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TLDR: I'd like to be able to use mirroring online, similar to how I do this in person, and change my communication style online so that it will be more well-received by people, and be more similar to the way I am perceived in person.


So, I'm level 1 autistic (Aspergers) and I notice that I struggle a lot with mirroring people online, and people tend to perceive my mirroring / directness online as being condescending, whereas in person people perceive me as joyful, supportive, and kind.

What is mirroring?

There are strong biological connections in social mirroring and empathy. Humans have mirror neurons, neurons that are activated both when we observe another person complete an action, and when we complete the same action ourselves. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the brain of macaque monkeys.

https://sqonline.ucsd.edu/2021/06/how-social-mirroring-is-fundamentally-integrated-in-our-lives/

These are mirror neurons that do not trigger for me when I interact with other people who are neurotypical even in person; let alone online.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lack-of-mirror-neurons-ma/

My goal:

My goal is to communicate more effectively with neurotypical people online. I seem to do a pretty good job of masking in person by copying their body language and smiling, but in an online setting where there is no nonverbal body language at all, it becomes obvious to certain people that I am autistic. (and this can also place a target on my back). This is something I would like to avoid.

What I do in person:

In person, it is much easier because I can follow a specific set of "rules" like:

  1. 3 seconds of eye contact, 2 seconds of break
  2. Copy their body language. If arms are crossed, cross my arms.
  3. Smile and nod to show interest.
  4. Stand 2-4 feet away for friends, 6 feet for coworkers, 10+ for strangers.

There is still a significant disconnect in person as well, but I am better at "Masking" it. For example, the other day my coworker looked at me with a concerned face and asked if I am okay, when I was simply concentrating on a specific task. I was able to mask it by smiling and telling him that I am doing great, and am very focused on xyz task.

I want to learn how to mirror (mask) online well enough with neurotypical people in order to have greater success in corresponding with online coworkers, friends, etc.

I realized I do not have enough online "rules" for me to "pass" as being neurotypical online. This causes a great deal of struggle because the way I describe things can be perceived as hostile or condescending when I'm simply communicating in a direct way.

What I try to do online:

The only "rules" I have for mirroring people online are:

  1. No more than 3 texts that have not been responded to
  2. If someone responds with 1 word answers, it means they are not interested
  3. Apparently if people constantly send you compliments online, then they are flirting with you.
  4. If you have anything that could be potentially perceived as negative to say, sandwich it in between two compliments
  5. Ask people if they want advice before giving it.

Things I have tried:

I read this book recently called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and it has helped tremendously for me to improve my communication style in the software world. https://www.cnvc.org

This book helped a lot because it gave me a framework to text and speak differently. Before, I would ask people how they felt about something but stopped there.

Now, after reading this book, I ask someone how they are feeling, then try to figure out what is their underlying need, and connect the feeling to the need, asking questions to confirm I have understood it right.

However, this book did not help me with online mirroring; because when you ask people how they feel and how it connects to their core need online, the most common response is "why are you analyzing my psychology?" or something to that effect.

I truly believe this comes from a difference in communication styles where my only choice is to be direct and focused on details; where as neurotypical people sometimes see directness as a threat. I truly do not know how to bridge this communication gap between the way I'm perceived in person, compared to the way I'm perceived online, and this is why I'm asking the question.

How can I do mirroring online, similar to my mirroring in person?

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    Do you have specific contexts in mind? For example, the workplace, social media interactions, online dating, discussion forums, hobby groups, etc.?
    – Steve V
    Oct 20, 2022 at 18:39
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    I suggest not taking on the beliefs and practices of NVC uncritically. Especially if you want to be perceived as “normal”. Oct 21, 2022 at 17:30
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    You might consider if mirroring works at all on line. The evolution of the mirroring neurons might have not gotten that far. The attempt at mirroring might be the problem itself rather than the nuances how are trying to accomplish mirroring. Oct 23, 2022 at 10:45
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    Unfortunately text/email communications between people are all too often misinterpreted due to lack of accompanying facial expressions/body language. I find judicial use of a few emojis in informal situations invaluable. Where you would have smiled add a smile. :) Oct 30, 2022 at 15:21
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    Regardless of whether they pick up on it or not; I want to improve these mirroring skills. I'm referring to texting, not on video.
    – Kelsey
    Nov 9, 2022 at 15:17

1 Answer 1

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Short Answer:

Don't mirror body language, tone or facial expressions online. Only do it in person. In text messages, do keep your questions and answers to the same length as the other person.

Long Answer:

No one has answered in nine months, so I thought to respond as a typical neural person. I have a self-identified ASD wife with a highly successful senior executive career in a global company. My answer takes into account having studied her communication style.

Asking bard.google.com what mirroring is (which exactly matches my prior understanding):

In the context of human communication and autism, mirroring refers to the act of copying or imitating the body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions of another person. This is a natural way that people build rapport and connect with each other, but it can be a challenge for people with autism.

My personal experience is that mirroring is an "in-person" technique using body-language. You sit up if they sit up. You write a note in a pad if they do. You cross or uncross your legs to follow them etc. I tend to notice direct mirroring and find it distracting or off-putting. Yet I am rare, and I will explain that point later. I will occasionally mirror but very minimally and only in in-person situations.

With text or video conference communication, I expect mirroring not to work or even be counterproductive. I have no references to support my position but some off-the-cuff points:

  • Video: I took an "Introduction To Acting" course. My instructor taught me that stage acting requires a lot of body language and non-verbal communication. In contrast, she taught that with TV acting, the media requires subtle facial expressions, and that body language seems over-amplified. Video conferencing is more like TV acting than stage acting. Mirroring facial expressions would be highly unnerving ("robotic" or "creepy"). Mirroring body language risks being unsubtle on video and so "discovered", which may be counterproductive. More on that below.

  • Text: People are used to communicating non-real-time with people who cannot respond in kind as they are busy or distracted. I wouldn't "mirror" throughout text communication. Yet it is polite to "respond in kind". If someone is chatty and asks, "How was your weekend?" and uses three sentences, then being succinct with a short direct reply seems rude. Likewise, if they are being very brief in their first message to you, then responding with a chatty three-sentence response seems rude. My rationale is that not responding in kind, in either case, is disrespectful of their time. Either the time they invested in being chatty, else the time they could not afford to be talkative, as evidenced by their briefness.

On the video, I would follow the approach outlined for text. That is to “respond in kind” in terms of length and “small talk” in a reflective manner. This is a form of mirroring I guess but not how it is defined above. IMHO neural typical people would see it as “common courtesy” rather than a specific technique.

I mentioned above that I occasionally notice people mirroring and find it distracting and off-putting. I also said above that "being discovered" mirroring may be counterproductive. If I notice someone physically mirroring my body language, I will test for it. I will reverse whatever they reflect only to see if they follow. If someone does seem to be consciously mirroring me, I am instantly cautious of them. This is because mirroring is taught as a sales technique. When I detect mirroring as I suspect someone is trying to manipulate me for financial or political gain.

In conclusion, I recommend the following:

  • Do not mirror on video.
  • With text messages, respond in kind to brief message. With a chatty initial message, reply to the same length. It is then fine to not continue the exchange as long as you have clearly responded to any questions.
  • In-person, never "follow" someone when they reverse anything you mirrored. Pause your mirroring until the conversation has moved on.
  • In-person, avoid excessive mirroring, as it is better to seem cold yet attentive than to be discovered and risk being perceived as manipulative.
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    Thank you for the detailed response!
    – Kelsey
    Sep 7, 2023 at 18:07

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