Chinese Olympic diver He Zi won the silver medal for the three-meter springboard last week, only to have her boyfriend Qin Kai bumrush the medal ceremony and propose to her as she stood on the podium.
She said yes, but the incident sparked international debate about the growing scourge that is proposing in public, a phenomenon so popular that it now has its own cottage industry: proposal planning.
Why Qin thought He’s Olympic coronation — the moment for which she’d trained for years — was an opportune moment to pop the question remains unclear. He probably thought he was being romantic, making a special moment special-er with his extremely public display of affection. And his move wasn’t unprecedented — the Olympics have a long history of playing host to public proposals.
But Kai’s proposal was, at best, tactless, critics say. At worst, it was a man threatened by his girlfriend’s accomplishments (he won a bronze in his own event) and therefore compelled to one-up her on the grandest stage possible. Classic patriarchy!
The controversy has revealed some deeper truths about public proposals: They’re sometimes unwelcome, frequently gauche and always easy to fuck up — but they seem to be growing in popularity.
“Public proposals are on the rise purely due to our obsession with social media,” says Tiffany Wright, co-founder of The One Romance, a UK-based proposal planning service. “Everyone wants an amazing proposal that they can then put on Facebook and YouTube.”
Alas, men need only blame themselves for all this proposal one-upmanship, says Michele Velazquez, co-owner of Heart Bandits, a proposal planning service in Los Angeles. Men still do most of the proposing, and their need to best one another has turned that ultimate declaration of love into a public dick-measuring contest.
“Men like to outdo each other. They like to be the best. If a guy sees something on YouTube, he thinks I’m going to do something better than that,” Velazquez says.
Velasquez says she receives at least one request a day for a proposal involving a flash mob, but things can get far more creative. The most elaborate proposal Velazquez oversaw was a $50,000 operation. The man rented out 620 Loft and Garden, a rooftop lawn overlooking Fifth Avenue in New York. The venue itself cost him $15,000, and the proposal included a string quartet, 7-foot tall orchids, a videographer and photographer, and a pair of Manolo Blahniks as an engagement gift. The proposal was preceded by a shopping spree and followed by a catered meal for all the couple’s friends.
Wright, for her part, is currently planning a proposal expected to cost 250,000 British pounds. “It includes shutting down an entire town, 700 singers, a private jet and a celebrity appearance!” she says.
Witnesses to a proposal expect the woman to cry or to be demonstrably overjoyed, but all the attention can be overhelming. Those who are proposed to publicly can appear shocked, even if they’re happy, which may lead bystanders to believe they aren’t all that thrilled to now be engaged.
This speaks to the chief complaint about public proposals: It’s not so much asking for a person’s hand in marriage as it is coercing the person to give it. “If you haven’t discussed it or if your sweetheart hasn’t specifically asked for it, a public proposal is just a way of adding external pressure to say yes,” says Ann Friedman, a writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. “Which is actually quite creepy and manipulative!”
If the proposee does have the nerve to say no, the awkward encounter might be immortalized on YouTube, available for people to cringe at for untold years to come.
Men who propose publicly often tend to do it at other major events — a classic mistake that detracts from the proposal itself, Velazquez says. Instead, the proposal should stand alone, as its own day.
“[Zi’s] medal award ceremony — which is presumably something she’s been working toward her entire life — is now inextricably linked with her romantic relationship,” Friedman adds. “Maybe she wanted to have two major life events mashed up into one. I’d definitely want to keep my moment of personal achievement 100 percent for me.”
Merging can also read as stingy, Velazquez continues. She referenced this week’s episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, in which Shannon Beador’s husband David was called cheap for renewing his vows during Shannon’s birthday party instead of in a separate ceremony.
Public proposals are not inherently bad — they can be pulled off tastefully, according to all three of the women interviewed. If you want to conduct your proposal in a public place that’s meaningful to you and your partner — a park you visited together often, the spot of your first date — that could work fine. But many men suffer from the misperception that making it public automatically makes the proposal more meaningful.
Velazquez only started her business after being disappointed by her own proposal, which took place on a boat. She hates boats.
“You want your partner to think, ‘He’s been listening. He gets me. He didn’t just Google wedding proposal ideas,’” explains Velazquez. “‘He didn’t just take the easy way out.’”
The larger issue is that men are generally inept at considering what their significant other might want — or just too lazy. “The most important thing when proposing publicly is to ask yourself if your partner likes being the center of attention,” Wright says. “If they are the shy type, then a public proposal is definitely a no.”