Mirroring is the act of imitating the behavior of another person and is largely nonverbal communication. Mirroring is also largely unconscious, for me at least, though some people consciously mimic behavior. Politicians, for example, go through extensive training to learn to mirror to appear friendly, to extend their political reach.
Mirroring is most commonly framed this way: in terms of building rapport, influencing people to like you. This makes sense, as people gravitate to people who are like them: see the double empathy problem. Also see the blog Autism and Expectations, which sheds more light on Autistic mirroring via personal experience:
I’ve met people in the past who seemed overtly friendly, so I mirrored their body language, and they withdrew.
What I hadn’t noticed (but worked out later), was that their body language was ‘socially appropriately friendly’ but with uncontrolled defensive suspicion thrown in.
I threw all that back at them, they saw it for what it was, and read me as ‘unfriendly but pretending’.
The problem with mirroring is that sometimes people see their own reflection when they need to understand the real you. It’s a shortcut for a short term [sic] problem, and whilst it can be used when you don’t know someone better, mistakes can be made if you miss something.
That people see their reflection instead of me when I mirror is helpful in difficult situations. When pressured, I find I’ll often copy the tone of the person who is pressuring me, though this is something I only notice after the event.
I notice my mirroring only after I’ve had a difficult encounter with a bully, when I’ve copied their behavior as self-preservation. Later, after I’ve reflected on the encounter, trying to figure out why I behaved a certain way, I realize I was only reflecting their behavior back at them, changing them into a nonbully.
I recall leaning back in my chair to stretch during a Zoom call with two difficult men who treated me as if they owned me. Both men were startled and changed their behavior when I stretched. They startled and changed their behavior when I, acting against my nature, talked over them and cut them off after they’d repeatedly talked over me and cut me off. By the end of the call, both men seemed to think they worked for me.
Similarly, during an interrogation-style interview, I find I mirror my interviewers. In other words, my ability to “perform” well during a job interview depends on the interviewers’ behaviors. Before an interview I’ll spend hours researching the company, writing STAR stories, and questions to ask, but none of my preparation matters if the interviewer is playing social games.
Because I’m Autistic, social games often cause me to go mute, and I struggle to access relevant thoughts; my research and STAR stories vanish from my mind. I’ll then either mirror my interviewers, answering their questions with questions, or go mute. And I often find myself speaking in monotone, giving yes or no answers, tempted to end the interview early because I’m certain the conversation is going unwell.
That’s not to say I only mirror during difficult situations; it’s just that when I reflect on my mirroring, I can only say for sure that I’ve copied behavior to survive difficult people. Mean people say I’m mean. Nice people say I’m nice. Presumably, this means I also mirror when in the presence of people I like.
If during a job interview, if my interviewer is kind and real, more interested in an honest conversation about my skills and how I can contribute to the organization than in testing me, I do well. At least I feel I do well. My thoughts flow, as does my speech.
Mirroring is common behavior for people of all neurotypes, though at times I wonder if absorbing might be a better term. When politicians copy someone’s behavior, it seems to me that they’re absorbing behavior. Whether this connection is genuine, I wonder. I’m doubtful. But I do recognize that because people absorb each other’s behavior, toxicity is contagious.
Which is one reason so many people are quitting their jobs, looking for environments where the behaviors they absorb don’t give them anxiety or trauma, a place where they belong, rather than a place they’re trying to survive.
I belong wherever I choose to go, but I don’t feel a sense of belonging wherever I go. And wherever I go, I’m sure I’ll continue to reflect behavior. If nice people say I’m nice and mean people say I’m mean, I prefer to go where I’m absorbing the behaviors of those who don’t mind when their behavior is reflected back at them.