When someone copies the facial expressions, gestures, vocal inflections, opinions, and attitudes of another person during a social interaction, this is known as mirroring. The point of mirroring is to make a positive impression on the other person, to encourage the development of a friendship or promote feelings of goodwill.
On some occasions people may adopt mirroring behaviors in group settings as well, if they find the members of the group interesting or attractive. Mirroring can be conscious or unconscious, meaning it can be either a deliberate tactic to create a favorable response, or a reflection of a person’s natural interest in creating mutually satisfying social relationships.
Whether intentional or not, mirroring reflects a need to gain acceptance from others. But does mimicking another person’s outlook and behavior really build trust and affection?
It certainly can, if it is done out of sincere interest or affection and with unselfish intent. The person being mirrored may feel an immediate connection with someone who is interacting with them in this way, although they may not understand exactly what makes the other person so enticing.
The Positive Aspects of Mirroring
Mirroring automatically changes the nature of a social interaction. As a facilitator of more effective communication, it can help people who practice it in a number of ways.
For example, mirroring can help Introverts make friends with more outgoing people. Through mirroring, they can step outside their usual pattern of interacting, which may be too slow and introspective to make an immediate impression on a boisterous Extravert. The Extravert’s verbally expressive approach to communication invites a similar type of response, and an Introvert who mirrors this style may receive a more enthusiastic reception.
Anyone who would like to sharpen their social skills can benefit by mirroring the conversational habits, body language, and people-friendly attitudes of people who are socially adept. This applies to Introverts who want to expand their network of social contacts. But it can also work for Extraverts who are too blunt and outspoken and sometimes inadvertently push people away. These Extraverts can learn from other Extraverts who’ve learned to be more restrained, or from Introverts who rely on modest body language and more thoughtful replies to make a good impression.
While mirroring works to open new social doors, it may not be the best way to form sustainable long-term relationships. At some point, a person seeking a lasting social connection will need to be more authentic, to reveal more of themselves and show their new friend who they really are. Nevertheless, even the most intimate relationships will require an initial spark to get started, and that is where mirroring can make a big difference. Mirroring behavior can help bridge the gap between that first introduction and the more meaningful friendship, partnership, or romantic relationship a person is seeking.
In addition to its benefits for those seeking to form new social relationships, mirroring can also help people fit in better when they start a new job. To navigate an unfamiliar work environment successfully, a new employee should be able to observe the social dynamic and adapt quickly, which is not always easy to do. Mirroring can act as an icebreaker or a shortcut, temporarily allowing an individual to adjust their approach to make a positive impression on employers, managers, and co-workers. Once people get to know them better, they may feel comfortable enough to drop or reduce the mirroring behavior to reveal their true personality.
One of the biggest benefits of mirroring is that when done smartly and sincerely, it really works. If practiced in moderation and with restraint, mirroring behavior will quite often make a good impression on others. They will tend to see someone who communicates with them in their own language and style, with apparent sympathy and understanding, as a pleasant and interesting person who is worth getting to know.
How Mirroring Can Go Wrong
Mirroring behavior isn’t without its risks. In some situations, it can produce exactly the opposite of the intended effect. Mirroring can also be used as a method of manipulation.
As an illustration of the latter, mirroring is a technique often used by salespeople or public relations experts, or by others who are trying to persuade someone to join or support their cause. It can be used by false friends motivated by purely selfish desires, as a way to convince someone to do something that is actually against their best interests.
If a person is selling or marketing a product, service, or organization that is worthwhile or beneficial, mirroring as a form of persuasion isn’t necessarily harmful or manipulative. But it is still something everyone should watch out for, when they’re dealing with someone who has an agenda that is motivating their efforts to communicate.
Even when intentions are good, mirroring can backfire if it becomes too obvious. A person who overdoes it can become transparent, and others may interpret their efforts to improve communication or make social contact as dishonest or insincere. They may become put off instead of being receptive, which could lead to a quick and disappointing termination of a once-promising social contact.
Mirroring can also be stressful and exhausting for those who aren’t used to doing it, or who don’t possess natural mirroring skills. The effort required to sustain the practice is difficult, making the social contact far less pleasant and satisfying than it otherwise might be. Feelings of guilt can also create stress, if the person doing the mirroring is highly conscientious and concerned about treating people badly. Even if their intentions are completely honorable, they may feel ashamed of themselves afterward for not being totally authentic.
Extraverted Feeling and Mirroring
The personality types most likely to practice mirroring on a regular basis are those that possess an Extraverted Feeling (Fe) function. This includes ENFJs and ESFJs, for whom the Fe function is dominant, and INFJs and ISFJs, who have an auxiliary Fe function. The feeling functions in these types are focused outward rather than inward, and their desire for social harmony and happiness motivates their mirroring behavior.
These four personality types are highly empathic and extremely concerned about the feelings of others. They tend to prioritize the feelings of their companions over themselves, and they will go to great lengths to make their friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, and innocent strangers feel happy, acknowledged, accepted, respected, honored, praised, or validated.
When these empathic personality types engage in mirroring behavior, they do so with pure intentions and a high level of skill. Their natural empathy allows them to readily identify others’ needs and emotions, and they compassionately target their mirroring efforts to make sure their companions' needs are met.
For ENFJs and ESFJs in particular, with their dominant Fe functions, mirroring is an instinctive practice that they will often do without thinking. It comes naturally to them because they are so in tune with people and so eager to please. They don’t have to think about mirroring, since they aren’t doing it to attain some type of benefit for themselves.
It is important to emphasize that every personality type is capable of mirroring to some extent, and all might have at least some motivation to do it in some instances.
For example, a less instinctively empathic personality type, like an ISTP or an ESTJ, might mimic the tones, words, and body language of a more compassionate personality type, like an ENFJ, when trying to comfort someone who is depressed, upset, or grieving over a devastating personal loss. During a job interview, an Introvert might try to mirror the Extravert conducting the interview, using more exaggerated gestures or facial expressions or speaking more loudly or jovially than they normally would, in order to make a better impression.
There are dozens of examples like this, which reveal why any personality type might have good reason to adopt mirroring behavior in specific instances. They might do it because they would gain some benefit, or they might do it to make someone they care about feel better when facing a difficult situation.
Constructive Mirroring for Healthy and Harmonious Communication
When it emerges organically from compassion and empathy, mirroring will usually have a positive effect on social interactions. It can still have that effect when it is done on purpose, if the goal is to boost the moods or self-esteem of others. It can add a delightful and engaging element to interpersonal encounters, as long as those who do it have honorable intentions.
In most instances, mirroring is an approach that works best in moderation. Too much of it will make it transparent, dimming its potentially positive effects. Mirroring should always be motivated by a sincere desire to improve communication, or to help companions in need. Those who act in this spirit will be most effective at creating constructive relationships that are highly rewarding for all parties involved.