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Some years ago, I was on a date with a guy at a bar.  He ordered his drink from the bartender, and then I ordered my drink which was different from his.  To my surprise, he immediately changed his drink order to the drink that I was having.

This may seem like an unimportant incident, but it bothered me a lot.  I interpreted it as manipulative and as a suggestion on his part that I was so narcissistic that I needed him to copy my drink order.  I wanted him to act as an individual and have the drink he wanted.

Several years later, I was on a FaceTime call with someone I to get to know better.  At one point in the call, this fellow (who happened to be a psychiatrist) remarked “Hmmm . . . You don’t mirror. Curious.”  This had extra credence because it was coming from someone trained in assessing the behavior of others.  I knew something about mirroring, but I didn’t think that failing to engage in it was objectionable or surprising in any way.

When I told friends about the incident at the bar and how it made me feel, their jaws dropped.  His behavior, they said, was his way of building a connection with me and was a clear indication that they guy was attracted to me.  They did not interpret the episode the way I did at all.

Mirroring is the conscious or unconscious imitation of another person’s attributes, which may include their likes, facial expressions, body language, manner of speaking, and dress.  It is generally seen as an effort to establish a relationship with another, because you find them of interest or attractive.  Apparently, our minds pick up on such imitation and feel a sense of connection to the person who is doing the imitating.  It is very common of course for two people to both engage in mirroring of each other.  While mirroring has its positive attributes, it can also be used in manipulative ways, such as mirroring by a narcissist or by a salesperson trying to make a sale.

One aspect of mirroring that I find interesting is that my experience leads me to conclude that mirroring can happen even when you are not looking at each other.  Many times, I have turned my head, only to discover another person with whom I have some connection mirroring me, such as by the way my legs are crossed.  While some may characterize this as a meaningless coincidence, my intuition frequently tells me that it is much more than that.  (N.B.:  Keep an eye out for a future post about connections between minds.)

Turning back to the incident at the bar, clearly, if a case of mirroring is of the unconscious variety, it cannot be seen as manipulation or an effort to appeal to someone’s narcissism.  And there is something cool about your gestures being affected by someone at whom you may not even be looking.  To the extent that such unconscious actions do create an affinity between two people, it is actually a good thing.

However, my date’s mirroring of me at the bar was, in my view, not unconscious in nature, but rather an act of conscious mirroring.  Now that I am more schooled in the subject of mirroring, do I still believe that my reaction to the incident at the bar was correct?  I suppose my date’s behavior was indeed manipulative and an appeal to my narcissism, but it was in the service of an admirable goal – to establish a social bond with me.  To that extent, I should not judge my date’s behavior harshly at all (although I would still have preferred that he assert his individuality and order the drink of his choice).  The fact is that we do lots of things to get someone to like us, such as complimenting the other person or engaging in an activity that you know they enjoy.  Yet, except for a disingenuous compliment, we would not think of that as manipulative or as an appeal to one’s narcissism.

As for the incident with the psychiatrist, I was surprised by his remark that I was not mirroring him.  I never knew that such behavior was expected of me.  There are a number of possible explanations for my conduct, including that we were speaking remotely rather than in person or that I was unconsciously trying to protect myself from an “invasion” by him of my mental state.

By the way, in case you are curious, I did not go on a second date with the fellow at the bar, but it had very little to do with his drink ordering habits.