It's the height of wedding season, so I thought you might enjoy my psychologist friend David Rose's take on what precedes every wedding – the proposal.
Will she cover her face next?
Will she cover her face next?
Around 90 percent of the time, he says, the woman being proposed to does exactly the same thing. She covers her face with her hand.
How does he know? He watches a lot of YouTube videos.
Now you not might think that's such a profound observation. But the more YouTube proposals Rose watched, the more intrigued he became. Rose calls the reaction "shielding."
"Everyone knows the face is an emotional radiator – it's a communication system that tells others what you're thinking," he says.
At this moment of peak emotion, Rose thinks the emotions are just too intense, too naked to reveal completely.
"It's as though the woman is thinking, 'Oh, my god, this is going deep into my soul, what am I showing here?'" he says. "When I see the very few who don't do it, I wonder, what does this mean? Are they unusually non-emotional? Does it mean they don't care about this guy? I don't know."
Recently Rose has started to look at gay marriage proposals — more on that in a minute.
This isn't a scientific study, to be sure. Call it informed observation. Rose heads an educational consulting firm in Boston called CAST (Center for Advanced Special Technology).
"I'm very interested in human behavior and particularly its neurological underpinnings – what's automatic and what comes from the environment," he says. "And there aren't too many human behaviors where 80 or 90 percent of people do the same thing."
But his interest in proposals is more of a hobby. "Other people may play Tetris or do crosswords," he says. "I check out marriage proposals."
He admits it also has something to do with the unceremonial way he popped the question to his wife Ruth. "I always felt I didn't do a very good job of my own proposal," he says, "so it's kind of revisiting the scene of an accident."
One thing you have to know about Rose: He's a "hopeless romantic," as he puts it. When he first stumbled upon a YouTube marriage proposal, he was moved. Then he discovered a whole genre of proposal videos, hetero and gay. Many were recorded by the proposer by setting his/her camera on a handy surface. Others were taped by a friend.
Despite the camera, the unvarnished spontaneity of these big moments is striking.
"Emotion narrows the field of attention," Rose says. "So when this event starts to happen, it's clear that both parties don't pay much attention to the camera. You can see their field of vision narrow. You can see the woman turn and her whole body changes when she realizes this is not a casual thing."
As he collected proposal clips, Rose realized that YouTube offers a unique window on a universal moment.
"With YouTube we have a thousand examples," Rose says. "Whereas a marriage proposal is not something you can have happen in a lab. This is IT – the actual event."
He has his favorites. One clip goes on four minutes before the guy gets to The Question. "It's just a magical moment," Rose says. "She just completely changes her whole body to orient directly to him. You can tell she realizes, 'Oh my god, this is big!'" Check it out below.
Up goes her hand to the face. When the man takes her hand, she immediately puts her other hand up to her mouth. "She needs to cover," Rose observes. "Women really fight to get one hand to cover their mouth, or most of them will."
The next-most-common thing that happens, around 80 percent of the time, is "an embrace — a REAL embrace. A lot of times the woman doesn't say 'yes,' or it's not audible. But you can read her response by the way she reaches out and grabs the man in a very loving hug."
A lot of questions remain. Is this cross-cultural? The clips Rose has viewed involve various ethnicities, but most are Western. So that remains to be seen.
Is face-shielding something only women in heterosexual couples do? In a few woman-to-woman proposals Rose has collected, the woman being proposed to face-shields (and the other woman falls to one knee, just as in men do in most hetero proposals).
And what about man-to-man proposals? Rose has checked out a few.
"It’s coming out about what I imagined," he says. "There is one where the recipient of the proposal behaves exactly like the women with a 'full shield,' but the majority do not – the men show great emotion (including crying often) but they rarely shield their faces."
But is face-shielding simply an expression of great surprise?
Rose doesn't rule that out, but he thinks there's something special about marriage proposals – a combination of surprise and "the human emotion we call love."