When Chinese diver Qin Kai proposed to his girlfriend, fellow athlete He Zi, she had just collected her silver medal. In front of cameras — and the world — she cried, looking shocked as Qin waited on one knee, before eventually saying yes and embracing him to a huge ovation.

The proposal was one of five at this year's Games, which have sparked worldwide debate as to whether such public displays are romantic, coercive or an unwanted display of oversharing. A marriage proposal is one of the most intimate moments in a couple's life — so why do an increasing number of people appear to be doing it in public?

In a world where we often publish the personal details of our lives on the internet without a second thought, our tendency to share our intimate moments with the world may be down to our social media obsession.

"Public marriage proposals are part of our flaunt it culture," says Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatised, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.

"We don't just do things for ourselves, we do them for public display, to be shared on social media and television segments that are supposedly 'human interest' stories."

Whether or not a proposal in a restaurant — or a sporting stadium — is romantic or a nightmare obviously depends on the individual. For some, a flash-mob proposal in a shopping centre may offer a break from tradition, which reflects an increased level of expectation that surrounds a wedding. Others may be influenced by romantic films, which arguably often present an idealised — but not always realistic — version of a relationship.

"I think some proposers see very public proposals on TV and think that that's what everyone wants," says Lisa Hoplock, who recently received a PhD on marriage proposals from the psychology department of the University of Victoria.

To some people, a grandiose public proposal is the epitome of romance — the equivalent of declaring love from a rooftop. "They may also want to do a very public proposal to show everyone how much they love their partner," Hoplock says.

On the other hand, DePaulo argues that a public proposal may be a sign of insecurity — that we are more concerned with proving a point to others than having a private moment to ourselves.

Olympic proposals
Chinese diver Qin Kai proposes to silver medalist He Zi Clive Rose/Getty Images

"More interesting is the question of why particular kinds of events are choreographed into public spectacles more than others. Marriage proposals — and now, even prom proposals — are in that category. I think that more people are making public spectacles of their marriage proposals not because we are all so secure about the place of marriage in our lives, but because we are so insecure," she says.

"The gaudy, showy, over-the-top public marriage proposals are expressions of our insecurity about the place of marriage in our individual lives and in society more generally. To me, they are examples of protesting too much."

Many commenters on the Olympic proposals have argued that public proposals are, at heart, an act of coercion by insecure men to ensure a positive answer from their other half. Arguably, proposing in public places a certain amount of pressure on the recipient to say yes — particularly if the proposal takes place on a world stage like the Games.

People have highlighted the reaction of Olympic diver He Zi and the painfully long time it took for her to say yes after she was presented with a ring and a red rose.

"I think it's also possible that some proposers want to pressure their partner into saying yes, but this won't often work in their favour," Hoplock reasons. "While some people might say yes in public and then no in private, others still say no even if it's in public. A fight or flight response seems to kick in during rejected proposals where some people will run away."

But whether or not a person proposes in public also depends on their culture. For some, it is the norm for a man or woman to propose in front of parents, family, friends or neighbours.

"People have been proposing in public for centuries and there are some cultures that have a formal ceremony where the proposer proposes in front of family," Hoplock observes. Various countries traditionally host engagement ceremonies — for example in Vietnam, it involves the families of both fiance and fiancee.

Overall, Hoplock's advice is to talk to a partner about proposal and marriage preferences. "I've found that people tend to prefer a private proposal over a public proposal. If they could change how public their proposal was, they would change it from public to private," she says.

She spoke to one woman who said her partner should have known better than to propose in front of a huge audience. "Get on the same page. If they say they don't want to get married, then believe them," Hoplock says. "If in doubt about how to propose, propose in private and with a ring."