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Unknown forces in your life

No, this week’s post's title is not click bait for the secret to a happy and successful life in one easy step. There really are unrecognized forces at work around us, influencing our behavior and our lives. Let's begin with propinquity.


What is Propinquity?

1. Physical proximity

2. Emotional nearness

3. Close kinship

4. A crossword puzzle solver’s worst nightmare

5. All the above.


The correct answer is all the above. It really is all of the first three of the above, not just any one of them. It is the result of people being in close proximity over time and familiarity with each other, or familiarly plus frequency creating a bond. Some people have said that propinquity is just another word for proximity, and although proximity matters, there must also be an element of repetition. The repetition or frequency of contact may be more important than physical proximity as propinquity can be noted between and among those with close personal connections but are not physically near to each other.


Propinquity has been known and used for centuries to describe blood relationships (it even appears in Shakespeare’s King Lear when early in the first act Lear says, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood”), but it was first described as a predictor of interpersonal interaction some seventy years ago by psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and Kurt Back (The Spatial Ecology of Group Formation, 1950), and continues to be studied as such by individuals and teams today. Although many liken propinquity with romance, it affects all interpersonal relationship and most of the research has studied general relationships of various sorts in a variety of settings.


Propinquity is why some people could not wait to return to the classroom or the office as pandemic restrictions were being eased. They had developed the connection with those they saw, interacted with, and shared spaces beyond just working or studying together. They had bonded with others without realizing it, like glue drying slowly over time. That there can be propinquity without physical proximity explains why some long distance relationships (romantic, platonic, and business) work, and why some people can develop close ties with virtual friends through text and instant messaging, and video calls and conferences. Research done by Latrane and others (Distance matters: Physical space and social impact, 1995) suggests that physical closeness is still the best predictor of the type of relationship that may develop between individuals with ongoing contact, but we point to many working connections, ourselves included, that thrive with few “same space” opportunities.


The theory of propinquity also explains why some people choose to stay in the careers that may seem to be not their “best fit,” or are over or other qualified for. To some, the idea of being a waiter, a cashier, or a receptionist may seem like drudgery. Yet many thrive on the routine interaction and are often on the lookout for their “regulars,” feeding off the energy of those special connections. It may also explain why some people turn down promotions or return to previous positions if it means losing those established personal connections. We all know the staff nurse or teacher who excelled at their job only to lose their enthusiasm upon being promoted to nurse manager or principal, often returning to their former posts.


There are other forces that influence our connections: proxemics, compatibility, values and morals, family structure, and rationality. They next time you say to yourself, “Wow, those two really work well together,” or “There’s a match made in Heaven,” you already know much they put into the relationship to make it look so effortless. Now you know there are outside forces doing some of the hard work too!



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