How answers define us |

How answers define us

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO – In the course of raising two teenage boys, a mother finds herself wearing many hats, nearly all of them of the rule-enforcement variety.

There’s “eat your vegetables, drink your milk, stay away from that candy” and “pick your clothes up off the floor, push your chair in and turn the lights off.”

And don’t get me started on the category of instilling good grooming habits in adolescent boys that aren’t fit to describe in a family newspaper.

But lately I’ve found myself in a new role: I’m the “yeah” police. It goes a little something like this:

Me: Honey, did you remember to let the dogs out?

Son: Yeah.

Me: I’m sorry, what?

Son: Yeah.

Me: Try that again.

Son (through gritted teeth): YES, Mooommm!

The crackdown started quite abruptly. It was late last semester when it became obvious that in order to get into the most advanced classes next year, students would be relying partially on teacher recommendations.

I recalled in horror having heard both sons respond to teacher questions with that deplorable “yeah” during the last round of parent-teacher conferences. I’ve been on patrol ever since.

“Yeah” is not my natural enemy. I say it all the time, usually during informal conversations with colleagues, acquaintances or family. The difference is that, as an adult with a strict Catholic school education under my belt, I code-switch with the greatest of ease.

It’s “yeah” to my husband when he asks if I want ketchup on my hotdog and “Yes, Ms. So and So” when speaking to my children’s teachers. Actually, these days it’s “Yes, dear” as I struggle to set the right example at home.

This is not coming completely out of left field. As the boys get old enough for us to plan high school courses designed to result in the best-possible university placements, it’s becoming clear that all important life experiences hinge on the details.

A few weeks ago, a downtown Chicago corporate director of talent acquisition came to one of our local high schools to talk to teachers about how best to prepare students to enter the workforce.

Though good grades are obviously important, the presenter didn’t go on about 5.0 grade-point averages, student resumes that brim with extracurricular activities and community service, or even about degrees from elite colleges.

When he evaluates candidates for jobs, his mind is almost completely made up in just minutes.

“It’s all about how a candidate represents themselves on first impression – are they dressed neatly, with a clean pressed shirt that’s neatly tucked in? Or are they in jeans or worn out pants?

“Are they making eye contact? Are they using different vocal tones to show that they’re excited about the opportunity? Are they answering your questions with complete sentences or just with ‘yeah,’ ‘OK’ or other one-word type of answers?”

The guest speaker, who described his career as having spanned 19 years across several different industries, said, “Literally, I can tell within the first five to 10 minutes of the interview whether the candidate will move forward or not.”

I only wish I had room to cite every crazy example of inappropriate interview behavior he relayed – such as responding to inquiry emails or sending thank you notes with “texting” language such as “u” for “you” and “r” for the word “are,” and putting cellphones out on the desk (and responding to incoming text messages!) during a job interview.

But it’s really the simple things, such as acting as though you’re interested and paying attention, and formulating an intelligent question or two, that will get you past the threshold of any opportunity.

That leaves little room for error.

“These things matter – it’s all about putting your best foot forward,” he said.

In many cases, this opportunity is as fleeting as the amount of time it takes to respond to a simple question with just a modicum of respect.

Whether it’s a reaction to a statement or question from a teacher, an administrator, a prospective employer, a college admissions officer – or a law enforcement one, for that matter – the ability to speak with clarity and courtesy is a skill that every child should have drilled into him or her.

And it’s a good enough reason for me to also struggle to give up my casual use of the lazy version of “yes.”

– Esther Cepeda’s email address is

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