Shibboleths: What Do They Say About You? By Pepper de Callier

Many centuries ago, how one spoke was a matter of life or death.  The word shibboleth comes from ancient Hebrew and this is how it came to be.  Two of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Ephramites and the Gileadites, were having what we would today call a feud.  It was virtually impossible to identify members of the different tribes by looking at them, especially if they wore clothing similar to the other tribe.  But, one’s life might depend upon knowing who was approaching you in the desert.  So, the wise leader of the Gileadites, a man known as Jephthah, came up with a fool-proof way of identifying “outsiders”, a way that has been used through the centuries to identify people of other cultures.

Jephthah, realizing that the Ephramites spoke a different dialect of Hebrew, one in which the “sh” sound was non-existent, told all his sentries to ask everyone who approached them to order them to say the word shibboleth, which meant stream of water in Hebrew.  It proved to be a very effective way of quickly telling who was who and if you couldn’t pronounce the word shibboleth correctly, you were killed on the spot.  Many centuries later various countries in time of war have used Jephthah’s effective method of identifying “others”.  In WWII the United States Army trained its soldiers in the European theater to ask approaching, unknown people to say words with a “w” in the beginning of the word, such as welcome, because the Germans pronounced the “w” as a “v”—very effective.  Over time the word shibboleth became associated with this linguistic practice and expanded to include behavioral traits that would betray someone as an outsider.

The practice of using shibboleths as identifiers in business is all-pervasive today to the point of being almost instinctual behavior used to “size someone up” in a hurry. The difference today is that shibboleths are not used to identify one’s race, creed, or origin.  They are used to determine the subtleties of one’s skills, personality, management approach and a whole host of traits that will either produce a very positive or negative effect for the person being evaluated.  If you understand which behaviors become your “shibboleths” you can have substantial control over how you are perceived by others.  Let me explain how this works.

There are the obvious shibboleths in life such as what we say, the car we drive, the clothes we wear, where we live, hair color and style, body art—tattoos, etc.  But I want to focus on the more subtle ones, which can have a very big impact on your career as well as personal relationships. Here are just a few modern-day shibboleths and what they indicate about someone:

Etiquette and Manners—how one treats others is a sign of respect; respect for the dignity of others and of one’s self.  How someone treats a waiter or a waitress in a restaurant speaks volumes about how they view others and themselves.

Holding a knife and fork—done properly it goes unnoticed. Done incorrectly it has the same impact as a loud burp. “Is this someone we want representing our company to the outside world?”

Grammar—there is nowhere to hide here.  You have to talk.  Poor grammar, in your native language, is unforgivable.  How you speak is frequently more important than what you have to say.

What you read—over the years a favorite interview question of mine has been, “What are you currently reading?”  The answer can say so many things about someone and spark very interesting conversation.  If the answer is “Nothing” this is a big red flag because it shows a lack of interest and intellect.

The questions you ask and what you choose to talk about—the questions one asks and the things about which one chooses to speak are windows into one’s mind, character and values.

How you act behind the wheel of a car—few things are as revealing about one’s maturity, personality and emotional stability as how they react to others when they drive a car.  When your boss asks you to drive him somewhere, it may not be just because he wants a ride.

Watches and jewelry—the real question here is appropriateness.  If it’s distracting it’s not good.

Pen and paper—this is my all time personal pet peeve.  If you go to a meeting of any kind unprepared to take notes, you are telling the person you are meeting with that you don’t think anything worth remembering will be said—it’s a sign of disrespect on one hand and of disorganized thinking on the other because there may be something that requires your follow-up.

Be observant and honest with yourself—learn the shibboleths that are the most important to your success and become the master of them rather than their servant.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Follow Pepper on YouTube: A new inspirational video message is posted every Monday - Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By. 

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