One of the coolest things about college is all the new and fascinating people you meet. This probably has greatly to do with the diversity of American universities. The Cornell freshman class, for instance, has students from every state except Montana. Obviously a pretty important state, right?
It may disappoint you, however, that this article is not about any new or fascinating people who I have met at Cornell, though I certainly know many of them. It is also not about fascinating people whom I have known for a long time in Austin. In fact, this post is about a person who is, for most readers of this blog, neither new nor fascinating.
It is about me.
I noticed the strangest thing yesterday about myself. Well, maybe not strange, but certainly something I hadn’t noticed before. It’s that in any conversation, I act as a mirror. That is, when I chat with someone, I essentially acquire the attributes of that person.
It starts with the topic of the conversation. Yesterday, after my history class, I had the most extended profound discussion with someone, who is also quite a new and fascinating person: Elliot Casparian. It started out when he talked about our class as not learning history but learning about history, that the course was heavy on how history was done, that it was almost like the philosophy of history. We talked for perhaps an hour, including lunch. We ended up covering the following topics (don’t ask me what the transitions were, I don’t remember):
- History and meta-history
- The surprisingly advanced state of modern-day technology, including medical, space, electronic, and acoustic
- The Internet and IPv4 exhaustion
- Existence and the meaning of life: does it matter?
- The multiverse, many-worlds, and simulation theories
- Theoretical physics vs philosophy
- Knowing and certainty
- Mathematical proofs and the incompleteness theorem
The underlying thing is that every one of these topics has some philosophical undertone that we brought up in conversation. So unconsciously, we took the initial philosophical topic and ran with it for as far as we could. How this relates the my mirror aspect is that Elliot started the conversation, and I adjusted myself to philosophy right away.
Whether a conversation I have lasts ten seconds or an hour, and whether it is about philosophy, movies, books, computers, or whatever, I seem to always mirror the topic of discussion.
But that isn’t the interesting part.
What’s interesting is that in what I say in a conversation, the mirroring occurs not only in the content, but in the form as well.
I noticed this at first in online chats. If the person I’m chatting with tends to write proper English, i.e., capitalizing the first letter of each sentence and ending sentences with periods, I tend to do the same (thought there are exceptions).
if on the other hand the other person uses a more “normal” internet chat style, i find that i do the same
Also, if the other person uses CAPS a lot, I tend to use it as well, thought it’s usually like LOL, never an ANGRY MESSAGE.
It’s easy to notice online. But I found this occurs in real conversations just as well. For instance, I almost never curse. But if the people around me use profane language, I have a much higher chance of doing so too.
If someone is speaking very dryly and/or using elevated language, I usually do the same. If I am speaking to a person who is very argumentative, I tend to argue as well.
If people are being clever, I try to make witty retorts. If people are making puns, I go on a pun rampage. And of course, if people are being sarcastic, well, I’m already pretty sarcastic, so that makes it even worse (or better, as the case may be).
And there’s a lot more about speech that I can’t quite put into words—you know, all the subtle things that go on in a conversation. So I concluded that in conversation, I’m basically like a mirror.
But wait, there’s more?
I find that my mirror behavior doesn’t end with conversation. It extends to my daily life. And again, it’s a lot of those subtle things that I would normally never notice, that I noticed recently.
If we’re seated, how I sit is largely determined by how other people are sitting. In conversations, my gestures are different depending on whom I’m making gestures to.
My general demeanor is different, as I have found, around different people.
When I started thinking about this mirror behavior, I was alarmed because I had thought of myself as a nonconformist, and, well, doing what other people do isn’t exactly nonconformism. I thought to myself, oh my gosh, am I a robot?
So I began to look for exceptions. I thought of one immediately. In conversation, if the other people are quiet, I tend to be talkative, and when they are talkative, I tend to be quiet. But in those cases, I am consciously making a decision. If they are talking a lot, I feel the need to listen, and if they don’t, then I feel like saying something.
As I reflected further, I saw that exceptions in general were cases in which I was conscious of what I was doing. On the other hand, the cases where I had mirror behavior were the automatic ones.
Does this mean I’m still a nonconformist? Or a lesser one than I thought? Perhaps. But what interested me was whether there was a scientific basis for this. I came across “mirror behavior” in psychology, but that references a different phenomenon. Roughly, that is involved with how individuals behave when put in front of a mirror.
The closest psychology topic that I could find which still contained the word “mirror” was “mirror neuron,” which I had actually encountered before on a Scientific American article (specifically, the cover story of the Nov 2006 issue). I don’t have the magazine with me, but I remember that it linked a lack of mirror neurons to the condition of autism. If you mirror a lot, then do you have more mirror neurons? And does that make you more anti-autistic? I don’t know. Too much mirroring might have its problems too.
One last question: If I mirror other people, and this article is nominally about me, then who is it really about?