People often mimic the movements of others when speaking. We rub our noses in a similar way, or tilt our heads in unison, and it's mostly unconscious when it happens. Some studies even suggest that this kind of mimicry can bring people together, possibly by signaling, "Hey, you're just like me!"
But sometimes a speaker is not just like her listeners, and that's when mimicry can backfire, says University of Groningen psychologist Pontus Leander, who led the new study.
His research team asked an assistant to conduct either a friendly or all-business conversation with undergraduates, instructing the assistant to mimic or avoid mimicking the students' gestures and postures during the talk. The students weren't conscious of the copycat movements, but they felt something was "off" when the assistant mimicked them during the all-business talks. At the same time, they were uncomfortable when the assistant was friendly but didn't mimic them in any way.
The students reported feeling physically colder after their uneasy interactions, possibly because the region of the brain that regulates feelings of trust also controls physical warmth and coldness, the researchers noted.
So what accounts for the chill factor? Leander says it depends on whether a mimic is part of your social group. We expect some mimicry from our friends, because mimicry can help emphasize the common ground in a relationship. But if the mimic is outside your social group--whether from a different culture, a different race, or a different social status--we don't expect that kind of emphasis on similarities, Leander says. Instead, we see their copycat movements as blatant and mocking.
"It's not just my research, but several studies now show that 'overdoing' it when it comes to mimicry, especially getting caught, is just a bad thing in general," Leander says. "It's draining for others and it can really backfire, socially."
If you're speaking in a situation where your audience isn't part of your social group, it's probably best to avoid intentional copying. It may possible to learn how to dial up or dial down your mimicry for different audiences, Leander says, but it's a tricky maneuver because so much of mimicry is unconsciously performed and perceived.
"'Keep it subtle' should be the mantra for any intentional mimicry," he says. "Don't be too quick to copy, and don't be blatant about it."
"One could also just leave it alone and let your non-conscious do the work," Leander adds. "As human beings, we have spent a lifetime non-consciously calibrating our mimicry patterns, so any conscious overrides should be take with the utmost caution."
Have you ever gotten the chills from a blatant mimic? Share your experiences in the comments.
(Our Speaking Science series is penned by science writer Becky Ham.)
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