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Shifting your deictic center

[The following is a guest post by Anna Marie Trester, the Director of the MA in Language and Communication (MLC) at Georgetown University in the Department of Linguistics.]

Shifting your deictic center.

When I tell people that I am a sociolinguist, the first response is often, “What can you do with that!?” And as Director of the MA program in Language and Communication (MLC) here in the department of Linguistics at Georgetown, I teach a course called the MLC Professionalization seminar to help students answer precisely that.

As I see it, there are three pieces to the process.

  • First you need to figure out where the skills and training that you possess are needed and valued professionally.
  • Next, you want to learn something about your motivators and values surrounding work (what will make you not just stay in a job, but enjoy the work that you do).
  • And finally, you have to enact a shift from student to professional from saying “What should I do?” to “Here’s what I am going to do!”

In this post, I will focus on the last of these three, what I call “shifting your deictic center” simply because it presents as a language puzzle, which we as sociolinguists are well equipped to tackle.  I hope to give you a sense for our course by showing you what it means like to look at the job search through a linguistic lens.

So first of all, what do I mean by “shifting your deictic center” Recall that deictics are “pointing elements” in language which reveal contextual information about speaker/hearer and their relationship. To enact a deictic shift in the job search is to begin thinking about things from an employer’s point of view and to begin talking that way as well. One easy way to start is to pay attention to your deictic markers in the texts and interactions that comprise the job search.

Cover Letters

Cover letters are the job-seeking instrument in which I hear the most striking examples of the need for a deictic shift. I often hear “I want this job because….” or “this job would be a great opportunity for me…” Your (potential) employer knows this. They know that this opportunity will benefit you. What they need to know is why their investment in you will help them. Show that you understand this in your cover letter by explaining how it is that your unique skills, interests and abilities are a great fit for their current needs and goals as an organization. Also, show that you are excited about this fit!

Your LinkedIn profile

To enact the deictic shift in LinkedIn, simply imagine that you were someone using the site to search for you. How would they find you? What keywords would they use? Do these words return your profile? Another trick: search for your last name. When you find yourself in the list of returns, look for a button that says “similar.” This will show you who it is that LinkedIn thinks is like you. See if this seems right.

Anna Marie Trester's LinkedIn search

The job interview

If there is one question that you are likely to be asked and one for which it is crucial that you be paying attention to deixis it is, “Tell Me About Yourself.” This question is not an invitation to tell stories about growing up on a farm. There are timescales and there is a formula, and I would argue that this is: present → immediate past → immediate future. Talk about some aspect of your present., draw a connection to some aspect of your immediate past. Then link o a future vision or goal that you then describe with a bit of detail.

The analysis of interaction cultivates empathy and an ability to shift perspectives and look at things from a different point of view. To engage that muscle in the interview context is to recognize that a job interviewer is at least as nervous as an interviewee. They are worried about making the right decision, about finding a qualified colleague who will function as part of the team, and make them look as though they did their job well in hiring you. So to enact a deictic shift is to begin thinking about things from their point of view and to begin talking that way as well. You may not feel it yet, but we all also know enough about the linguistic construction of identity to understand why this exercise is valuable!


The absolute most important thing to understand as a job seeker is that THEY need YOU. Understandably as a job seeker, you probably see and feel it the other way around right now, but your skills and training have tremendous value, and when you get out there and put your vision into action, drop me a line, I want to hear all about it!

[The preceding is a guest post by Anna Marie Trester.]

3 thoughts on “Shifting your deictic center”

  1. Thanks for posting this! It’s hard to stay positive while searching for a job, a career really, but armed with this new perspective, I’ve got a little more energy for the task!

  2. ” 故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。”


    “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
    If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
    If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

    – Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” Chapter 3.

  3. Thanks a lot Anna Marie! Those very informative insights will better equip me when I write those covering letters and at the interview stages. More importantly, they should up my confidence level.

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