A Closer Look at Social Mimicry by Phoung Hua

About two months ago, on a chilly evening in Sydney, I had the pleasure of joining seven friends for an amiable Japanese dinner. We were understandably starved and thirsty after a six hour workshop plus an extra hour spent wandering around the city in desperate search of a place to eat. There was nothing really momentous about the occasion other than that we had just known each other for roughly a day and got along swimmingly.

In spite of the comforting vibes that circulated across the table, nobody took dining manners lightly. As is inevitable, a few of us were served first. But keeping in line with traditional dining customs, neither of us touched our meals, insisting that all of us be served before eating. About 10 minutes passed and three of us hadn’t been given our meals so any food on the table remained untouched. We were a resilient bunch. ‘It won’t be much longer,’ an unserved Josh reassured.

Another ten minutes passed and he still hadn’t been served. We were almost drooling at this point as our dishes appeared more tempting and our panic buttons were a little under pressure as the food grew colder. Josh was virtually jumping out of his seat coercing us to stop being polite and just eat. We unanimously agreed that we felt bad so instead resorted to sipping on water and pretending the food wasn’t there – extremely difficult to do when the smells of grilled meat and spicy sauces were wafting about unsympathetically. I don’t know about anyone else but my stomach growled so fervently with emptiness and hunger, it ached at this point.

It wasn’t until an extra 6-7 minutes later that all of us felt the approbation of one-another to eat. My chicken nanban had grown cold and dry and the sauce coating it was now in soggy clumps yet I was comforted by the fact I had made socially acceptable choices.

Looking in retrospect, it may have appeared as an ordinary social ritual that doesn’t really warrant a whole article being written. But I wonder whether we were pushed to our limits simply for the sake of dining courtesy. Would you have done the same, say if you hadn’t eaten for at least three debilitating hours, was then served with a hot, sizzling, flavoursome meal and it would have been completely understandable if you retired in the waiting game and just took a bite. I doubt any of us would have protested to that. All it would have taken was one person to rock the boat and the rest would have followed approvingly.

Social psychologist and science writer Michael Bond recounted a very similar observation in his book, ‘The Power of Others,’ an exploration of recent discoveries in social psychology which was published last year. Behavioural researcher Roel Hermans and his colleagues had set up an ‘experimental restaurant’ in their lab with proper tables, cutlery and the sorts. They then served evening dishes to 70 pairs of female undergraduate students and it unearthed a string of ‘social mimicry’ incidents. Many of the women channelled the mannerisms of each other down to the very nitty gritty details – it was even reported that they more frequently put fork to mouth at the same time rather than separately. It’s on par with a prior observation that with our ‘drinking partners’ we often take a sip at around the same time they do. Even if watching someone drink in a movie or on TV, the times at which we sip are likely to be in parallel to theirs.

Alike the women in Herman’s experiment, at the Japanese restaurant, it seemed that in addition to being polite diners, each of us felt an obligation to be in sync with the other. In saying that, Herman’s study is inadvertently confounded by variables such as gender and age. Are males as likely to fall prey to this chameleon effect as females? In our instance it did, but there were only 3 men. What if we were older, say in our early forties rather than twenties? Would older diners be less anxious and scrupulous about their eating habits, having been accustomed to them for so long, or would it entail the opposite effect? 

Of equal importance as the detriment to control for these variables in future observational studies, is the need to explore why so many of us adhere to dining customs religiously. In our encounter, it’s likely there was fear of giving off the impression that we were greedy or self-centred. The social cognition studies of Dr Joanne Lumsden, at the University of Aberdeen, suggested that when spending time with someone new, if we are interested in the mutual benefits of the meeting, we are likely to be in sync with the other person twice as frequently as somebody who is only concerned with themselves. The nature of our relationship is also a probable explanation for the mannerisms. We had just become friends and although we might not have needed to impress each other, we wanted to show that we would be valuable members of the group. We fed off of each other (pun intended). Had we been friends for years or family members, starting on a meal before someone else might not have elicited much fear, discomfort or guilt.

It’s a phenomenon Bond explored in his work. Mannerisms like eating seem to be a crucial component of body language. Whether we assume similar eating patterns as the person we’re dining with can communicate our interest in them. These findings also have implications for those wanting to pick up signals in nerve-wracking social situations like a first date. If your partner doesn’t tend to put spoon to mouth or raise their glass at the same times you do, they might be really comfortable with you or just uninterested. There is of course the chance that they are not too conscious of the psychology of social mimicry.

So does this research improve anything about the future of dining? One of us had made a brief joke that perhaps there should be a time limit for the polite waiting period after dishes were given out. Maybe after about 10 minutes of being served, the food must be devoured. Herman suggests that social imitations, especially involving eating habits are a struggle to overlook, even if we became more mindful of our mimicry. The quirks have become such an ingrained and significant part of our social lives and are probably knee-jerk reactions to few, something Bond will term ‘innate socialness.’ In saying that, social mimicry does act as a strong binding force and in our instance, proceeded to expose and inspire altruism. To think even virtual strangers can dictate one another’s behavioural patterns brings to light this idea that we live in a socially contagious world and are largely susceptible to each other’s influence.