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The Chameleon Effect

Every man is a borrower and a mimic, life is theatrical and literature a quotation.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am likable. I could prove this to you scientifically, but at the moment, with no lab or medical staff at my disposal, you'll have to take my word for it. Sales-aptitude tests were designed to find people like me -- I was even accused of cheating on such a test when my score revealed to a prospective employer that I fit into a very small percentage of extreme sales-type people. Questions such as, "Do you have personalized license plates?" and "Are you likely to strike up a conversation in an elevator?" were all answered honestly in the affirmative. But some test's determination that I could sell a hamburger to a Hindu is not what makes me likable. The thing that endears me to others is what psychologists have dubbed the "chameleon effect." Professionals agree that people who subtly mimic the body language, tone of voice, and overall disposition of those they are speaking with are perceived as more likable than people who do not mirror such behavior.

My natural ability to mimic others has its drawbacks. Reflecting people's behavior is not something I do consciously; the tendency is deep-seated and nearly impossible to control. I am so easily influenced by whomever I'm speaking with or whatever I'm reading, watching, or listening to that at any given time, I am merely a pastiche of my surroundings. I wasn't aware of this until David, whose place by my side grants him front-row seating for the show of my instability, pointed it out to me.

"You are not allowed to watch any more Dave Chappelle." This took me by surprise. I had only seen two DVDs' worth of episodes, and I was looking forward to adding more of the comedian's work to our Netflix queue.

"Why not? What's your deal?"

"Did you not hear yourself just now? Hmm?" David's brows were raised in expectation.

"I would have said that anyway; that's the way I talk. I say that all the time."

"No, you don't," he said.

Moments earlier, we had arrived home just as Garrison Keillor began reading the credits for his show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR. The host said, "This show is brought to you by..." and I turned down the radio and shouted, "YOUR MOMMA, BIATCH!"

David looked dejected and mentioned my more-than-usual use of Ebonics lately. I've always had a knack for dialects, a talent that falls within the "can fit in with any social crowd" category of my likability. It didn't strike me as odd that I, a white woman, had been saying to my white friends, "Nigga, pleeze!" at every opportunity. And it's only natural to get a song stuck in your head, even if the lyrics are "I wanna piss on you, yes I do, I'll piss on you, I'll pee on you..." as was the case in the song Dave Chappelle sang to mock R&B star R. Kelly.

"There's nothing wrong with adapting to your surroundings," I said. Cutting David off mid-scoff, I added, "Listen, cracka, get outta my ass. You weren't all complainy and shit when I was talkin' like an English gentleman." I was referring, of course, to the time David introduced me to Jeeves and Wooster, the British comedy based on books by P.G. Wodehouse.

"I wouldn't mind if you spoke like that again," David said. "Actually, I'd prefer it if you used the extensive vocabulary of Jeeves rather than the potty mouth of Chappelle."

It was my turn to scoff but I refrained, as his comment sparked in me a series of memories, each one a phase in my life inspired by outside influences.

There was the "historical romance novel" period, which lasted from seventh grade through my junior year in high school. During this time, I devoured almost a hundred novels. Between 500-page English sagas by Johanna Lindsey and the Montgomery series of the Scottish Highlands by Jude Deveraux, I learned thousands of euphemisms for lovemaking and every anatomical bit involved.

I was the only 15-year-old I knew who used words like "alabaster" to describe a classmate's pale, smooth skin; the only one who blushed upon hearing the word "mound" announced at my sister's softball game. It became natural for me, when considering whom to invite to a Halloween party, to hear my inner voice say, "Methinks it would be titillating if that young rake who sits beside me in biology class, whose glistening green eyes and raven black hair doth make my bosom heave, should present himself at my costume ball."

Shortly after I heard my first Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg album, I requested a light for my cigarette by announcing, "Does anyone have a lizzo for this bizzo?" Only years later I heard the answer I'd been longing for: "Fo' sheezy, my neezy."

When I visit my family in New York City for more than two weeks, I return home with an accent befitting whichever borough I've been in. Over the years I've had friends from Great Britain, France, and Australia, and though I could intentionally imitate each of their accents with great aplomb, the imitative lilt my voice took on during normal conversation -- subtle but noticeable -- was beyond my control.

"I'll make you a deal," I said to David as we walked in the door. "For every episode of Chappelle's Show, I'll watch an episode of Black Adder. That ought to even it out."

David didn't look convinced. I'd tried the same thing with the Kids in the Hall, but Canada wasn't close enough to England for my BBC-loving boyfriend. Black Adder, a show starring Rowan Atkinson, is British enough that when I repeat his words, it doesn't bother David. But he still wanted more of a compromise, something that would deter me from repeating potentially offensive phrases, regardless of whether or not he finds them amusing.

"How about for every hour you watch any kind of episode on DVD, you spend an hour listening to the original BBC radio show of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with me? I've got the whole thing on my iPod," David said.

"I've already read the book. And we just saw the movie!"

"The radio show is better than the movie. It has all the brilliant bits the movie had to gloss over in order to fit the 12-hour program into 2 hours." David sounded exasperated.

"Babel fish this, biatch, I've got too much shiznit on my plizate to justify a dozen hours of redcoat gibberish. I'll put in a Star Trek, and we can geek out together."

I could see in his face that he'd rather I say, "Plot the coordinates and lay in a course to the freezer," where his orders are to refill my vodka tonic, than call him "biatch" one more time.

"It's a deal," David said, already flipping through the second season of Trek discs we borrowed from Renee. "What episode are we on?"

"The one after the 'Doomsday Machine,' Lieutenant; fascinating episode." I sat back on the futon and put my feet up on the black leather ottoman. "Second star to the right and straight on till morning!"

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Every man is a borrower and a mimic, life is theatrical and literature a quotation.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am likable. I could prove this to you scientifically, but at the moment, with no lab or medical staff at my disposal, you'll have to take my word for it. Sales-aptitude tests were designed to find people like me -- I was even accused of cheating on such a test when my score revealed to a prospective employer that I fit into a very small percentage of extreme sales-type people. Questions such as, "Do you have personalized license plates?" and "Are you likely to strike up a conversation in an elevator?" were all answered honestly in the affirmative. But some test's determination that I could sell a hamburger to a Hindu is not what makes me likable. The thing that endears me to others is what psychologists have dubbed the "chameleon effect." Professionals agree that people who subtly mimic the body language, tone of voice, and overall disposition of those they are speaking with are perceived as more likable than people who do not mirror such behavior.

My natural ability to mimic others has its drawbacks. Reflecting people's behavior is not something I do consciously; the tendency is deep-seated and nearly impossible to control. I am so easily influenced by whomever I'm speaking with or whatever I'm reading, watching, or listening to that at any given time, I am merely a pastiche of my surroundings. I wasn't aware of this until David, whose place by my side grants him front-row seating for the show of my instability, pointed it out to me.

"You are not allowed to watch any more Dave Chappelle." This took me by surprise. I had only seen two DVDs' worth of episodes, and I was looking forward to adding more of the comedian's work to our Netflix queue.

"Why not? What's your deal?"

"Did you not hear yourself just now? Hmm?" David's brows were raised in expectation.

"I would have said that anyway; that's the way I talk. I say that all the time."

"No, you don't," he said.

Moments earlier, we had arrived home just as Garrison Keillor began reading the credits for his show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR. The host said, "This show is brought to you by..." and I turned down the radio and shouted, "YOUR MOMMA, BIATCH!"

David looked dejected and mentioned my more-than-usual use of Ebonics lately. I've always had a knack for dialects, a talent that falls within the "can fit in with any social crowd" category of my likability. It didn't strike me as odd that I, a white woman, had been saying to my white friends, "Nigga, pleeze!" at every opportunity. And it's only natural to get a song stuck in your head, even if the lyrics are "I wanna piss on you, yes I do, I'll piss on you, I'll pee on you..." as was the case in the song Dave Chappelle sang to mock R&B star R. Kelly.

"There's nothing wrong with adapting to your surroundings," I said. Cutting David off mid-scoff, I added, "Listen, cracka, get outta my ass. You weren't all complainy and shit when I was talkin' like an English gentleman." I was referring, of course, to the time David introduced me to Jeeves and Wooster, the British comedy based on books by P.G. Wodehouse.

"I wouldn't mind if you spoke like that again," David said. "Actually, I'd prefer it if you used the extensive vocabulary of Jeeves rather than the potty mouth of Chappelle."

It was my turn to scoff but I refrained, as his comment sparked in me a series of memories, each one a phase in my life inspired by outside influences.

There was the "historical romance novel" period, which lasted from seventh grade through my junior year in high school. During this time, I devoured almost a hundred novels. Between 500-page English sagas by Johanna Lindsey and the Montgomery series of the Scottish Highlands by Jude Deveraux, I learned thousands of euphemisms for lovemaking and every anatomical bit involved.

I was the only 15-year-old I knew who used words like "alabaster" to describe a classmate's pale, smooth skin; the only one who blushed upon hearing the word "mound" announced at my sister's softball game. It became natural for me, when considering whom to invite to a Halloween party, to hear my inner voice say, "Methinks it would be titillating if that young rake who sits beside me in biology class, whose glistening green eyes and raven black hair doth make my bosom heave, should present himself at my costume ball."

Shortly after I heard my first Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg album, I requested a light for my cigarette by announcing, "Does anyone have a lizzo for this bizzo?" Only years later I heard the answer I'd been longing for: "Fo' sheezy, my neezy."

When I visit my family in New York City for more than two weeks, I return home with an accent befitting whichever borough I've been in. Over the years I've had friends from Great Britain, France, and Australia, and though I could intentionally imitate each of their accents with great aplomb, the imitative lilt my voice took on during normal conversation -- subtle but noticeable -- was beyond my control.

"I'll make you a deal," I said to David as we walked in the door. "For every episode of Chappelle's Show, I'll watch an episode of Black Adder. That ought to even it out."

David didn't look convinced. I'd tried the same thing with the Kids in the Hall, but Canada wasn't close enough to England for my BBC-loving boyfriend. Black Adder, a show starring Rowan Atkinson, is British enough that when I repeat his words, it doesn't bother David. But he still wanted more of a compromise, something that would deter me from repeating potentially offensive phrases, regardless of whether or not he finds them amusing.

"How about for every hour you watch any kind of episode on DVD, you spend an hour listening to the original BBC radio show of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with me? I've got the whole thing on my iPod," David said.

"I've already read the book. And we just saw the movie!"

"The radio show is better than the movie. It has all the brilliant bits the movie had to gloss over in order to fit the 12-hour program into 2 hours." David sounded exasperated.

"Babel fish this, biatch, I've got too much shiznit on my plizate to justify a dozen hours of redcoat gibberish. I'll put in a Star Trek, and we can geek out together."

I could see in his face that he'd rather I say, "Plot the coordinates and lay in a course to the freezer," where his orders are to refill my vodka tonic, than call him "biatch" one more time.

"It's a deal," David said, already flipping through the second season of Trek discs we borrowed from Renee. "What episode are we on?"

"The one after the 'Doomsday Machine,' Lieutenant; fascinating episode." I sat back on the futon and put my feet up on the black leather ottoman. "Second star to the right and straight on till morning!"

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