A Review of Modern Romance

A Review of “Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg

“The world is available to us, but that may be the problem.”

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

‘Modern Romance’ sounds like it could be the name of next fall’s new sitcom, sure to include a bar full of fun-loving 20-somethings played by 30-somethings who navigate through trysts and trials of finding love in this era.  In all honestly, I’d probably watch that show, especially if I knew it’d be as hilarious and enlightening as Aziz Ansari’s 2016 book.  Maybe a book that could be described as as a social science report written by a comedian doesn’t immediately make you fire up your Amazon app, but I’m here to tell you that it really, really should in this case.

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I think it’s safe to say that anybody who reads ‘Modern Romance’ will learn intriguing tidbits, maybe even helpful hints, to finding and keeping love in today’s crazy romance world.  There have been a ton of reasons for me to bring up topics from the book in conversations with friends since I finished reading a couple of months ago, including sharing dating advice based on the book.  It’d be a huge mistake to think the book is just about learning how to date though, as it’s packed with not only countless references but also original field research.

I became hooked on the book in the first few pages because I spent a chunk of time studying social media and interpersonal relationships in grad school.  Immediately, I was reminded of my passion for the work and topic that Aziz and his social scientist sidekick Eric Klinenberg were investigating, and I knew a lot of the professors and studies he was referencing because I was either interested in working with them or have been in their actual labs.  For me, it was like a best hits tape of my 2013 year in Chicago, but let’s get into why you’ll love it too.

Aziz’s Style

Aziz is a comedian first and foremost, and like all good ‘bits’, the intro draws you into something that we can all pretty much relate to – an eminent truth that is funny just by being pointed out.  The basic idea of the book’s opening is that modern romance is different in some way because of our silly and trivial – but somehow equally complex and intricate – ways we all expect to communicate with each other through technology.  What better way to show that than by talking about the anxiety we all feel when we’ve texted someone and the minutes are just flying by waiting for their reply?

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James Sutton

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world. — Penguin Press Release

After the introduction, Aziz dives into an amazing array of sociological and social science research and develops his picture of modern romance in smart, sometimes surprising ways.  He didn’t stop at reviewing old research though, and actually partnered with respected industry researchers to do original research to fill in some of the knowledge gaps.  Of course some could critique the methods and sample used, but all in all I was actually pretty impressed with the breadth of new knowledge they created.  Aziz’s co-author Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, almost becomes a character in the book at times.  Aziz occasionally acknowledges that somewhere ‘off-screen’ Klinenberg was insisting that Aziz clarify something actually sciency rather than one of his joke-laden theories.  Interestingly, Aziz doesn’t really come to many hard conclusions or have an overlying thesis in the book that he pounds the reader over their head with; he just presents the data and of course makes his own comedic interpretations from time to time.

“Want to know what’s filling up the phones of nearly every single woman? It’s this: “Hey,” “Hey!” Heyyy!!” “Hey what’s going?” “Wsup,” “Wsup!” “What’s going on?” “Whatcha up to?”

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

Throughout the book, Aziz also effortlessly works in bits from his stand-up – some of the best moments are transcripts of texts between new potential lovers – and even draws some references from his Netflix show Master of None.  I found these bits endearing because I am a fan of Aziz overall, but I do suspect I would be missing some things if I hadn’t already binged his Netflix series.  I won’t go too far into his actual content in this review, because frankly you should just get the book (I’m also nowhere near as funny and endearing).  But it is worth diving into how Aziz writes this book, because it was so successful at maintaining my interest throughout.  We hopeful homies very well might dive into the actual topics more in separate posts, cause they’re super interesting.  

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Aziz Ansari as ‘Dev’ in his Netflix show, Master of None

If you know Aziz at all, you know his voice and delivery are a big part of his success, or at least a big part of his character. He has a sing-songy and endearing self-deprecation style that is immediately relatable to a ton of people.  His emphasis on certain words and habit of drawing ouuuut syllables to maaakke his point made me a little nervous for his writing.  But I ended up loving that it’s impossible not to read the book in his voice, which he does a fantastic job capturing. I actually really found myself wanting to listen to the audiobook version just to see how it’s done.

Aziz employs another classic comedy move that also counts as good writing: using a couple of solid returning jokes throughout. Some of the best literal loling moments of the book were Aziz bringing a senior citizen named Alfredo back into the story constantly.  Aziz and his fellow researchers met Alfredo at the first place his team did actual field research; they used treats as a tactic to get the folks in the senior housing to come speak to them about love in their era, and Alfredo’s love for the donuts is used as a quick joke here and there throughout the book.  I’m sure this counts as a ‘you had to be there’ moment, but because I was in research reading mode, the jokes struck me as so unexpected and hilarious that they really made Modern Romance a delight to read overall.

Meaningful takeaways

Beyond the comedy of it all, some of the points Aziz makes were truly thought-provoking, and as I mentioned, I’ve brought them up to my friends countless times since I read the book.  The amount of overlap in my normal life with the things talked about in the book has been pretty impressive.  We all know plenty of people that think they are bad at dating, and well, it turns out some of them are probably right.  Aziz recounts a time he asked a female what she liked about a positive voice mail she had received from a guy in the quote below; it’s amazing to think that there are people out there failing at this.

“She sweetly recalled that “he remembered my name, he said hi, and he told me to call him back.” Never mind the fact that what she described was the content of LITERALLY EVERY VOICE MAIL IN HISTORY. Name, hello, please call back. Not really a boatload of charm on display. To fail this test, a guy would have to leave a message that said: “No greeting. This is a man. I don’t remember you. End communication.”

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

Phone World v. IRL

In one example, Aziz talks about the ‘phone world’ that we all have alongside our real world.  He conceptualizes it as almost a separate world that we enter when we converse through the phone in any number of ways, and it inherently changes how we expect to act in the real world too.  It made me think about how our real-life interactions are so intense compared to a text in which we can take all the time we want to craft a reply, and the book makes this connection too.  In my grad school studies, I produced my own set of principles that set digital communication apart from face-to-face communication, and I labeled this one ‘variable synchronicity.’  Together with being able to craft your identity, stay relatively anonymous, and use technology to augment interactions, digital communication is wholly different in many ways.  

Unlike phone calls, which bind two people in real-time conversations that require at least some shared interpretation of the situation, communication by text has no predetermined temporal sequencing and lots of room for ambiguity. Did I just use the phrase “predetermined temporal sequencing”? Fuck yeah, I did.

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation  

The difference between ‘phone world’ and ‘real world’ interactions also made me think for a second about about when I meet completely new people and strangers in my life.  For me, and I suspect a lot of people, a majority of the interactions with brand new people are either with customer service individuals at a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop, or in the workplace.  In one setting, the people are literally paid to be nice to you to some extent, and at work the stakes are often even higher.  That might be overstating it a bit, but the point is that it’s a stark difference to how people growing up in the 1920s operated and thought about meeting new people in their daily lives.  Aziz calls out the vast percentages of people in that era who got married to someone that grew up within a certain number of blocks of them.  It’s sort of mind-blowing to think about how much the institution of marriage has changed based on just that one tidbit.  

“Your most casual encounter could lead to something bigger, so treat those interactions with that level of respect.”

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

The changes in how we interact online in our daily lives has social scientists, most prominently Sherry Turkle, theorizing that ‘kids these days’ are less equipped to actually have in-person real-time conversations because they simply don’t have the amount of practice necessary.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I can definitely back up something that Aziz says in the book about making phone calls versus writing a text message.  Even with friends that I’ve been texting for years and see every day IRL, there’s a pang of nervousness when I dial their number and hit that green phone icon.  It feels so much more personal, and like I’m forcing them into talking to me right then and not do anything else.  On the flip side, when I text them I get to imagine that they’re giving me their attention, but in reality their phone is buzzing while they’re talking to someone else, or scrolling buzzfeed or Instagram.  But there’s no rejection there, because I’ve done my part of communicating without needing them to reply immediately.  **Bonus tip: for another great and sometimes entertaining social science book about communication across different media, check out Ilana Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media.

Sometimes there’s another reason that people take so long to text you back: They aren’t playing mind games or busy. They’re just GOOGLING THE FUCK OUT OF YOU.

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

If it sounds like I’m advocating for the wonders of communicating through text and tech, Aziz does a pretty good job of bringing those ideas back down to reality.  The angst felt when a text is unreturned is very real, and our ideas of how and when we should reply can lead to great disappointment when that doesn’t happen.  Whether that’s better or worse than getting rejected in person at a bar with a stranger could be debated forever.  There’s less hurt in person perhaps because they’re a stranger and you have no way of being reminded of them (versus the saved phone number, and your fateful last unreturned text staring at your face in the app), but at the same time, you can’t hide your immediate sadness and pain behind the pixels.  

Maximizing & Satisficing

“That’s the thing about the Internet: It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose.”

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance: An Investigation

One of the more memorable individual phenomena Modern Romance brought up was the idea of Maximizing or Satisficing, first proposed by psychology professor Barry Schwartz in the 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice.  The idea is that when we are making choices about lovers, soul-mates – or as Aziz so often mentions, food – many of us are along a spectrum with the two extremes being Maximizing and Satisficing.  While Maximizers might sound like the obvious best option, the person who spends so long making the best possible choice with all the data possible may ultimately miss out on any options or be more likely to be disappointed in the long run because of raised expectations.  However, if you’re on the Satisficing bandwagon, you might be left with the lingering feeling that there’s something better out there for you and ultimately be disappointed.  

If it sounds like this is a phenomena open to debate, you’d be right.  As the quote above points out, the tools we have today allow us to Maximize in ways we never would have imagined in decades past, but have really come so far?  At the end of Chapter 3, Aziz made the point that has stuck with me the most from the whole book.  We envision that we are pioneers of Modern Romance, swiping away left and right with our thumbs through the endless possibilities until we land on the soul-mate who will bring us joy.  But in reality, like so much of technology, Tinder and other dating apps are in many ways just advancements of the methods we’ve always used to find love.  

At least with Tinder, we are still making a snap judgement based on the information at hand until we find someone we think doesn’t look like a murderer in our general neighborhood.  Of course, that neighborhood might be getting a whole lot bigger and more diverse, but the Hopeful Homie in me says that can only be a good thing.

Conclusion/TL;DR

While there are certainly some things I would have personally changed about the book, the majority of them relate to wanting to hear more about a certain topic or focus of study, or perhaps nitpicky details about the representativeness of the data presented and the specific methodology employed.  For instance, I certainly would have loved it if Aziz and Eric Klinenberg dove deeper into the emerging and very real issue of addiction to devices and in a broader way, connectivity.  The authors fully acknowledge that they couldn’t possibly do some major topics justice, with LGBTQ issues being the main omission.  I appreciated this position, because having a watered down section on everything wouldn’t be as useful as in-depth discussion on a few topics, in my opinion.  Beyond that example, I personally loved the Tokyo chapter and could have gobbled up a lot more data and info from the Paris and Buenos Aires sections. **Bonus tip: the Tokyo chapter is a hell of a guide book for Ramen and Love Hotels, plus you know your friends all want a Tenga Egg as a souvenir (look it up).  I recently visited Tokyo and we definitely did some of the things on the list.

Despite not being able to cover everything in detail, I loved that Modern Romance introduced the reader to SO many social science phenomena in just enough detail that when they become important later in the book, or even IRL, the reader has that feeling of accomplishment from actually learning something relevant.  It whet my appetite for more social science reading for sure, but I have a feeling it would do the same for folks that otherwise might not think to wander down that aisle in the book store (digital or physical).  This review would have gotten WAY too long if I dove into all the topics in my notes, but hopefully we hopeful homies will have time to go into them individually more down the line!

Ansari and Klinenberg do a fantastic job bringing social science to the masses.  Obviously a lot of the allure is because of the topic and content, but Aziz’s voice in the book lends a relatable and goofy aspect that’s inescapable, in the best way possible.  I get the sense that Aziz actually deeply cares about this topic and just wants to get positive messages out in the world, even if they’re sometimes paired up with slightly darker truths about how our world is changing – and damn, doesn’t that philosophy sound pretty familiar to a hopeful homie?  I feel that way not only because of the overall feeling of openness and authenticity of this book, but also his show Master of None currently in the second season on Netflix, which often bears a touching message through some adversity.  Beyond that, Aziz even adapted the main bits of the book into a freely available article on Time – so definitely check it out even if you don’t want to shell out for the full book.  When a book gets spin-off articles on Time and Huffpo articles that are billed as ‘negative’ but actually mostly positive, it’s probably a pretty good read.

Writing & Doing Worth Advocating For:

  • Science + Humor = The New York Times Bestseller; okay it’s not quite that easy, but the tone set in this book is a fantastic mix of what can sometimes be a dry subject to read and pleasurable, sometimes downright hilarious reading.
  • Pick what you care about and go all in.  Aziz could have written this book about his touring and made it more of a memoir, and it would have been absolutely packed with gut-busting examples of terrible texting and the relatively worthless theories of one comedian.  But nope, he enlisted someone (and then many people) who are respected in their field and collaborated on a serious piece of work.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously, and do it for the readers.  Many of these are along the same line, but I think it’s worth calling them out separately.  Sure, you could write a book that gets your point or story across to the people that you think will care.  But think about the readers.  What do they want to read, and more importantly, what will they read?  By helping out Aziz, Eric Klinenberg might have initially raised some eyebrows in his industry, but ultimately the message and his work are being ingested by countless more and varied people than otherwise would be true.
  • Combining aspects of your life in unexpected ways can be fruitful.  Aziz took an idea from his early standup days and has ultimately worked it into three major streams of creativity and knowledge/cultural production through stand-up syndication, book/articles, and a Netflix show.  It’s admirable, and it mostly works because of the authenticity of Aziz throughout these media.  
  • Even when you’re passionate, keep an open mind.  In my book club’s discussions about this book, many of us liked that Aziz didn’t pound us over the head with an overall conclusion or thesis.  I generally came away with a positive feeling, but just more informed overall, not leaning one way or another when it comes to how technology influences Modern Romance.

Recommendations

Recommended for fans of social science OR comedy? Yes! This book melds the worlds of comedy and science in ways I wasn’t sure was possible since, well, honestly nothing.  Social Scientists will be pleased with the references and breadth, and people who like to laugh will laugh (if you don’t like to laugh… you might still at least chortle).

Recommended for non-fans of this genre? Yes!  Non-fans of science? Please. Non-fans of comedy? Okay, well, maybe you could be annoyed by it I guess.  Non-fans of books?  Try the audio book!  But for real, the actual genre here is romance, love, finding a partner or partners for this crazy life.  So it’s for everyone.

Recommended for non-Aziz fans? Wellllll if you’ve got a serious bone to pick with Aziz, I don’t know that this book will win you over, but it’s certainly possible.  And besides that, you will probably still find some great things to take away from this book.

Semi-arbitrary Score: 9/10    If you’re a Maximizer, you might just be able to find a 10 out there, but I wouldn’t recommend looking too much further 🙂

-tom

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