The following conversation comes from a family favorite show in my house, The Big Bang Theory. I tried to remember the words as accurately as possible. The conversation is between two neighbors (who are also friends) as they are discussing how Leonard and his roommate Sheldon actually became friends:
Penny: How did you and Sheldon become friends?
Leonard: There was a flyer on the bulletin board at the university: “roommate wanted: whistlers need not apply.”
Penny: What about Howard and Raj, how did Sheldon become friends with them?
Leonard: I don’t know…how do carbon atoms form a benzene ring? Proximity and valence electrons.
Although the excerpt above comes from a television show, the premise to making friends is very similar – minus the valence electrons. Leonard and Sheldon are both physicists at the same university, but prior to the flyer on the bulletin board were not friends. The others listed above, Howard and Raj, also worked at this university, and were friends of Leonard, but not Sheldon. In life, as well as the television show, friends are typically made based on physical proximity, which is being close to someone in space, or conveniently located near a person (Schneider, et al, 2012). Although these two gentleman worked in the same university, their work location was not close in proximity. When they moved in together however, the level of accessibility increased and they had more opportunities to interact with one another. As their interactions became more frequent, the feasibility of a friendship developing became more likely. This too is how Leonard’s friends, Howard and Raj, became acquainted with Sheldon. Now that Leonard was living with Sheldon, and Howard and Raj were visiting Leonard, they too became better acquainted with Sheldon through a closer physical proximity.
Physical proximity alone is not sufficient to create a friendship, however. But proximity did help these men to establish a connection that bred conversation. At first, Leonard, Howard, and Raj did not like Sheldon. They found him to be narcissistic, germ phobic, and possessing annoying idiosyncrasies, but due to the proximity effect they began to like him more and more. The proximity effect is the tendency to increase the liking of another person based on physical closeness and psychological commonalities (Schneider, et al, 2012). The same is true in life; if we frequently see a person and then increase our exposure to that person by way of conversation, then we are likely to continue to engage in conversation with that person. If we begin to learn that we have things in common, then again, our liking for them increases.
The proximity effect usually only breeds increased liking between two people who like each other to begin with. For example, if I see my neighbor and we chat occasionally, and I find that we have things in common than the more time I spend with her, the more I will like her. But what happens if I chat with my neighbor a few times and ascertain that I can’t stand the sight of her. Then the likelihood of me growing to like her is minimal at best. It is actually more realistic to say that the more I have contact with her, the less I will like her; this is environmental spoiling (Schneider, et al, 2012). This has actually happened to me with my mother-in-law. I tried for years to get this woman to have a relationship with me, but as her eldest son’s wife, no one would be good enough for him in her eyes. Eventually I stopped trying and began to see her for the woman she truly is, which is not someone I like. Now, years later, with every visit, my dislike for her grows – environmental spoiling in action. Back to the television show, Sheldon is not an easy person to get along with, and Howard in particular seems to detest him greatly. As the episodes go on, Howard’s disgust with Sheldon grows and he becomes ever more vocal in sharing his discontentment with Sheldon’s behavior. But in the end, in order to maintain his relationship with Leonard, Howard bites his tongue.
Whether it is making friends, meeting neighbors, or trying to deal with someone you loathe, proximity seems to intensify a person’s original feelings toward another. Whether a person’s feelings towards another starts as positive or negative, an increase in exposure to that person will strengthen a person’s original feelings. Even though repeated exposure to someone you dislike can cause you to dislike them even more, as according to the environmental spoiling theory, the opposite is typically true: recurrent contact with someone that you dislike usually results in more positive feelings towards that person (Schneider, et al, 2012). This is how the relationship between Sheldon and Howard grows; they begin not liking each other; then Howard begins to detest Sheldon (which lasts for a long time); over time, as Howard becomes familiar with Sheldon’s sense of humor and idiosyncrasies, his fondness for Sheldon grows.
This concept of proximity and familiarity is a promising outlook in the world of friend-making. It can give hope to those that feel alone and incapable of making friends. If two people can start out as acquaintances who are accessible to one another, and gradually spend increasing amounts of time with one another, then the chance of a friendship blossoming is a promising one. Even if there are idiosyncrasies about one another that they can’t seem to overcome, with time, as they become more familiar with each another, these differences can be looked at quirks rather than roadblocks, and a friendship may very well develop.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.