. [Insert either “the old lady has lived a long and fruitful life already, I’m sorry about it but hopefully she’ll understand” or “I’ll stay behind and they can both live”]”.
In conclusion: FUCK YOU, Interview Guy! FUCK YOU, Manager! Fuck your stupid, heteronormative, illogical question in every way possible! SOMEDAY, WHEN THIS SEAL IS BROKEN, I WILL EXTERMINATE YOUR DESCENDANTS. (Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to channel Ganondorf there… I don’t know what got into me). The more I try to think about this, the more I find myself at a loss to find a coherent message to articulate from all of this. Um, if you’re interviewing people for a job, don’t ask stupid questions that make no sense, don’t try to bully your interviewee into following a script, and definitely don’t make heteronormative assumptions. Also, note to self: try to be less shocked when random people you meet outside of the internet don’t share or even understand progressive values. What I really don’t understand is why I can’t get this bloody question out of my head…