As the saying goes, ‘it takes all sorts to make a world.’ People’s idiosyncrasies are a part of what makes them unique and individual, and often define our character and other’s perceptions of us. However, these idiosyncrasies can often be attributed less to ourselves and more to the people around us — our family, our friends, and our peers.
The value and role of idiosyncrasies is made evident in the creation of fictional characters. The deliberate construction of complex characters often relies on mannerisms and quirks to make them seem believable as our perceptions of authenticity focus on individual characteristics. Adding detail also allows people to better understand a character and the situations they are put in, with quirks and tics alluding to a person’s emotions and thought processes. For example, nervous tics can be used to imply someone is guilty in a crime drama, or large hand gestures can be used to suggest someone is confident and outgoing. This helps explain why so many of us have idiosyncrasies in real life. We build up and collect through our lives these ways of being which in their own way make us unique, despite the actual quirks often being picked up from other people.
Sayings, gestures, and ways of speaking are rarely, if ever, unique to an individual. Humans, as natural followers, use such mannerisms as a mechanism to communicate with others. This means that if we see someone using a particular form of communication, we are likely to mirror them to help them understand us. From the day we are born we begin learning ways to interact and behave. As we progress through our lives, we become more conscious of such behaviours, norms, and values governing our existence, but many of these aspects go largely unnoticed. Through nurture (and some elements of nature) we begin to develop characters and idiosyncrasies which make us identifiable and, at least to the people who know us, seemingly unique.
Some such behaviours are noticeable instantly. Upon meeting someone, if you’re paying attention, it is not hard to tell if they have particular accents or speech patterns or use certain phrases a lot. Their physical mannerisms are even more susceptible to being copied. It is now well-known that body mirroring is a subconscious attempt at empathy and communication to the point where some people now use it deliberately to make others more amenable to them. This mirroring is determined by social proximity, hence the common assumption that we are the average of the people we spend the most time with. There is no doubt that humans are social creatures influenced by those around us, and many of us have a desire to fit in. Through both peer pressure, in which we consciously condition our behaviour, and also peer influence, we unknowingly adopt the actions and mannerisms of those around us. On a small scale this can involve using the same slang words as your friends but on a cultural level our surrounding environment and the actions of strangers can also be influential. Where you live can have a big impact on your perceived character as when living in a big city something that seems completely natural like having a chat to someone at the bus stop would be viewed as odd. Thus, your character adjusts to where you go (to some extent) to fit in with social conventions.
At university, our idiosyncrasies become both more exposed and more malleable. People from many different backgrounds come together in university campuses and towns and thus form their own kind of subculture. Students are viewed by politicians, businesses, and wider society as a distinctive sub-section of the population. In relation to politics, they are considered their own voting bloc, often sharing particular stances on issues such as climate change and the legalisation of drugs. Although this is not true for everyone, students as a whole do share common experiences and influences in their social and academic lives. Similarly, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of students blend. Slang is one noticeable way in which this occurs, with every generation developing new terminology and ways of speaking to communicate with one another. It is noted by many people of older generations today that young people use upward inflection, in their opinion, much too often, making many statements seem like questions. Mannerisms can thus be indicative of much more than just a person’s individual character — they can also inform people’s judgements about someone’s age and social and cultural background.
Moving in with your friends only adds to the experience of changing mannerisms. Just as your families did when you were children, the people you live with influence you constantly throughout the day. They are the people you see most often and the people most likely to pick up on your mannerisms themselves. At university, this includes learning about idiosyncrasies and quirks that you didn’t know you had, or figuring out you’ve been saying a word ‘wrong’ your whole life without anyone else noticing. Going from living at home where everyone speaks relatively similarly to being influenced by various new mannerisms requires adaptation. Coming from a house where everyone speaks one hundred miles an hour and talks over each other constantly, it was baffling to me coming to university and finding that not everyone did the same. Of course, I was aware that some people are quieter than others and I had interacted in social situations with many people throughout my life, but secretly I assumed that at home everyone acted vaguely the same. In my mind those I considered quiet or excessively polite were only doing so in public, so that when they went home they could let it all out and go back to talk-shouting over each other. It turns out that is not the case and living with new people who do not have the same mannerisms can mean adjusting your own to make life easier. Sometimes this can be a conscious choice but often it is natural to slip into different habits when surrounded by different people.
Social proximity has become a more complicated concept than ever. This is because it is not necessarily just physical proximity that is influential, but digital proximity as well, now that socialising online is becoming more and more common. Screens have been altering our mannerisms and behaviours for a while now, with TV, film, and music providing us with material to reference and characters to imitate (whether on purpose or by accident). However, social media means that anyone with a phone has the ability to interact with internet cultures and subcultures exposing people to new quirks and behaviours. In some ways this helps with communication. Geographical borders are increasingly not reflective of cultural ones, with many young people having access to similar cultural influences. Social media also makes it even harder to trace back our idiosyncrasies to their source though, because it can be difficult to tell whether you copied it from someone in person or whether you just saw it online.
Humans are adaptable creatures, with most moulding themselves to fit situations in the most ideal way possible. Although there is no doubt that everyone is unique, it is the way in which they accumulate different idiosyncrasies that makes them this way. Most individual quirks belong not to an individual, but a culture, society, or subculture. It is interesting when people consider how much they change throughout their lives as some idiosyncrasies seem characteristic of a person and we cannot imagine them without it. However, in reality, many of our more subtle mannerisms can be changed or replaced over time as we interact with new people and new media. They are not always simply expressions of our character but rather reflections of the people we grew up with, spend time with, and now interact with online.
Many people fear that they lack originality and therefore to take away from them something like idiosyncrasies, which are supposed to be unique, may seem cruel, but it can be viewed more positively. These actions and behaviours exist to aid communication and though differences should be appreciated, there is something good to be taken from the way in which humans navigate their way through life by copying and imitating others. Subconsciously, most of us are trying to figure out the best way to get through life, and we rely on each other and our ability to communicate to do so.
Illustration: Sarah Knight