Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, Online Dating and the Perils of Searching for a Soul Mate in the 21st Century by Sarah Silcox

Originally published on Regale Mag / July 22, 2015

As a perpetually single person, I have always been fascinated by the concepts of love, romance, relationships and dating. It has always boggled my mind how some people can jump from one partner to the next without spending any real amount of time being single or how some girls I know can break up with a longterm boyfriend one week and the next week meet a brand-new potential suitor. Some people make it look so easy, while the rest of us are left having to face the dreaded question, “Do you have a boyfriend?” from our hairdressers, the kids we babysit and even the parents of our high school friends.

Before this article turns into a downward spiral about too many personal horror stories, let’s dive into Aziz Ansari’s new book, Modern Romance. If you are a fan of Ansari’s comedy and interested in the ways that technology is affecting contemporary dating practices: I highly recommend this book for you. A collaboration between Ansari and NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance is a wonderful balance of fascinating facts/data/research on the sociological aspects of finding love mixed with hilarious anecdotes and comments from Aziz himself. Certain aspects of the book are especially enjoyable if read using your best Aziz/Tom Haverford impression; if you like this idea, you should also consider buying the audiobook.

Modern Romance is full of interesting concepts and ideas from social scientists as well as data collected specifically for the book through focus groups and a subreddit created by Aziz and his team for the book. Without giving too much away about the research collected in the book, I thought I’d outline some of the topics and ideas that I found interesting and worthy of further research and discussion, which you will find below.

Chapter One: Searching For Your Soul Mate

This chapter is absolutely fascinating and such a great way to dive into the world of modern romance. Aziz interviews members of a New York retirement community and finds that prior to the 1960s, many women got married in their early twenties because it was seen as the first stage in adulthood. Many people seemed to get married to someone within a very close proximity to where they lived and settled for a “good-enough” potential mate who could provide security, rather than looking for their perfect match or soul mate. Aziz notes that “marrying for happiness and love is relatively new,” seeing as prior to the 1960s, the pressure to get married and start a family was incredibly strong and finding a soul mate was seen as a luxury.

Today, the average age of first marriage is about 27 for women and 29 for men, and the numbers are even higher in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles.

The book hypothesizes that this may be in part to “emerging adulthood,” or the relatively new life stage in which twenty-somethings spend time becoming more well-rounded individuals–getting educated, working an assortment of jobs, dating various people and spending time away from their parents’ home–before getting married.

Chapter Two: The Initial Ask

This section of the book explores the continuing rise of texting as a primary form of communication, especially in regards to dating. In an interesting sub-chapter titled Calling vs Texting, Aziz mentions that when conducting the focus groups he found that while some people are terrified of phone conversations, others find an initial date request over the phone as a way of exhuberating confidence and making the request seem more special than a generic text message. The chapter goes on to discuss texting as a medium and its ability to distance you from the person you are speaking with, making it easier for you to say things that you wouldn’t say to that person face-to-face. He addresses the rise of “sexually aggressive douche monsters” using dating apps like Tinder to try to talk to women and the endless back and forth that often results when trying to plan a night out through text.

The chapter fades out with a look into the power dynamic associated with the back-and-forth of texting, which is absolutely fascinating. We all want to deny that texting is a game, but we are all trying to have the upper hand.

Chapter Three: Online Dating

This chapter has some great history of the precursors to online dating (i.e. classified ads and video dating) as well as a number of images from actual online dating profiles.

According to a study at the University of Chicago, more than one third of couples who got married between 2005-2012 met through an online dating site.

THAT’S INCREDIBLE!

The chapter does a great job of outlining the pros and cons associated with online dating. It addresses the specificity of preference that is attainable with online dating as well as the fact that having more options is leading people to be more choosy and picky when looking for a potential mate. While many people describe online dating as exhausting, Aziz goes on to say that most people suck at online dating. He wants readers to remember that online dating should be used as a tool to meet new people that you can then connect with in the real world. He stresses the importance of interacting with people face-to-face as soon as possible rather than carrying on an extended online-only relationships.

Chapter Four: Choice and Options

Aziz Ansari’s parents had an arranged marriage. His father let his parents know that he was ready to get married and they arranged for him to meet with a few different girls. He chose one that was similar in height, they chatted for 30 minutes and then they were married a week later. Aziz jokes that his father decided who he wanted to marry in less time than it takes him to choose what restaurant to eat at in a new city. Ansari notes that in the age of the internet, we are constantly looking for the best thing out there–whether that be a potential love interest, a new product or where to buy tacos.

Today we have access to more romantic options than any other generation before us, but that is not necessarily a great thing.

According to research conducted by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, oftentimes when we have increased options, we actually have a more difficult time making decisions and tend to feel less satisfied when we do.

The chapter also addresses finding love in a small/rural town vs. a large city which is very interesting.

Passionate Love and Companionate Love

Towards the end of the book, Ansari discusses the two phases that every relationship goes through: passionate love and companionate love. At the start of a new relationship, everything is new/exciting and the brain releases dopamine, the same neurotransmitters that are emitted when you do cocaine. In a good/solid relationship, as passionate love fades, companionate love arises and activates the parts of the brain associated with long-term bonding and relationships. The chapter goes on to further address the ways that common views of marriage have changed over the last half-century as well as the importance of investing time and energy into lasting relationships.

Conclusion & Survey Data

Modern Romance is a deeply entertaining, thoughtful and insightful book about the world of modern dating and relationships. Ansari expertly weaves humorous anecdotes with real facts that help to illustrate the current research associated with contemporary romance and dating. A perfect summer read, Modern Romance is bound to spark your interest in the current research on love and relationships and may even get you discussing the impact of technology on modern dating practices.

Even before reading Modern Romance, I was interested in conducting some research of my own into peoples’ perceptions of the modern dating scene and the positive/negative affects technology is having within the world of dating. I asked friends (and friends of friends) to fill out an anonymous Google form with 21 questions about their dating experiences. 70 people (between the ages of 19-28) filled out my survey and I found the following things to be especially interesting in my research:

Tinder was by far the most popular dating app, with 75.7% of participants having a profile.

Boredom vs. Casual Sex

When asked what their intentions in making an online dating account were, the highest percentage (52.8%) of participants said they created an account because “they were bored.” This is especially interesting considering that when asked what they think other people’s intentions in creating an account are, a whopping 81% of participants selected the choice “they wanted to find someone to have casual sex with.”

Since I am obviously not an expert in this field, all of my thoughts are speculation, but I find this disparity to be very interesting. Part of me thinks this is a result of the third-party effect, or the idea that an individual “overestimates the effect of a mass communicated message on the generalized other and underestimates the effect of a mass communicated message on themselves” (thank you Wikipedia for helping me remember terms I learned about in media studies classes in college). So maybe people don’t want to admit to themselves that they are using dating apps to find casual sex partners, or maybe the amount of people that use these apps for casual sex are inflated due to our misguided perceptions. It’s also worth noting that 75.7% of the survey participants were female. Some media studies department needs to get on this research ASAP!

The majority of participants viewed the ideal way to meet a potential mate as an introduction through mutual friends or the romanticized “chance meeting.”

Do chance meetings even happen any more? If you have a great story, please share in the comments and restore my faith in humanity.

How we communicate with potential mates vs. how people prefer to communicate with a potential love interests

I also found the disparity between how people actually communicate with a potential mate and how people prefer to communicate with a potential love interest to be very interesting. 85.5% of participants said that their primary form of communication in getting to know a potential mate is texting (closely followed by Face-to-Face communication at 82.6%). But what is really interesting is that when asked about their preferred form of communication in getting to know a potential mate, a staggering 98.6% of participants selected Face-to-Face communication.

This data fits in perfectly with Aziz’s comments about the importance of using online dating as a tool and not a dating substitute. The only way to really get to know someone is through talking to them in person, not behind the crutch of screen technologies. Can we all just take a pledge that we are going to go out of our comfort zones and ask people to hang out or go on dates in person? Clearly it’s what we all want!

Open-ended responses

Some of the most interesting aspects of the survey were the open-ended responses to the question, “Do you think modern technologies (texting/social media/dating apps) have affected the way we interact with and seek out potential love interests? Why or why not?” Like Ansari points out in Modern Romance, it is easy to say that technology is bad and making society worse, but as with anything there are good and bad elements associated with modern technology. It is undeniable that technology is changing the way that we interact with each other and it is only a matter of time before we learn to adapt to the changes, because love and romance will find a way to prevail! That being said, it is crucial to remember that communicating using technology will never be the same as face-to-face communication and that we must be conscious and aware of our technology habits.

I’d like to end this article with some of the comments I received from participants who filled out my survey with their thoughts on modern technology and modern dating practices. A special thanks to everyone that participated in the survey and to those of you reading this article right now. What are your thoughts on modern romance, technology and the contemporary world of dating? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

Yes. I feel like I suck at texting, and everything I say seems dumb and awkward because my humor doesn’t translate well, so obviously sexting is completely off the table. Also, I feel like conversations that aren’t face-to-face have so much dead air in them and are harder to carry, because you can’t read the person’s face or body language. But, since a lot of people are using modern technology to meet people, I’ll probably die alone, because I don’t know how to flirt or seem cool via text. – Anonymous Female, 22

 

Absolutely. On one hand I think it’s been easy for me to make friends with people online because that screen takes away any in-person insecurities you might have otherwise. That could be good for someone like me who gets easily overwhelmed by certain social situations. On the other hand, years of ONLY or MOSTLY interacting with people online can hinder one’s social skills and desire to “put yourself out there.” I’m not against online dating, I’ve just never felt comfortable putting myself out there in that way, for the purpose of looking for potential love interests. I almost got a Tinder account once, but I had checked out a friend’s account and found it kind of boring – like going through a weirdly curated Instagram of selfies- seemed very one-dimensional. And that’s the issue with things like that because it forces you to make a judgement call about someone based on pictures and a few sentences – and someone is judging you the same way. This way, you aren’t getting to see how someone acts in person or if there’s that instant chemistry, and that frustrates me. – Victoria, 23

 

Definitely! Getting to know people has changed completely since the introduction of social media, texting, etc. It’s much easier to talk with people but I also think it’s so much easier to ignore people / let people down and move on / send mixed signals. It’s not cut and dry anymore. – Anonymous Female, 23

 

I believe it has for sure. Communication has become so impersonal now to the point where people think it is ok to just treat someone as if they are not a human being and not give them the common courtesy of a hello. It has become so easy to dehumanize people through these dating applications- because if you do not like someone – you can simply swipe left and never hear from or see that person again. I know it is hard for members of the LGBT community to meet potential matches – as we still live in a pretty unaccepting society- but it seems the community decided to over compensate for that via hook up apps rather than ways to really connect with each other besides chest/dick pics and shady meet ups. – Joseph, 23

 

Yes! We want to connect with someone on our own terms and timing. We can text, socialize, and use dating apps when we want something convenient or to settle down for good. It’s so much easier than going out and trying to find someone in real life. It takes a great deal of effort to find someone, time and energy that we don’t want to bother with. So the internet does it for us. We are also SO impatient. We don’t want to wait for love to find us. We naturally want to be loved by others and will go to great lengths to make that happen. — Also growing up in technology has caused us to hide behind a computer or phone, using LOL’s and smiley faces to show fake emotion. – Holli, 23

 

I feel things have become too digitized, and people don’t seem to be as satisfied with their partner because of all the avenues of pursuit. – Anonymous Male, 19

 

Absolutely! Social media/texting/dating apps have made dating less personal. Not to sound entirely old fashioned but there’s something to be said of a face-to-face encounter where you can’t edit what is being said or add filters to your appearance. With Facebook/texting/Snapchat available 24/7 you can share every piece of your day with any /all of your contacts so there’s less to actually discuss in person. Also, it’s easier to juggle relationships through modern technology. More and more Facebook is being referenced as a cause for divorce. Come on people, really? Maybe if we spent more time focusing on our significant other and less time obsessing over the number of likes on FB/Instagram we would have less of a need for online dating. End rant. – Lauren, 23

 

YES. I think it cheapens our interactions with each other. Instead of getting together face-to-face and having to wait in between to see and talk to each other, people have on-going conversations on texting/snapchat/whatever that are silly and unnecessary. It lacks the authenticity of face-to-face interactions that really form the substance of a relationship. I think technology is fine when used for practical planning purposes or a short “Hey, how are you doing?” conversation. But I’m less than impressed when a guy asks me out by texting me “Hey! Whatcha up to tonight? Wanna hang out?” I’d much rather get a phone call (a few days in advance, if at all possible) asking if I’m free for a certain evening. But I’ve always known I’m a bit more old fashioned about dating so that might just be out-dated. A girl can dream though, right? – Sarah, 23

 

Definitely. I think for people who meet in the “real” world, modern technology has irreversibly nuanced the ways they communicate. Poor texting skills can be a deal breaker in the early stages of a relationship; Skype can keep a long-distance couple together; snapchat can make sexting less awkward – and those are just a few ways it can impact a couple. In terms of seeking out a relationship, I think the stigma of meeting people online is almost completely gone. I have never personally used a dating site and was admittedly skeptical a few years ago, but it is a great resource that has helped a lot of people find love. It can also suck your soul and happiness. Life’s complicated, but technology makes it even more so. – Anonymous Female, 23

 

I think tech has taken the “fate” factor out of the whole experience. Everything seems so mechanical and premeditated with online dating. It has even permeated into societal jargon. I hear “swipe left” and/or “swipe right” daily. I think apps such as these also…not encourage…that’s the wrong word…but maybe enable people to stay single longer…which is opposite of the desired outcome for most people I would suspect. – Charles, 28

 

I think so. People are so busy now that I have to make “appointments” to call someone. I’ve just ended up texting people back and forth and I’m not a fan of getting to [know] someone through text. – Anonymous Male, 23

 

Yes! I think modern technology allows people to hide behind their devices, making it harder to connect in person. On the other hand, it also allows potentially shy people to express themselves without being face-to-face, until they feel more comfortable. I still feel the best way to get to know a potential love interest is face-to-face, but meeting online is a fine way to start. When I first started dating my boyfriend, he and I texted back-and-forth a lot, allowing us to stay in touch and get to know each other pretty well when we couldn’t get together in person. It’s also a fun way to flirt, but I could see how it would be difficult if the potential love interest you’re chatting with has different intentions than you or just stops responding to your messages. – Danni, 24

 

Texting and messages have made many interactions more superficial and less spontaneous. Potential love interests don’t hear what you have to say; they hear what you have filtered out and reconsidered before sending. It takes longer before you truly know someone if you rely too much on non-verbal or impersonal interactions. 
– Anonymous Male, 22

 

In some way yes. I think some people fall into the trap of the idea of “shopping” for a partner. I think that can lead to a more harsh way of judging people that isn’t realistic. I have found myself nearing that mindset in the wee hours of the lonely night. I shake it off and don’t buy into it because people are complex beings with an entire history, a present, and often times future goals. We are not basic puzzle pieces that can be picked up and linked together. I think modern dating technologies can make people feel more lonely than they need to because they’re impatient in letting things fall in to place. 

– Anonymous Female, 24