The dictionary defines a mirror as a reflecting surface, something that gives a minutely faithful representation, image, or idea of something else.
When used in the psychological sense, mirroring is the replication of another individual’s nonverbal signals. We mirror others’ expressions and gestures when we like them and feel connected to them, usually without anyone noticing. Imagine you are talking to a friend and he leans forward and smiles; without consciously realizing what you are doing, you will likely smile and lean forward as well.
Mirroring creates rapport between people. Most psychologists agree the person who is mirroring the behavior is demonstrating empathy: the person who is mirroring feels a connection to the other person when making the same expressions or gestures and they person being mirrored tends to believe the other individual shares their thoughts and feelings.
Imagine you and your coworkers have been called into a team meeting for a surprise announcement. You feel anxious and fearful, and unconsciously display negative nonverbals like frowning and crossing your arms. Your teammate Larry is sitting across from you, with his arms folded across his chest and a dark expression on his face. Without giving it a lot of conscious thought, you feel a kinship with Larry, because you assume he’s also upset about the announcement. Maybe you even consciously think, “Larry’s worried about this, too!” Of course, Larry might be scowling about something unrelated.
People tend to unconsciously mirror others whenever they are engaged in conversation. I have a friend who nods vigorously when he talks. He might say something like, “I had a really stressful morning. I knew I was going to be late. You know traffic near my house is always really congested.” He nods so energetically while he says this that anyone listening to him nods a little bit too, even if they don’t know who he is or where he lives.
Mimicking and imitation are also a reflection of someone’s body language, but they are less likely to be viewed positively.
Imitating non-verbals is a calculated type of mirroring.
Imitation is often done to ease tension or to gain favor.Imitation is common when the person being imitated is perceived as powerful. You’ve probably heard the expression, Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Imitation is common and sometimes beneficial in situations like interviews and first dates. It can also be done in a professional context, such as when a therapist is trying to put a patient at ease.
Because it can be a conscious attempt to elicit a particular type of reaction, people tend to react negatively if they realize they are being imitated. True mirroring is more authentic, and because it is unconscious and subtle, it typically goes unnoticed.
Mimicking is usually derisive.
I once had a neighbor who was known for policing neighborhood yards and heavy sighing. Stella had the Homeowners Association on speed dial so they could be instantly alerted when children left their toys in the yard or garbage cans were not retrieved from the street promptly. The neighbors would cringe when they saw Stella charging across the street, bylaws in hand, to tell them they were not allowed to grow strawberries in their front yard. As a result, there was a running joke on our street where people would jokingly rush up to one another, sigh loudly, and say, “You know you aren’t allowed to [insert any activity], don’t you?”
It is less common to mimic someone in their presence. When this occurs, it is usually done to mock the person or highlight an attribute, like an accent or a gait. In these cases, it says much more about the mimic than the person being mimicked!
To sum up, mirroring is an excellent way to connect with others, and you already do it unconsciously with your friends and family. Imitation is trickier. It can pay off, but it should be subtle and used sparingly (nobody likes to feel like they are being had!). Imitation is a testament to your influence and how people perceive you. Mimicking is typically meant in a mocking way, and even if the person doesn’t retaliate with a call to the Homeowners Association, you can be sure it won’t endear you to them.