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Miss California and the Impossible Interview Question - What Would You Have Done?

April 23, 2009
by Gwen Darling
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In case it was a toss-up in your household on Sunday night between the Miss USA Pageant and … say… oh I don’t know . . . Desperate Housewives . . . and the hotties on Wisteria Lane got “heads,” I’ll give you a quick recap of the pageant’s most exciting moment, according to an onslaught of media reports issued the following morning (because I, too, was glued to DH):

During the show, pageant judge Perez Hilton, an openly-gay celebrity blogger, asked Carrie Prejean, Miss California: "Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?"

Carrie replied, "Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. Um, we live in a land that you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage and, you know what, in my country and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there. But that's how I was raised and that's how I think that it should be between a man and a woman."

Carrie’s response apparently provoked a mixture of applause and boos from the audience. "The way Miss California answered her question lost her the crown, without a doubt!" Hilton told Access Hollywood after the pageant. "Never before that I'm aware of has a contestant been booed at Miss USA."

So. What’s a Miss California to do in this incredibly difficult no-win interview situation? Lie? Or tell the truth? Clearly the question was a trap – she would have faced significant repercussions by landing on either side of the fence. I suppose the “safe” response would have been one of those vague, wishy-washy, all over the board responses that never answer the question, but sound pretty great coming from someone whose chief aspiration is to be "more talented" than the next girl in the swimsuit competition. You know, something like, “Well, Perez. That’s a great question! I’ve never been to Vermont but I do know they make Ben and Jerry’s ice cream there (gosh - are they married?), which is what I plan to donate to the poor starving children in those countries where they don’t have ice cream, in my quest for world peace.”

But I'm guessing that your chief aspiration is something a bit more lofty than looking smashing in sequins, so what would you do when asked a delicate “hot button” interview question? You know the kind – something that’s just barely this side of legal to ask, but that’s answer could easily paint you into a labeled corner. Should you be honest, like Miss California, and knowingly forfeit the chance at your dream job, or should you respond with a vanilla, politically correct, safe answer? Does the PC answer constitute lying? Is all fair in interviewing and war? What would Tim Tolan do?

Very sorry can't come. Lie follows by post. (refusing a dinner invitation)
Lord Charles Beresford

(For the record, although it appears my personal views are more accepting than Miss California’s, I do commend her bravery for standing up for her beliefs and forever saying goodbye to that glittery tiara on national TV.)



This question is an example of one for which the person querying is not particularly interested in the answer, and is essentially using the question to "trip up" or "trap" the respondent into a no win situation.

First of all, let's be clear. Since the person asking the question is not really seeking information, but is instead using a rhetorical tactic, it is perfectly acceptable, in my mind, to respond in kind.

Anyone who spends enough time behind a podium, or on sales calls, or in committee meetings for that matter may come across this type of situation from time to time, so it is useful to review some options. Here are three examples from the world of political discourse there are probably others

Option One: The Artful (or not so artful) Dodge.
If you need an example of this type of response, you have never tuned into a confirmation hearing. Turn on CSPAN, take good notes, the examples are superb. In this case for example, she could have answered along the lines of, "I believe the people of Vermont have the right to choose what is right for them and their state, and the people of California and the other states have the right to do the same. This is the wisdom of the Founding Fathers."

Obviously, this type of response may result in a follow-up, "You didn't answer the question. I'm interested in what you think."

At which point, a perfectly acceptable response, especially in this case, might be "That's great. Why don't we meet for a drink after the (interview / meeting / hearing)?" This last technique, by the way, doesn't work at a depositions.

If the questioner still persists, it is useful if a moderator or a sympathetic podium mate jumps up and shouts "Asked and answered!" Unless you pay someone to do this, it rarely happens, however you yourself can always shout back, "Asked and answered please move on." This will usually move things along.

This brings us to
Option Two: Strategic Use of Humor

Here it is important to note that what is an artful dodge in one context might be a humorous response in another. For example, in this particular case, she might have said, "I can not answer questions on specific legislation for which I might be required to render a ruling in the future." Admittedly, it is difficult to come up with these responses on the spot. This is where CSPAN can be helpful. Enough repeated exposure and you will be uttering these types of phrases effortlessly and almost unconsciously.

Option Three: The zen-like response

A more advanced option is to answer the question with something akin to a zen koan which presents the answer as a type of a mystery to be unraveled. It is vague, opaque, yet seemingly profound. Really good politicians make subtle use of this tactic all the time. An example might be something like, "Who would wish for peace must first work for justice." The goal here is to stun and mystify long enough for someone else to ask a question and move the discussion along before anyone realizes you haven't answered the question.

Of course the best responses will combine elements of all three into one succinct phrase. The quintessential biblical example of this type of rethorical exchange might actually serve as a plausible response here: " Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Succinct, profound, subject to interpretation.

Very interesting points, Gwen and Joe. While I certainly understand why these questions should be asked during the medical school admissions process (as it is very important for doctors & other providers to be able to refrain from applying their morality, as Joe pointed out), I can't say I understand how a question like that belongs in a beauty pageant.

It's like they're trying to make a contest where women are judged by their looks seem a lot deeper and more significant. Which came first in the program, tackling important social issues, or determining who looks best in a bikini?

Joe - As always your comments are thoughtful and thought-provoking! Personally, I've become fairly adept at the "highly respectful, well-informed, succinct dodge" when it comes to providing specifics to my teenagers about my own high school and college exploits. Always the safe bet.

Kate - are you inferring that determining who looks best in a bikini is not an important social issue? :)

Note: Tim and I had a rousing conversation about this post earlier today - after he got over his objection to my photo choice, we agreed that Miss California will most likely be remembered more favorably as a result of her honesty, than if she had "won" the competition.

Excellent post! Tough call on the type of question she had to answer but she did the right thing by being honest. My guess is that she will always remember her experience as one where she may not have won the competition - but she prevailed in her own way by not lying just to win! Honesty is always the best policy. Always!

Integrity, Intelligence and Discretion. How much of each of those are we looking for from a Miss USA Pageant contestant?

I'm still bothered by some political pageantry I witnessed a few years back. Then Secretary of HHS, Tommy Thompson, was holding a meeting to introduce David Brailler in a hotel in Washington DC. The affair and comments were very nicely done and intelligent. Then came the question and answer session from the floor.

A line formed behind the microphone, at least 20 persons deep. You get the picture. Each person asked a question, and a few of them were of the impossible sort. For example, "Why doesn't HHS just completely overhaul the reimbursement system, starting with adjusting the fee schedule for oncologists upward?"

Quite appropriately, Thompson often said "Will you send me a proposal in writing in some detail?" Person after person, in this public setting, said "Yes Sir." I'm betting half of the folks who said "Yes Sir" had no intention of following through. That's what rubbed me the wrong way.

The other half might have been well intended but wouldn't follow through. And the third half? Never mind there is no third half.

Making a public statement that is for show, with no commitment to follow through seems dishonest. Frankly, I'd rather the people involved took the artful dodge instead, such as "I'll look into that or consider that option."

My sense, although perhaps generous, was that Thompson was genuinely inviting leadership from the floor, on complex issues that will clearly require multi-stakeholder involvement to both develop and roll-out any substantive change.  I don't believe that he was dishonest in asking for the written input.

Pageantry doesn't justify low integrity behavior.


Thanks so much for your valuable contributions to this discussion - and for providing us with such artfully intelligent options! I'm thinking that Miss California would be honored if she knew she was the inspiration for such thoughtful discourse. And btw, I believe you could have a bright future as a pageant coach if you tire of your current gig. :)


The "Impossible Interview Question" was a standard part of the medical school admissions process interviews in my career. The impossible interview question was frequently more like, "What do you think about euthanasia?" or "What do you think about abortion?"

Generally, the correct response was the highly respectful, well-informed, succinct dodge, articulating respect for both opposing views. Then, follow the social queues of the interviewer regarding what was really being tested.

That approach assures that the interviewee has demonstrated the skills that should be being tested.

I did my formative training prior to these interviews at Johns Hopkins. The medical morality for euthanasia, abortion, and gay rights were very clear. It was considered to be highly inappropriate and non-professional for a physician to apply her or his morality on any patient. There are many other professionals in society who can provide that service. That tends toward requiring an accepting or tolerant professional stance (i.e. like yours, Gwen.)

See my post, "Healthcare Informatics: Imposing Order at any Cost?",  for an interesting treatment of morality (including Karl Rove's strategy to shape the red state/blue state voting.)

Applying the values of harm and fairness alone lead to an equal rights conclusion.  That leads to a complete dodge, i.e. re-framing the question to the appropriateness of 'States Rights' as a model to arbitrate ethics. 

If the contestants in the Miss USA Pageant delivered an answer like that, with a wink and a smile, I would favor that show over DH.  But that's just my personal preference.

Even more efficient than CSPAN ... The Daily Show.

Thanks for the suggestion! Pageant coach - it's always good to have something to fall back on.


To me, this all boils down to motives... that is, the purity of a person's motives which underly their behavior. If the motive of the contestant is to win the pageant, then her best response would be the artful dodge (now a term in my vocabulary thanks friends). I suppose there is some purity to that relatively short-term motive, but I think a more pure motive with longer-term consequences and eventually better outcomes for the contestant is found in a higher calling and that motive is the support for fundamental, transcendent human rights, independent of any society or culture or period in time. Lincoln's motives were primarily driven by a desire to hold the Union together an admirable motive maybe then secondarily to abolish slavery. Upon further reflection in the midst of losing the Civil War, he recognized that the real issue was slavery abolishing slavery was the more pure motive. The Union was less important and would largely be forgotten, in any case. Not surprisingly, the tide of War changed with Lincoln's motives. And the Union was preserved, too, as a natural consequence.
Do you want to win the pageant or do you want to stand for what's inherently right? Miss California could have had both, had she been in-touch with and followed the more fundamental and pure motive standing up for what's inherently right and having the quiet courage to act that way.

BTW, Gwen... the sense of humor in your writing kills me. And your graphics sucked me in... limbic marketing works every time.