Do Stand So Close to Me

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“People are exponentially more likely to form a relationship—to click—with people who live or work close by. Even passive contacts can be a powerful influence on whom we click with. The old adage that familiarity breeds contempt just isn’t true. In fact, familiarity actually breeds regard. … It makes much more sense in a business setting to attend a meeting in person than to dial in, to walk over to a colleague’s or employee’s desk rather than sending an e-mail. It makes more sense to simply stand closer to someone you want to meet at a party than to look across a crowded room.” (Click: The Magic of Instant Connections, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman)

It’s not all that surprising that proximity contributes to friendship. My entire blog is a case in point. I love my friends in New York, but when you’ve got 700 miles between you, it’s tough to keep up that daily talking-about-nothing that makes a friendship feel effortless.

In their new book Click, Ori and Rom Brafman dissect the different factors that cause two people to hit it off, ingredients they call “click accelerators.” The five accelerators are: proximity, vulnerability, resonance, similarity and a safe place. Today I’m just talking proximity. Like I said, it seems obvious, but just how important physical nearness is in determining who will click is kind of amazing.

Take the study that examined friendships between police academy cadets. The sociologist who conducted the study found that shared interests had little to do with who clicked—“A bachelor who liked to watch football, for example, was just as likely to form a friendship with a family man who attended church every Sunday as he was with a fellow sports fan who was similarly single.” Instead, simply sitting next to each other in school was the determining factor. In fact, “when the cadets listed the people with whom they had formed a close relationships, 90 percent named the individual they sat right next to.” Once someone was sitting a mere few seats away, the chances of the two clicking were dramatically reduced.

So it’s not necessarily about both living and working in the same city. It’s about the same block. Or better yet, the same building. The same room! An extra few feet between two people might be the very reason they never make BFF status.

I used to think the instant click with my new BFF would happen magically, when we discovered we adored the same novel or obscure dance movie. Our mutual affection for Owen Meany and Honey would be the tie that binded us. But this research has me convinced that while shared passions may be a happy coincidence, shared space is the true connector.

What is it about proximity that makes it the “single most important factor in determining whether or not you connect with another person”? The fact that physical nearness provides opportunities for spontaneous small talk. “It is in ‘fleeting’ conversational moments…that relationships…are nurtured, preserved and managed.”

In the end, clicking could be a matter of luck. Of getting a seat assignment next to the right person in class. Or on the airplane. But knowledge is power, and I can’t stop thinking about all the ways I’ll use this science to my advantage. I’m giving up the “glance across the crowded room.” When I spot my next BFF prospect (victim?) I’m going to cozy up—sit next to her in a restaurant, stand behind her in line at the grocery store, downward dog alongside her on the yoga mat. Not all three of course. I’m going for friend, not uber-creepy stalker lady. Fine line.

Think it’ll work for me? When you look back at your friendships, did any of them start by the shear luck of proximity? Does the power of proximity surprise you?


Filed under The Hard Facts

16 responses to “Do Stand So Close to Me

  1. when I read your title my mind automatically read don’t instead of do (gotta watch those minds cause sometimes they trick for the opposite and leave a person reaching for a plume of smoke instead of their dream)

    are the four people in your blogs banner image the same two people?

  2. Cindy

    LOVE this! Makes total sense. When I think back about the friendships I have formed over a lifetime, many of them were with people with whom I had little in common except that we clicked due to our shared (proximal) experience. This reminds me of the vacuum friendships you wrote about recently (if I remember the term correctly). Once the proximity is gone, it’s harder to maintain the connection, unless you’ve gained other things in common. And what I find hard about friendships now if the lack of regular proximity. So if I meet a potential BFF outside of work or home connection, what is the common ground beyond the one or two things that drew you to that person in the first place?

  3. Bette

    Wow! Confirmation of something I talk about at work! In my office, we have “cubes” with four desks per cube…I noticed several years ago that close friendships arise between cube-mates, even when personality, background, temperament, interests, all seem to differ. The common variable was simply proximity. It’s really interesting and often amazing to see this continue over time. Basically, it seems we can get along with most anyone…not necessarily forming deep friendships, but relationships close enough for confidences, lunches, etc. It seems when we are forced to sit by someone and overhear their phone conversations and learn about their personal lives and participate vicariously in the ups and downs of their daily lives, well, we often come to like them. Maybe this is empathy??

  4. Michele

    Proximity is so important! One my dearest friends that I’ve met since moving to DC lives in the same neighborhood as I do, one street over. It’s so easy to make plans with someone you see all the time and very easy to be spontaneous when you can just walk over to someones house! Especially in a city like DC where there is traffic ALL the time. It’s tough to see my friends that live 35 miles away, easy to see the one that lives one street away.

  5. Makes perfect sense! Funny as it sounds, some of my most recent close friends were people I paid to spend time with me. Hee!

    The first two were occupational therapists that I met during a long stint in rehab due to a broken arm (we’re talking 3 times a week at 2-3 hours per session over the course of about 8 months). The other (current potential BFF) is my personal trainer, with whom I spend about 4 hours a week.

    These are people with whom I don’t think I would have necessarily become friends with otherwise. In their own ways, they’re all in some important way very different from me (first one socially, second one religiously, the third is a whole bunch younger than me) but the fact that we’re each other’s captive audience goes a long way in making a connection. I mean, really, with that much face time I think the relationship is either love or hate. And I was lucky enough to find some friend love that way. Though I wouldn’t recommend breaking your arm to do it!

  6. Sure, proximity has played a role in some of my friendships. But, I think proximity needs to be defined. I’ve formed very solid friendships with people I’ve never met in person – merely through interactions on our blogs. And when we do eventually meet, it’s like we’ve known each other all along.

  7. Ana

    Brilliant. So simple & so true. I will add that proximity fosters a closer friendship only when there already is some underlying compatibility. It can sadly work the other way; when you find the person annoying, there is nothing worse than having to sit next to them EVERY day (shudder). But, of the huge pool of people you COULD be friends with, yes, the ones you happen to end up close to are the ones you end up….well…close to.

  8. Ella

    Who doesn’t love Owen Meany???

  9. It’s so funny to me that your quote mentions that it makes more sense in business to do things in person rather than on the phone or via e-mail. That’s the complete opposite of my company. People who work in the same building as me are always scheduling meetings with me that have a call-in number instead of a room number, and people who sit like 2 rows away are more comfortable emailing or IMing than just getting up to talk to each other. It’s a really weird culture around here.

    My anti-social company aside, I agree that proximity makes a huge difference. Many of my close friends are people that I met while sitting next to at school (our last names all start with the same letter, so we were commonly seated by each other) or working in the same department at a job. And it makes sense because, aside from school, work and extra-curricular activities, unless you’re actively searching for a new BFF, how else might you meet new friends?

  10. Husband

    This blog’s author met her heart-throb husband because they lived a floor apart in their dorm freshman year of college. Sure romance is different than friendship, I’m just tossing it out there.

  11. Yep, proximity does play a roll in the friendships I have developed. Especially college ones. But sometimes proximity can backfire. Like if you are roommates with a person that you don’t click with in that regard – it can really kill a friendship. So you need the right amount of proximity with the right people, I guess you could say?

    • I think this is why we make different friends at different stages of our lives–because we’re frequenting different places: the health club, the bar, the preschool. It’s also why we need to get out there and be places where we can be in proximity to other people. Working as a freelance writer at home for several years didn’t do much for me in the way of friendship. There was no one to bump into!

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