Actor and stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari was approached to write a “funny” book a few years ago. Somehow, what he wound up doing was an extensively researched, fascinating, and enlightening years-long project studying the evolution of how people form–and keep–relationships. Covering everything from the 1950s style of formal courtship where people often wound up coupling with someone in their own neighborhood, to the seemingly limitless choices offered by chatrooms and online dating apps today, Modern Romance is a mixture of social anthropology, humor, fascinating anecdotes and optimistic insights that never gets boring. In fact, it’s one of only a handful of nonfiction books I’ve read cover to cover.
First, if you haven’t heard of Ansari before or seen his stand-up, you should definitely fix that immediately because you are missing out. Second, if you do know Ansari, the tone and tempo of this book might surprise you. It opens with a sympathetically embarrassing story about the drama and stress that comes from something as simple as an unanswered text message, but it’s not indicative of the pace overall. Ansari contacted professional researchers, university professors, psychologists, and sociologists; held several focus groups in a number of cities across the world; and asked many of his friends and colleagues for stories and opinions.
I was expecting something a little autobiographical, which is the biggest reason I was surprised. While there are moments of reflection and anecdata from Ansari’s personal history, the bulk of the book is taken up with the answers he got from his incredibly exhaustive research. Ever wondered how Japanese ‘love hotels’ work? The difference in dating attitudes between a city where you never run into the same person twice, and small rural towns where everyone knows everyone? The reason European countries are so lax about what we in the US think of as “cheating?” What kinds of profile pictures get the most attention on the web’s most popular dating sites? You’ll find out.
Now, while this isn’t primarily a humor-based book, there are definitely silly moments that break up the spreadsheets and information. Ansari’s passion for food creeps into every chapter, as well as his tendency to create highly unlikely “What if?” scenarios to prove his point. These touches of silliness make it a quick, easy read, but I still felt like I learned a lot, both about myself, and about the culture I have to navigate as a single person with a cell phone and an Internet connection.
The biggest takeaway I got from Modern Romance is this: while the dating pool in the post-millennial landscape is much larger and more geographically spread out than it once was, it’s created an expectation not to just find someone decent, but to find the “perfect” partner. There’s too much pressure around that first date, if it comes at all, and we are more likely than the generations before us to toss out potential partners as unworthy before really getting to know them. So the message is to take your time, learn to embrace the awkwardness of the first date without expecting it to be perfect, and don’t be too anxious to leap back into that dating app if the first, second, and even third dates aren’t quite what you hoped they would be. Also, if your date doesn’t text back within twenty seconds–don’t freak out. It’s probably nothing.
Your mileage may vary on how strongly this advice resonates with you, but I found it very encouraging and easy to relate to.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!