science of us

What Kind of Person Proposes in Public?

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At the Emmy Awards on Monday night, Glenn Weiss — accepting an award for directing the 2018 Oscars ceremony, who knew? — proposed to his girlfriend, Jan Svendsen, after proclaiming that he did not like to call her his girlfriend. Supposedly this is sweet because he wanted to call her his wife instead. If for some reason you want to watch (or rewatch) it happen, you can do that here.

Though the crowd at the Emmys appears in full favor of the proposal, and cheers Weiss on (what choice do they have?), many of those watching at home found it cringe-y, and even creepy. Naomi Fry, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tweeted: “A hint of gaslighting at last night’s Emmy proposal when the guy was like, ‘I haven’t asked yet!’” Even Svendsen, who accepted Weiss’s proposal, lightly scolded him by saying she was “expecting a private proposal if there ever was to be one.” (According to “Page Six,” Weiss’s daughters were also less than thrilled.)

Survey data consistently finds that the vast majority (approximately 85 percent) of people describe their ideal proposal as taking place in private, and The Knot reported that, according to their 19,000-subject survey, “Most women deemed proposing in public and proposing in front of friends or family as the biggest blunders an aspiring fiancé could make.” So why, WHY, do people (men) keep doing this?

Lisa Hoplock, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba who quite literally got her Ph.D. in marriage proposals, has some ideas. While she admits there’s very little research that’s been done on the psychology of the public proposer (so far), Hoplock thinks it’s fair to say it probably has something to do with insecurity. “It’s possible the proposers are trying to put someone on the spot because the audience knows the script, and they want to encourage the person to say yes,” she says. “If there’s hesitation [on the part of the person being asked], the audience might get involved, and start chanting ‘Say yes! Say yes!’” Whether or not Weiss was conscious of the desire to influence the outcome, it’s obvious from the footage that the Emmy audience played their roles perfectly.

While the assumption of increased likelihood of success might influence some people to make their proposals public, by no means does a crowd ensure success. For her study, Hoplock watched some 300 YouTube proposal videos, and read 400-some more Reddit and Weddingbee threads recounting proposal stories. She found that rejected proposals were more likely to take place in front of a large number of strangers, while accepted proposals were more likely to be private. “People do say no in front of others, and if they don’t say no or run away immediately, they might say no right afterward,” she says. If your primary focus is getting your partner to say yes, she says, the public proposal is “not a good strategy.”

And whether it “works” or not, most available evidence suggests that the people on the other end of these proposals do not enjoy them, says Hoplock. Many of the women whose stories she read online included variations on the phrase “He should have known better” — another way of saying “I expected a private proposal.”

Hoplock expects there is much to be learned about the public proposer’s psyche, and hopes to delve into it in future research. For now, there are only hunches, and the specific neck-clinching feeling we third-party observers get when watching someone be put in so tight a corner. “You can speculate about who are these people are,” she says. “People who like attention on themselves, maybe people who are narcissistic … but there’s no evidence yet!” Sounds right to me, though.

What Kind of Person Proposes in Public?