A French love affair... with graphology
- 29 April 2013
- From the section Magazine
The French continue to use handwriting analysis to assess prospective employees, bucking a worldwide trend. Why?
What would you do if you went for a job, and the HR person said one of the criteria for selection was a favourable analysis of your handwriting?
In most of the world, the use of graphology in recruitment is marginal. But in France - despite an appreciable decline of writing in recent years thanks to computers - the technique is proving remarkably resilient.
Reliable figures are hard to come by. Graphologists themselves say that between 50% and 75% of companies make some use of hand-writing analysis, even if it is only occasional.
But then they would say that, wouldn't they?
On the other hand, many French companies that do use graphology are reluctant to speak about it openly because the practice is not seen as sufficiently "modern" or "global".
The last independent study was in 1991, and it found that a massive 91% of public and private organisations in France were then making use of handwriting analysis. If that was the case, then 50% today does not seem so far-fetched.
So what does a company get if it submits candidates' handwriting samples to a graphologist?
According to Catharine Bottiau, one of France's best-known practitioners, it is delusional to imagine that graphologists actually make decisions about who gets what job.
"Normally we are consulted once the client has already drawn up a shortlist of candidates. Then the candidates will be asked to write a motivational letter, using their own handwriting.
"We will examine the letters, and offer our advice. Usually this will tend to confirm the impressions already gleaned from interviews, the CV, personality tests and so on.
"But sometimes we can draw attention to aspects of personality that have been missed, and which might prove detrimental were the person to be recruited.
"We are an extra tool, a complement."
As for the actual process of analysis, it is a complex technique involving study of a range of parameters, including size of letters, angles, slopes, shapes, links, spaces, order, pen pressure and variance from educational norm.
"The basic principle is that the act of writing reveals personality. To study graphology is to study the energy that guides the hand, and the message which - unconsciously as well as consciously - the person wants to convey."
Bertram Durand, who helps run an international executive search company called CNPG, spent three years training as a graphologist in New York.
"I can't possibly describe in a single interview how we do our job. It is a highly specialised technique, based on Jungian psychology.
"And just because we cannot measure its success rate using mathematics or statistics - that doesn't mean it is not a valid tool. In all our client studies, there is an extremely high satisfaction coefficient. People use it because it works."
The same argument comes from professional head-hunter Geoffroy Desvignes: "Look, I place 100 or so people every year in very senior international positions.
"If graphology didn't work, it would quickly become obvious, and I would lose my clients. But they keep coming back.
"I have no idea how it works, but to me it is obvious: the handwriting of a marketing guy is not the same as the handwriting of a sales guy, which is not the same as the handwriting of an artist or of an accountant at Deloittes!"
If graphology is so prevalent in France, it may be down to a national proclivity for the abstract; or an instinctive rejection of US-origin "personality" tests with their multiple choice answers and claims to categorise every human inside one of a handful of "types".
Or maybe it is the fact that the technique itself originated in France.
It was a French Catholic priest, Jean-Hipployte Michon (1806-1881), who is generally regarded as being graphology's father. His follower Jean Crepieux-Jamin codified the disciple with his ABC of Graphology, which is still in print.
Add a smattering of Freud and several large helpings of Jung, and the modern day practice was born.
Today, roughly a thousand graphologists practise in France (most of them women), and training courses run by the three main professional bodies are well attended.
But hold on. Maybe this is the moment to inject a note of scepticism. After all, what proof is there that the study of handwriting offers any meaningful understanding of a person's inner mind?
The answer - according to psychology professor Laurent Begue - is absolutely none at all.
"Lots of studies over the years have shown that it is all a load of rubbish, and not fit for use in any professional setting, says Begue, who works at the University of Grenoble.
"If you ask a group of graphologists to study the same piece of handwriting, they all come out with different interpretations. It's no different from astrology or numerology."
According to Begue, most graphologists are able to pull off the trick because they use the content of candidates' letters - the detail about their lives, motivation and so on - to draw up a psychological profile.
He quotes an Israeli study which showed that when graphologists were shown strictly neutral texts with no relevant information about the candidate - their level of performance plummeted.
For critics, the skill of the graphologist is the skill of every other clever, intuitive "mind-reader". They draw obvious conclusions where they can, and for the rest rely on vague-sounding generalities that cannot but contain some element of truth.
"Psychologists call it the Barnum effect, after the circus impresario who said that a good circus should contain a little of something for everyone.
"If you phrase an analysis in a clever, and above all flattering way - then most people will believe that it does indeed apply to them," says Begue.
Practitioners scoff at the scoffers.
"There is a big psychology lobby that has it in for us," says Durand. "Companies that produce recruitment personality tests have a big interest in undermining what we do, and they have a lot of means."
Headhunter Geoffroy Desvignes adds: "To pretend that so-called scientific personality tests are in some way more reliable than graphology is absolute nonsense.
"Two people who are totally different can easily produce the same result in a personality test. But no two people will ever have the same handwriting."
When Catherine Bottiau meets a sceptic she offers them a chance to have their own handwriting analysed, she says.
"They don't stay sceptical for long."