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Humans are creatures of a social nature. Our veins are filled with a burning desire to make new acquaintances and broaden our social network. From an evolutionary standpoint, this craving is imperative to survival so others can watch our back. The need for relationships dates back to hunter-gatherer times; those who chose to go on their own tended to succumb to predators and mother nature faster than those in large groups. This tendency is seen across many species of animals, not just humans; wolves exemplify this phenomenon with the common mantra, “wolf pack.” Taking into account the importance of social interactions, humans have developed many ways to facilitate this process; one of these methods is mimicry.
Go out and try to buy a car. No, go right now. Go to a car dealership; pose an interest in purchasing a vehicle and pay attention to the salesperson and his actions. They have mastered social interaction to such a level that you’ll leave feeling good about signing over a year’s worth of paychecks. So how do they do it? How does a stranger become your best friend?
Among the many tools in their arsenal lies in the careful manipulation of certain social and physical variables, one of them being mirroring.
Biologically, we mimic others’ movements the moment we come out of the womb, both verbally and physically. We frequently see parents repeating words or actions in an attempt to get their child to perform the same thing. Mimicry has evolved as a way of learning. Mothers loom over their child while repeating phrases that we’ve all heard such as, “Say Mommy!” in hope that the infant will reproduce the sound. This skill has boundless educational potential. We learn new sports or skills by watching professionals and mimicking their actions. Furthermore, beyond using it for instructive purposes, this ability can be used to facilitate social interaction, and in the case of the salesperson, to warm up to the customer.
You like yourself. That’s an undeniable fact; at the basic, cognitive level, we are predisposed to like ourselves. So naturally, we like others that seem like us; this is where mirroring comes into play. Psychologists have done numerous experiments in regards to this concept and have all reached the same basic conclusion: mirroring leads to smoother interpersonal interactions and great likability.
Most mirroring comes naturally. We "mirror" the way a person talks by mimicking their speech, tone, pace, volume and the type of vocabulary that they use- we notice that we build an instant connection with them.
We don’t consciously notice every tick and mannerism of our peers but sometimes we copy them exactly. This concept can be deliberately controlled and mastered to enhance a relation or to add an emotional bond. In the previous example, the salesman can use this tactic to gain people’s trust and to facilitate persuasion.
Day in and day out we control our posture and gestures, the way we dress, and the tone of our voice to fit in. We are conditioned to act in such way that facilitates and increases our interactions with our peers and makes us successful. Mimicking or mirroring another person is like a tango. It requires a certain sequence of sensory acuity, diligence, and good timing. Have you noticed that it is so much easier to build a relation with someone after a face-to-face encounter rather than after a phone conversation?
So what the aforementioned salesperson does through conscious mimicry is create a warm atmosphere, build rapport, and increase the chances of a sale. The mimicry simply makes us feel good; it’s almost a form of physical flattery and we don’t feel as awkward or anxious anymore.
To quote the textbook Social Psychology, mimicry is the “first step on the road to harmonious interaction and goodwill.” However, this subtle strategy, if employed inadequately, can backfire; if the mirroring is performed too immediately or too obviously, then it might become offensive or bothersome and turn into mockery. Therefore, salespeople have to master this technique to not come off as a farce.
A real world portrayal of mimicry’s powerful effect is the operations in the military. Why do the armed forces insist so heavily on uniforms, synchronized marching, and strict protocols? All of these efforts are geared towards creating camaraderie out of complete strangers, which, in a war situation, is very important. There have been psychological studies investigating the effect of marching in unison and have discovered that it generates familiarity and interpersonal liking. In these institutions, you almost become “one” with each other, joined by the forced guidelines.
Our existence takes place within a social matrix, embedded with dynamic and ever-changing rules, norms, and expectations. To our surprise, whether we like to admit it or not, we conform to each other, and to society. We change our behavior constantly under peer pressure, looking for common ground. Evolutionarily, mirroring is used as a method of learning and unconsciously as a way of generating rapport and smooth interactions. However, someone consciously aware of this will be able to employ this skill in all facets of his or her social interaction, to a greater extent, and will facilitate networking. Subtle but complex, mirroring is an integral part of human nature an interpersonal interaction.