Comedian Aziz Ansari surveys the state of ‘Modern Romance’ with his first book

June 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 2, 2016

One of the things I did on my trip to Colorado last fall, besides watch a Stanford football victory with my Sibling, was watch a few episodes of Master of None with my Sibling and Sibling-in-Law. This sitcom, a Netflix exclusive, was released the day before the Stanford-Colorado game and generated a fair amount of buzz. It was co-created by and stars comedian Aziz Ansari, a native of Columbia, S.C., whose parents emigrated from India.

We enjoyed the episodes. About two months later, come time of the winter solstice, that prompted my Sibling’s family to give me Ansari’s book, Modern Romance. Due to one thing and another, I began reading it in late February, but it wasn’t until last week that I finished the volume.

The book, Ansari’s first, is a comic examination of, yes, contemporary romance, mainly among heterosexuals in America. But some of the most interesting aspects of the text actually describe how modern domestic romance compares and contrasts with the way things used to be here and the way things are in four foreign nations — Japan, France, Qatar and Argentina. (To be precise, it mainly involves the state of things in those countries’ capitals.)

Modern Romance is essentially a popular science book (albeit about sociology and other soft sciences) with an emphasis on comic asides. Although the text is written in Ansari’s voice, he collaborated with New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, the author of books about a deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago, the conflict between corporate and locally controlled American media, and the increasing number of Americans who live on their own. Over the course of about two years, the pair

conducted focus groups and interviews with hundreds of people in New York City, Los Angeles, Wichita [Kansas], Monroe (NY), Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris and Doha. … [M]any of the people who participated in our research volunteered to share their phones with us, so we could track their interactions through text messages, e-mails, online dating sites and swipe apps like Tinder. This information was revelatory, because we could observe how actual romantic encounters played out in people’s lives and not just hear stories about what people remembered.

Ansari and Klinenberg expanded their reach by starting a forum on Reddit. They sought insights about their findings through interviews with sociologists, psychologists and others who have studied coupling.

Perhaps the most surprising assertion in Modern Romance is that so-called swipe or hookup mobile applications such as Tinder (or its precursor for gay men, Grindr) represent a more efficient, and in some ways a more traditional, approach to online dating than competitors. The likes of and OkCupid — or eHarmony, which goes unmentioned — require users to fill out sometimes quite lengthy questionnaires.

But a list of shared interests and a lengthy exchange of online messages with potential partners can only go so far in establishing the compatibility of two people, a biological anthropologist named Helen Fisher told the authors:

As Fisher sees it, there’s only one way to determine whether you have a future with a person: meeting them face-to-face. Nothing else can give you a sense of what a person is actually like, nor whether you two will spark.”

Fisher, who works at the Kinsey Institute and Rutgers University and serves as’s senior adviser, later tells Ansari and Klinenberg that she thinks Tinder “is a great thing”:

“All Tinder is doing is giving you someone to look at that’s in the neighborhood. Then you let the human brain with his brilliant little algorithm tick, tick, tick off what you’re looking for.”

In this sense, Tinder actually isn’t so different from what our grandparents did…

Speaking of grandparents, the way they met their spouses in 1940 differs markedly from how couples met in 2010. The share of introductions through family dropped from 24 percent to 7 percent; through school or college, 26 percent to 13 percent; through neighbors or church, 26 percent to 9 percent. Meanwhile, connections made at the bar have risen from 12 percent in 1940 to 24 percent just a few years ago, and online matches helped form 22 percent of couples in 2010, up from 2 percent in 1995.

Moreover, romantic connections nowadays tend to span much greater distances than they once did. A 1932 study of 5,000 marriage licenses filed in Philadelphia found that a third of couples had lived within five blocks of one another prior to the wedding, one out of six had lived on the same block and one out of eight had lived in the same building. Follow-up studies conducted elsewhere in the nation found similar results.

The authors don’t cite figures, but that tendency to marry a neighbor is no longer fully in effect, thanks in no small part to the way technology has drastically increased the ease of both travel and communication across immense distances. But tech has brought its own problems, with some people unable or unwilling to conduct the kinds of text or online-dating conversations that lead to real-life meeting and (sometimes) mating.

The bottom line is that if you’re interested in someone and you’re conversing indefinitely through text, e-mail or online-dating messages without asking for a date, you’re doing things wrong.

Some of the book’s most specific and practical suggestions involve online-dating profile pictures. Men tend to do better when their photographs show them looking away from the camera and not smiling; being pictured with animals, showing off muscles or doing something unusual, such as skydiving, also tend to generate high response rates. Women can get more messages with selfies “shot down from a high angle with a slightly coy look.” But, Ansari and Klinenberg write,

[T]he images that resulted in the most conversation showed people doing interesting things. Sometimes faces didn’t even need to appear. A guy giving a thumbs-up while scuba diving. A woman standing in a barren desert. A woman playing a guitar. These photos revealed something deeper about their interests or their lives and led to more meaningful interactions.

Ansari and Klinenberg also recommend engaging in “novel and exciting activities” on initial dates rather than the routine dinner-and-drinks or dinner-and-a-movie that many people do. On the other hand, sometimes an enjoyable but not thrilling date is worth a follow-up. As Ansari explains:

At a certain point I decided to change my dating strategy as a personal experiment. I would invest more in people and spend more time with one person. Rather than go on four different dates, what if I went on four dates with one person?

If I went out with a girl, and the date felt like it was a six, normally I wouldn’t have gone on a second date. Instead, I would have been on my phone texting other options, trying to find that elusive first date that would be a nine or a ten. With this new mentality, I would go on a second date. What I found is that a first date that was a six was usually an eight on the second date. I knew the person better and we kept building a good rapport together. I discovered things about them that weren’t initially apparent. We’d develop more inside jokes and just generally get along better, because we were familiar.

If this recommendation seems sound but not exactly revolutionary, well, that’s often the nature of self-help advice.

For American singles bemoaning the contemporary dating scene, Modern Romance will prompt them to give thanks that they don’t live in a society where conditions are even more oppressive — sometimes quite literally. In Qatar, kissing, hugging and sometimes even holding hands in public can lead to jail time, and women’s autonomy is severely limited, although technology has helped youth circumvent some restrictions.

Japan’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world; a recent report warns that by 2060 the country’s population could drop by nearly a third, to 87 million, nearly 35 million of whom could be age 65 or older. One-third of people younger than 30 have never dated, and more than a quarter of those aged 35 through 39 said they’ve never had sex. The term “herbivore men” has been coined to describe “men who are very shy and passive and show no interest in sex and romantic relationships” — a group that comprises nearly two-thirds of single Japanese men in their 20s and 30s.

This situation, which the Japanese government is trying to combat with a variety of programs meant to foster romantic connections and offer incentives for couples to have more children, arises from what the authors call “an almost perfect stew” of unfortunate ingredients: “economic decline, men’s infantilization by their mothers, their fear of rejection and the lack of contact with the opposite sex throughout their lives…”

Argentina, as depicted by Modern Romance, suffers from a very different problem: A hypersexualized culture where a woman’s rejection of a man’s advances is considered to be an invitation to make further aggressive passes. Unlike Japan, casual sex seems to be everywhere in this South American nation, although fostering stable relationships appears to be challenging for young people in both countries.

Argentina’s lax attitudes toward martial fidelity was reflected in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, which found that 72 percent of people polled deemed extramarital affairs “morally unacceptable.” The equivalent number in the United States is 84 percent, the highest in the developed world, while 69 percent of Japanese respondents called infidelity immoral.

The French, you probably will not be surprised to read, have the most relaxed attitude toward extramarital dalliance — 47 percent disapprove. (The next-lowest mark in the survey belonged to Germany, where 60 percent called infidelity immoral.) The authors report that French florists deploy the advertising slogan “Don’t forget your mistress!” in advance of Valentine’s Day.

The French “still get angry about cheating” but “don’t judge the transgression so harshly,” Ansari and Klinenberg write. Perhaps befitting the nation with the world’s highest infidelity rates, the late François Mitterrand had a very public relationship with his mistress while serving as France’s president. At his funeral, Mitterrand’s mistress and their daughter sat alongside his widow and their children.

I found some of Ansari’s comic asides quite charming. After writing that a woman’s online search of a prospective date with a distinctive name revealed a weekly synagogue newsletter announcement that he and his wife would be hosting a children’s Torah class the same day as their scheduled rendezvous, Ansari jokes that this is the only time in history someone was glad to read a weekly synagogue newsletter. But his repeated jokes about his prodigious love of food grew a bit wearying.

In all, Modern Romance is an amusing and interesting survey of the state of coupling. The reader seeking a bit of guidance, or the older layperson hoping to find what the young’uns are doing these days, could do a lot worse than to peruse this text.

3 Responses to “Comedian Aziz Ansari surveys the state of ‘Modern Romance’ with his first book”

  1. FlutePlayer Says:

    A link to his best comedy routine?

    • memwrite Says:

      I’m by no means an expert on Aziz Anzari’s comic oeuvre, but here’s a pretty funny six-and-a-half-minute-long clip titled “Real Life D*ck Party Dot Com.” (Warning: It contains adult material — not appropriate for minors!) It appears to be from Ansari’s 2012 film, “Dangerously Delicious.” Enjoy!

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