You might not even know you’re doing it, but when you’re having a conversation with someone, chances are you are subtly mirroring them as you speak: nodding when they do or adjusting your posture to match theirs, for example. This is particularly true when you’re interacting with someone you’re trying to impress — like your potential future boss — and most of the research on this nonverbal form of communication shows that this works in the copycat’s favor; the people we mirror will usually end up liking us a little better when we reflect their behaviors, even if they can’t quite place a finger on why.
But this isn’t always the case. When the person we’re trying to impress uses a negative tone, and we mirror that negativity right back at them, it makes us look bad, suggests a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. K. Rachelle Smith-Genthos of Texas Tech University led about 50 undergraduates through a mock job interview, first asking each one to give a short speech about themselves and their qualifications for the fake job they were fake-applying for. (This way, the researchers could observe the normal tone of their voices.) Next, some of the students were paired with an interviewer who spoke to them in a negative tone — cold, uninterested, maybe even a little bored. The rest were matched with an interviewer who spoke in a neutral tone.
During the interview, as the researchers expected, the students who’d been given the negative interviewer began to match that person’s tone; their voices, too, became colder and less enthusiastic when compared to the mini speech about themselves they’d just delivered. A separate group, who weren’t aware of the study’s premise, listened to recordings of the interviews, and scored the students in the negative-tone condition lower than those in the neutral-tone condition. The negative-tone students, they reported, just didn’t seem that interested in the job. Their interviewers’ lack of interest in them became something of a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” the researchers conclude in their paper.
So perhaps the thing to do here is to fight against the human tendency to match someone’s tone when they’re being negative, if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to make a good impression — though it’s not clear from this paper how much control we even have over that impulse. But this much does seem clear: In this sort of scenario, it’s only going to make you look bad.