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Simply Solo Spotlight: Word of the Day – Propinquity

March 8, 2011

Today’s Simply Solo Spotlight is written by Bill Stuart, an associate professor of communication studies at Longwood University. When Bill and I started discussing topics about which he could write a guest post, I knew he would come up with something interesting and unique. And I knew I’d learn something from his post (I mean, he is a professor, after all!). I hope you enjoy today’s Spotlight, and be sure to use the word of the day at least once.

Oh, and an unrelated note: Happy Fat Tuesday! Being a pseudo-Catholic, I have decided to give up ice cream this year for Lent. If you need to find me tonight, I will be eating my last serving pint of ice cream until Easter. Wish me luck!

Quick shameless plug: Do you have a story to tell? Advice to offer? Did you just have literally the worst date of your life and you must write about it? I’d love to have you as the next Simply Solo Spotlight! Contact me at:

Word of the Day – Propinquity

I’m a college professor. My students seem to be in the midst of a wave of break-ups. In most of the cases, the no-longer-so-significant other did the student a favor. Many readers will recall their own “bad boy” or “bad girl” phase, whether you were the moth or the flame. This seems to beg the question, “Why are we ever attracted to the attention vampires we never should have dated in the first place?” Several of my students would have us believe that it’s all Disney’s fault. Beauty, you must redeem the Beast. Fair prince, you must be attracted to someone who needs rescuing, and fair princess, you must be a victim so that you can be rescued. Obviously, there’s much more to it than that.

Photo courtesy of Yellow Snow Photography

Tons of research are available about this (did I mention the college professor thing?). There’s a real-live, Google-able guy named Steve Duck who has written extensively on attraction. In an oft-cited 1994 publication, Duck argues that physical attractiveness and similarity are the strongest predictors of attraction. He also cites today’s word of the day, propinquity, as a factor in attraction. Propinquity can be defined as the likelihood of being attracted to people whom you see and with whom you interact. A no brainer, right? We’re attracted to people we find physically appealing and people whom we see. So why does this lead us down the folly-prone path of becoming romantically entangled with assholes, sociopaths or others who your friends will talk about and your parents won’t talk to? (Apologies to National Grammar Day, which was March 4th.)

The answer is simple: ATTENTION. In just the way your gaze was drawn to the word in all caps, assholes, jerks, the über-needy and other various forms of train wrecks are individuals that draw attention to themselves.

Does this mean that we should never date any of these people? No. There can be something refreshing about dating Party-Girl or Party-Boy (until they puke on your parents’ living room rug). It can be intoxicating to be with someone who is so fully into you (until they start showing up unexpectedly everywhere you go, and boiling the family pet). More importantly, these individuals provide useful benchmarks for people we actually might partner with in the long-term.  

So what’s the mechanism? It’s hard to take interest in someone if you’re unaware the person exists, or in someone who seems unaware that you exist. Folks who crave attention tend to behave in such a way that they actually get it. They want people to notice them. So you might actually notice the gal or guy standing on the bar, leading everyone in a Neil Diamond sing-a-long. Actually, it’s kind of hard not to notice that person. It’s harder to notice the wonderful, amazing person having a cocktail with her/his friends, talking about subjects that you’d find interesting, because they’re not drawing attention to themselves.

In the other circumstance, there is the person who showers you with attention and affection. Not that you’re not worthy of this (stop pretending you’re not special). However, in this scenario, the attention being paid to your wonderful awesome-ness is driven by the desire of the other person to be similarly romanced and romanticized. Everybody needs some attention, and we tend to do better with people who have similar needs for autonomy and/or connection. However, there will be no satiating the emotional vampires, who will feed off your attention until/unless you drive stakes through their hearts (metaphorically, of course).

It is not my intent to demonize propinquity. Propinquity simply helps us partially understand why we might be initially attracted to people who ultimately aren’t good for us or to us. Propinquity, in its positive sense, also explains why you wound up dating the cute girl in physics class, why you had a summer camp crush on the boy from Group 7, or why your parents met (mine worked together).

So, if you’re venturing out for Fat Tuesday or St. Patrick’s Day, remember that propinquity is fickle. Sometimes it’s your friend, sometimes it’s not. If you don’t believe me, ask the girl you just threw the beads to, or the guy in the green-and white jester hat.

Bill Stuart is an associate professor of communication studies at Longwood University. Bill and his wife Amy live in Richmond, Virginia. They met using the computer-mediated propinquity of They have two sons, ages 8 and 2. Amy & Bill last slept in 2009.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2011 8:52 am

    I love this! It goes in conjunction with my decision of giving up men for lent. It gives me time to read Steve Duck’s work and really learn about what really goes on and how to look out for those bad boys! This post couldn’t have come more at a better time!


    • March 8, 2011 11:07 am

      Also watch out for the good boys who are pretending to be bad boys. Although they are not bad, they aren’t confident enough to be themselves and will wind up being the attention vampires described in the blog. My wife and I watch a lot of DIY shows–and we laugh when people think a house has to be “move-in ready”. In contrast, how many contractors do you want to hire before a guy is ready to date? I wish you all the best!

  2. March 8, 2011 10:53 am

    Praise this post. I think you were speaking to me!

    And Catherine, kudos to you for giving up ice cream… you are a much stronger woman than I am. I am giving up lollipops, swearing, and giving a sh*t about what my ex is doing. Cheers!

    • March 8, 2011 11:14 am

      That’s f*ing awesome that you’re giving up profanity for Lent. My wife is giving up facebook. I’ve given up self-denial for Lent for the past 20 years–and been successful every time. As for you ex, or any future ex, if they tell you “Let’s be friends.”–the socially appropriate response is, “No thanks, I’ve already got plenty of friends.” Feel free to spice it up a little bit once your Lenten moratorium on profanity is lifted. Best wishes for happy singleness and future adventures in dating!

  3. Mari permalink
    March 8, 2011 12:33 pm

    Wow! This article makes so much sense and it hits the spot for me because I believe that some of this could also be applied to friendships. I recently went through a “break up” with a friend who was also an “attention vampire”. For some reason I often seem to build friendships with people whom I feel need to be “rescued” or “supported” either through rough times or in areas of their life in which they are not doing so well. But as soon as they realize that I am no longer providing them with my undivided attention those “friends” turn on me and seem to resent me, sometimes, to the point of being angry at me! It’s crazy but it’s happened to me more than once. The good thing is that as I get older it seems to happen to me less often (so, I like to think there is still hope and that I’m improving my people skills)! Lol!

    Thanks for another great post, Katherine!

    • Bill Stuart permalink
      March 8, 2011 10:03 pm

      All friendships need reciprocity in order to thrive over the long term. It is well and good that we should have gentle, supportive and forgiving hearts for our troubled neighbors and friends. It also is good for our hearts to be available primarily as outpatient clinics. Too much staffing is required for your heart to function as an intensive clinic for other folks’ wounded hearts, and their insurance never reimburses you the full amount for your troubles. As my wife likes to remind me, “Don’t let crazy people make you crazy.”

  4. March 8, 2011 1:36 pm

    I love your writing style – your cleverly subtle nods to pop culture, your lack of fear in ending a sentence with a preposition, your carefree mention of Neil Diamond. And what you’ve said makes a lot of sense, too. I myself have been a victim of propinquity and forced to drive a metaphorical stake through the other person’s heart…thanks for explaining how and why this happened (and for teaching me a new word in the process).

    • Bill Stuart permalink
      March 8, 2011 10:11 pm

      Thank you for your kind words. I trust that your life experience has given you the “spiritual garlic” to ward off future attacks. If wisdom and avoidance don’t work, try singing “Sweet Caroline” loud and off key. The fundamentally unhappy will wince and cower when you get to the “BA, BA, BA!” part, like Lestat at sunrise. ;+)

  5. March 8, 2011 4:28 pm

    Oh, Professor Bill, you are a genius. “Beauty, you must redeem the Beast. Fair prince, you must be attracted to someone who needs rescuing, and fair princess, you must be a victim so that you can be rescued.”—Isn’t it funny how our real relationship disasters can be summed up by some dancing cartoons 🙂
    I went through that phase and now watch my sister dating boys who are exactly not what she needs. We certainly impose a hard lesson for ourselves to learn!

    • Bill Stuart permalink
      March 8, 2011 10:38 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. As you’ve mentioned, mistakes and failures can be very educational if we’re paying attention. At least knowledge hard-won is not easily forgotten.

      If your sister dates someone you like, I trust that you will feign casual indifference in her presence. If your sister is rebelling against something, or thinks she is, approving of the latest bad boy is his kiss of death. She may not be that interested in a aprticular bad boy however, she might be very interested in having her family and friends disapprove.

  6. March 10, 2011 10:10 am

    Without propinquity how will we ever learn? How will we learn that the guy wearing the green and white jester hat isn’t the right one for you, or will be an attention vampire if we don’t venture in that direction?

    It’s true what you said “More importantly, these individuals provide useful benchmarks for people we actually might partner with in the long-term.” So we should revel with propinquity and thank it for all it has to teach us! How else will we meet the right one?

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