Have you ever noticed that when you spend a long period of time with someone, you often start talking and acting like them? Perhaps you were born and raised in New York City, where you were taught to annunciate the words “you all” since the time you learned to speak—only to pick up “y’all” after one semester at a Southern school. Or maybe you moved to Boston, made new friends, and started calling things you find interesting “wicked cool.” While we may not even notice our mannerisms evolving, we are constantly copying people around us.
According to Dr. Jared O’Garro-Moore, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow at Columbia Doctors Psychiatry Midtown, this unconscious mimicry is described as “automatic imitation of gestures, behaviors, facial expressions, speech, and movements.” Surprisingly, engaging in automatic imitation actually reveals a lot about you—just like these other habits that reveal a lot about your personality. Wondering why we do this, and how it’s even possible to mimic people without realizing it? The answer is actually scientific.
Imitation is the best form of flattery
Let’s say your best friend starts saying the word “totally” in almost every sentence. Naturally, the two of you spend a lot of time together—talking, listening, and looking out for each other’s well-being. A while later, a family member points out that you have started saying “totally” in most sentences as well. If you weren’t overtly trying to copy your friend, how did this happen?
According to Dr. O’Garro-Moore, “when we are more focused on individuals around us, we have greater concern for them, feel some degree of dependency, and/or hold a desire to be liked. These factors lead people to mimic others more.” In this instance, deeply caring for your friend may have caused you to subconsciously register their speech habits and mimic their use of the word “totally.” “Furthermore, research shows that mimicry is contextually explained by our desire to increase affiliation or connection with others,” says Dr. O’Garro-Moore. This means that copying your friend’s use of the word “totally” could also reflect your wish to be close to and affirmed by your friend.
There’s also the possibility that you’re subconsciously copying someone because you look up to them. Dr. O’Garro-Moore explains that we “imitate others who we like and/or exert some degree of social influence.” This person could be your boss, a co-worker, a friend, or a public figure—really anyone “with expert (believed to have superior abilities, skills, or knowledge); referent (someone whom others are attracted to, like, or identify with); and/or coercive (control over punishments) social influence/power,” asserts Dr. O’Garro-Moore. If you’ve ever felt your back straighten when you see your admirable, accomplished co-worker sitting with excellent posture, chances are you were subconsciously moved to imitate them. Make yourself worthy of unconscious mimicry by adopting these habits of naturally charming people.
It's also human nature...
Wanting our friends to like us, paying attention to the people we care about, and admiring people of power are all social explanations for unconscious mimicry. However, there is also a biological reason that we tend to copy the people around us without even realizing it. “Some research suggests that humans have a mirror neuron system,” which “allows humans to learn through imitation,” Dr. O’Garro-Moore explains. The mirror neurons in our brains “are shown to get activated when we observe behavior in others. Imagine tiny components of the brain lighting up and ‘practicing’ actions of others without actually doing them,” says Dr. Deepan Singh, MD, Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist at NYU Winthrop Hospital and Associate Dean of Students at NYU Long Island School of Medicine.
Mirror neurons make it possible for a child to simply watch their parent tie their shoelaces and then replicate the action without specific instructions, says Dr. Singh. Similarly, mirror neurons allow us to pick up languages, musical instruments, and other skills and motions just by observing others around us. According to Dr. Singh, this phenomenon is known as “social empathy” and “explains how a yawn initiated by a teacher spreads through a classroom or how we unconsciously adjust our accent, cadence, or volume based on who we are speaking with.” In simple terms, mirror neurons make us empathetic, and this empathy subconsciously inspires us to copy the people around us.
Bottom line? It’s completely normal to notice that you've subconsciously changed to be more like your friends, family, or role models. If you're especially proud of your individuality, don't worry—copying other people's mannerisms won't erase the quirky traits you inherited that make you unique. While we may not be trying to alter our habits or personalities, copying the people around us is just a part of being socially empathetic and, well, human.