The awkwardness of dating in the age of smartphones has provided comedian Aziz Ansari with lots of material. His new book, written with a sociologist coauthor, reveals some surprises about romance today.
Ansari began to ask his audiences about their own romantic texts gone awry, and realized he wasn’t just mining their dating lives for comedic material—rather, he was interested in the now near-universal experience of looking for love with technological assistance.
“Everyone’s dealing with frustrations in the private world of their little screens,” he says.
But research shows that online dating has yielded more than just awkward blunders: Between 2005 and 2012, it was the most common way Americans met their spouses—bigger than work, friends, and school combined.
When Penguin approached him about turning his comedy into a book, Ansari was struck with an idea. Rather than rehashing his comedy he “wanted it to be an analysis of what everyone’s going through,” he says. “I thought of writing a humor book that was also a sociology book, so that it actually has some heft.” But for that he’d have to conduct a study—and for that he’d need a sociologist.
It was the publisher who paired Ansari with Eric Klinenberg—NYU sociology professor and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin, 2012), which documents the growing trend of single living as a way to assert independence and control over one’s lifestyle.
Klinenberg and Ansari hit it off pretty much from the start. “I got a call from an editor who said, ‘Have you heard of the comedian Aziz Ansari?'” Klinenberg recalls. “I said, ‘Aziz Ansari? He’s my hero!'” Already being familiar with the Parks and Recreation star’s work put him in “a subcategory of about four other sociologists,” he jokes.
Comedians interested in data analysis might seem like an equally rare breed, but Klinenberg recognized that Ansari, a graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics and NYU’s Stern School of Business, was serious about documenting new patterns in 21st-century dating.
“A big part of it was just talking to so many people, all over the world,” Ansari says of their fieldwork for the book, Modern Romance (Penguin, 2015), which sent the pair traveling to seven cities and towns—including Buenos Aires, Paris, Doha, and Tokyo—to discover how technology has affected different dating cultures across the globe.
While Klinenberg developed the research methodology, Ansari proved useful in gathering the data. Almost everywhere, it seemed, people were familiar with his comedy and eager to speak with him.
The two authors recently spoke together at a book launch event held at NYU. Here are six insights they shared from their field notes on romance in the “swipe right” era:
1. Online Dating Works Best When You Meet Right Away
“Many people said that online dating is a miserable experience,” says Ansari. “You can either see it like that, or you can see it as an amazing resource. No group of people has ever had access to this many people outside of their social circle.”
But having so many possibilities can be overwhelming—leading you to browse endlessly or spend hours crafting noncommittal messages to dozens of possible flames. Better to take a quick look around and choose someone to ask out on a real date, he says.
2. Text Messages and Social Media Create New Levels of Social Awfulness
The faceless nature of instant messaging can bring out the worst in people—especially men, Ansari says. Not being able to see your correspondent’s immediate reaction—their facial expression or body language—seems to embolden people, making them write more aggressive, and often sexually explicit, things that they’d consider saying in person.
“You can’t test the waters in quite the same way in person,” says Klinenberg.
And even when you’re not trying to be forward or crude, instant messaging increases the risk of coming across the wrong way. “If you’re meeting someone face-to-face and say the wrong thing, you can recover pretty quickly by reading the person’s facial expression and changing the topic or your tone,” says Klinenberg. “But by text, once you put it out there, you can’t take it back. The person can dwell on it. In that way it’s a very unforgiving medium.”
3. Tinder Mimics Real-Life Chemistry
Really. One of the biggest surprises from their research, says Ansari, is that algorithmic dating sites like Match.com or OkCupid miss exactly the kinds of connections and attractions that create real compatibility. Unlike these services, which match people according to their listed interests and stated preferences, Tinder simply shows you the face of someone in your vicinity who is also on Tinder, along with their name, age, and an optional “tagline.” If you like the look of them, you swipe right, which will notify the person that you like them. If you don’t, you swipe left—and move onto the next face. Only when two people have swiped right for each other are they allowed to communicate through the app.
The problem with the Match.com model is that what people say they want when filling out an online questionnaire is rarely what they actually end up going for in a mate, studies have shown. And a small detail—like a stated preference for a rival sports team or unpopular band—in an online profile could cause you to reject someone you might have felt an attraction toward had you met offline, where most conversations don’t begin with a dry recitation of hobbies and proclivities.
“When you go into a party or a bar, you only have faces to go by anyway,” says Ansari. “People talk about meeting their spouses ‘the old-fashioned way,'”—in their neighborhoods, or at social gatherings—”but Tinder is pretty much the same thing.”
4. Our Standards May Be Ridiculously High
Today’s young adults are noncommittal and career-orientated, and more interested in hookups and flings than they are in marriage and children—or so says the stereotype. But are millennials actually bored by the thought of true partnership, or just chronically indecisive about who that one partner should be?
The Modern Romance authors chart a striking cultural shift from the “companion marriage” ideal to the “soul mate marriage” ideal. “When we spoke to members of the older generation about what they looked for in their partner, they said it should be a nice person, and they should get along,” says Ansari. In other words, they looked for someone “good enough” as opposed to someone perfect. That often meant someone close by—often a neighbor, childhood acquaintance, or family friend. Sometimes these pairings made for unhappy marriages, but just as often what started out of convenience deepened over time into lasting love.
But we’re not just dating people from down the block anymore. “What young people look for is someone who fulfills us in almost every way, understands our needs and communicates perfectly,” Ansari says. “We want someone that almost doesn’t exist.” At the same time—with dating apps and social media to catalog and categorize everyone we might like to meet—our dating options seem limitless. “We have this sense that the perfect person is out there; we just have to find them. It’s bound to create a sense of dissatisfaction within any existing relationship.”
5. Freedom Has Its Drawbacks
“Not that long ago, if you were unsatisfied in your marriage and you felt like you needed to get out, you had to really justify that decision to people you knew,” says Klinenberg. “Now we live in this moment where if you’re not happy in your marriage and you feel you’re not being personally fulfilled or challenged, if you’re not growing and feeling excited and passionate all the time, you have to justify staying in it to your friends. And that’s an enormous cultural shift.”
Ansari and Klinenberg entered the project with smartphones in mind, but soon realized that there were much bigger cultural changes at play. “There’s this period of life that generations before us simply did not have: never before have people been able to spend their 20s and a good part of their 30s single, dating lots of people, experimenting in their careers and ‘playing’ at being adults,” says Klinenberg. Sociologists call this new period of life “emerging adulthood” or “second adolescence.”
Mostly, this freedom is viewed as progress: “For older generations, getting married was one of the only ways a woman could leave her parents’ house,” Ansari points out. On the other hand, cautions Klinenberg, it also means that “we never really know when to say yes to something—or someone.”