There are not many humans in the US who have ever heard of the 19th-century sociologist Gabriel Tarde. But in his day, Tarde was famous in his country, France, and held a position at the prestigious Collège de France. Tarde's main idea about human sociality is that it comes down to imitation. In his most celebrated book, The Laws of Imitation, he made this striking observation: When you visit a foreign country and everyone looks the same to you, this is actually a truer picture of things than the one in which, after some time has lapsed, you recognize the differences and idiosyncrasies of the individuals in the population.
I bring this up because something interesting happened when I recently visited the Sheraton's Fountain Wine Bar and Lounge to see and drink by a sculpture by George Tsutakawa—a local mid-20th-century Japanese American artist who is famous in our city for the Fountain of Wisdom, the only thing that survived the demolition of the old library that Rem Koolhaas's masterpiece replaced. What happened is this: When I arrived at the lounge to sit and drink by the fountain, I found, one, it was empty and, two, its bar was closed. You could sit by the fountain, but you couldn't enjoy a glass of wine as you watched its water rise and fall about its spoonlike shapes. An inquiry at the main desk revealed that the bar was closed for maintenance purposes until the following day. What to do?
The Daily Grill, which is down the hall from the lounge, was open and had a bar. I went to the Grill's bar and asked if I could buy a glass of wine there and take it to the fountain. The bartender saw nothing wrong with this—and with that, the problem was solved. As I sat in the empty lounge, drinking wine and thinking about the sculpture (so modern, so Seattle, so Japanese American), a middle-aged man approached and asked where and how I got a drink in the lounge? The answer was supplied; he thanked me and made a beeline to the Daily Grill. A moment later, two women walked into the lounge with drinks, sat at a table next to a wide window, and began talking about work. Apparently, they had seen me drinking, seen that the bar in the lounge was closed, but also seen that the Daily Grill is open, and put one, two, and three together. Now here is my point: You can either imitate by asking or, like the women, by inferring. But everything comes down to laws of imitation.