Unconscious mimicry is transparent in human nature. In early 1897, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde expressed his views on human mimicry in a letter addressed to Alfred Douglas: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” In Wilde’s statement, he was trying to convey that a large proportion of individuals assume characteristics and idiosyncrasies from those around them. Although some may argue that originality is evident in humans, automatic imitation is innate and ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives.
Imitation in humans can be recognized virtually anywhere, but it is notably present in characters in literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter, is an effective illustration of this. In Hawthorne’s novel, protagonist Hester Prynne is penalized for having a child out of wedlock. As part of her punishment for her transgression, she is required to stand on a public scaffold, with her child in her arms, susceptible to shame and judgement from the community of Salem: “The young pastor’s voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy” (Hawthorne, 3). In this scene, Hawthorne exemplifies a crowd of people sympathizing with Prynne due to the Reverend being evidently distressed as he pleads with her. This mimetic response is a reaction to the tense situation they are witnessing. As humans are social creatures, they tend to naturally align their emotions with those around them. This reaction assists in societal connection. The excerpt from the beginning of Hawthorne’s novel can be related to Oscar Wilde’s quote because it showcases a community “copying” a behavior they observed in someone else.
Adding on, David Sedaris’ book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, is another work of literature that displays the mimetic nature of humans. In his collection of essays, Sedaris recounts his time struggling to learn French after relocating to Paris. He mentions transcribing French vocabulary onto flashcards in an attempt to absorb new words or phrases. Sedaris shares, “I found my words in the dictionary, typed them onto index cards, and committed them to memory while on my daily walks to the neighboring village” (Sedaris, 163). This demonstrates repetition and imitation being used as a form of learning. Linguistic mimicry is a constructive method of memorizing auxiliary languages and pronunciations through repetition and observation. Sedaris also makes clear in his anecdote that he liked to examine the city and the people around him to aid in learning the French language. Throughout his journey, he distinguished that repeating other people’s idiosyncrasies was an effective way to grasp more information. This is a more positive example of Wilde’s quote, “Most people are other people”, as David Sedaris was imitating others in order to educate himself.
Aside from mimesis shown in literature, it is also apparent in society. Pulling apart Wilde’s assertation regarding human mimicry, “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinion,” he is attempting to communicate that people adopt their beliefs through social influence. This is commonly done in hopes of validation from others. By creating a sense of parallelism, individuals are more likely to be accepted by their social group. Speaking personally, there are times where I have found myself unknowingly “imitating” someone I admire by picking up phrases or mannerisms that they frequently do. This mimetic behavior is used as a mechanism for interpersonal bonding. Humans are social beings, so acceptance is something that is frequently sought after. Going against mimetic theory and Wilde’s view, some contend saying that the majority of people organically form their own thoughts and opinions. However, there are enough instances that show that individuality is quite rare. Even in cases with deeply creative people, we can trace back their inspiration from something or someone else that might have influenced them. Breaking down the last part of Wilde’s declaration, “their passions a quotation”, he is stating that the things people truly care about are simply taken from other people they know. Hence his use of the word “quotation”.
To conclude, it is clear that human beings have an inherent inclination to mimic people around them. Oscar Wilde was trying to get across that people are subject to following the herd and echo the same ideas. Wilde’s quote can be related to circumstances in the real world or literature where automatic imitation is clear. Human beings are significantly influenced by those in their environment and it has become clear that mimicry is done subconsciously whether it is to seek approval, learn, or connect with others. Mimesis is the heart of human communication.