Aziz Ansari, known to many as the dapper Tom Haverford on "Parks and Recreation," and known to still more as a brilliant, subversive comedian, wants you to find love. Yes, you. (Don’t worry about him, he’s already found it and it sounds pretty great.)
His new book, Modern Romance, features a zany cover and the opening line “Oh shit!”, but let there be no confusion: This is not exactly a humor book. Aziz explains in the introduction that he’s never had interest in writing a humor book because he “thought stand-up was the best medium for [him].” Instead, he developed an obsession with the modern dating landscape and decided to write a book about that, collaborating with a sociologist Eric Klinenberg to conduct an enormous amount of research on dating and relationships.
Modern Romance compiles numerous anecdotes from his stand-up, their focus groups, and a subreddit they set up, as well as studies and conversations with prominent psychologists and relationship experts. Want to know all about dating these days, plus occasional, weird Photoshopped graphics? This book has that total package.
Aziz doesn’t position this as an advice book, either, but there’s no avoiding a certain degree of prescriptivism when it comes to analyzing what does and doesn’t work in the dating sphere. He points out that research suggests having lengthy online interactions prior to meeting up isn’t helpful, and can waste your time and emotional energy -- that seems to be true, and the underlying message is, well, don’t do that.
With that in mind, my skeptical, dating-averse brain began automatically scanning the book for awful advice. I’m hardly qualified to do so, considering the following: I am in a relationship that predated the rise of Tinder; I used OkCupid for roughly a week at a time at six-month intervals during my single years; I once told three guys I was shutting down my OkCupid account in large part because I couldn’t think of a more tactful way to avoid seeing them again (they were so nice!). And then I actually shut down my OkCupid account so I wouldn’t be a liar. I have never been on more than three dates with anyone but my boyfriend, and I never figured out how to get in on the booty-call game. Out of the two of us, Aziz must be more qualified to give relationship advice.
And yet ... some of the dating advice in Modern Romance really does seem a bit questionable. Here are the three most ehhhh bits of romantic guidance he offers to the single reader:
“Participating in novel and exciting activities increases our attraction to people ... If I look back on my dating life, I wonder how much better I (and the other person) would have fared if I had done something exciting rather than just get a stupid drink at a local bar.”
Now, sure, being nervous or excited about something else can make you feel more attracted to the person you’re with; Aziz references a famous study involving a sturdy bridge, a rickety bridge and an attractive woman handing out her phone number to men at the end. The men who just faced near-certain death on the perilous rocks below were significantly more likely to give her a ring. “The Bachelor” also has this figured out, which is why every date involves free-falling off a skyscraper or playing with venomous serpents. Afterward, every woman is convinced she adores the man who free-fell with her. That, or her legs are just shaky with pure terror, but who can tell the difference?
Question: So why do all those “Bachelor” couples break up? Seriously though. If your attraction was just misfiring anxiety neurons, what happens when those neurons chill out? Do you have to spend your entire relationship going hang-gliding? He relays a couple anecdotes in which an exciting, unconventional date made an impression or led to a second, but doesn’t say any of them led to true love. Meanwhile, Aziz looks back regretfully on all those “stupid drink[s] at a local bar,” but his first date with the woman he loves was just plain old dinner. (My first date with my boyfriend, full disclosure, was a stupid drink at a local bar.) I bet Aziz’s first date was as thrilling and heart-pounding as my first date was, because sharing a conversation with the right person can be more than enough. Personally I’m kinda glad I filtered out the other people earlier on instead of tricking myself with adrenaline rushes.
You know, unless it has lasting effects. In which case I’m down to handle snakes with my gentleman friend, For Love. It’s worth noting, however, that these studies typically involve single individuals whose attraction to strangers is being observed or rated. In a 2003 study that examined sexual attraction after a roller-coaster ride (wheee!), single riders showed a notable uptick in their ratings of strangers’ photos after the ride, but coupled riders showed no increase in attraction either to photos or to each other. Whomp whomp.
“So based on these data, the answers are clear: If you are a woman, take a high-angle selfie, with cleavage, while you’re underwater near some buried treasure.”
To be clear, I know Aziz’s tongue is jammed so far up his cheek it’s basically in his ear. That said, he goes into a fair amount of detail about what photos get you more messages on dating sites, suggesting that using the right photos to get more messages is part of being “good” at online dating. For a woman, this means coyly smiling, high-angle selfies, which makes sense, on a basic level. She looks friendly but also a bit mysterious, and the angle tends to be flattering -- it emphasizes your eyes and makes your chin seem to taper delicately, creating a more traditionally feminine visual.
Question: But if you’re looking for the right person, not just a person, is attracting higher numbers across the board necessarily the way to go? Women already tend to be flooded with generally distasteful attention on dating sites. Try pre-filtering the shallow dolts by using normal photos, or only using watercolors you've painted of your cat, or by mentioning in your profile that you’re a vocal feminist (only if true, of course). In my OkCupid experience, the latter cut down on gross come-ons and allowed me to easily find and meet up with a few really awesome dudes. If I hadn’t gotten tired and quit dating after about six tries, I probably would have met someone perfect!
Men, this may not be as much of a problem for you, but still -- do you want all that additional attention from women who wouldn’t notice you if your photo wasn’t quite right? Maybe you do, in which case, take Aziz’s advice. You should really read his book, but here’s a hint: Do not look at the camera.
“All the psychological principles seem to point to waiting being a strategy that works for singles who are trying to build attraction ... When you are texting someone less frequently, you are, in effect, creating a scarcity of you and making yourself more attractive.”
Aziz pulls out a lot of psychological research to explain why people ignoring us makes us want them, and he’s not wrong. We spend time thinking about whether they’re actually into us or not. We wish we had more from them, because we can’t easily get a response from them, let alone time with them. Much like a cute dress we see in the window of a boutique, we obsess over it more when we feel like we can’t afford it -- once we buy it, it just sits in our closet like all our other crap. Don’t you want potential romantic partners to obsess over you?
Question: But ... all things in moderation, right? You don’t want to deluge a suitor with texts, love letters and DMs before the romance has had a chance to naturally ripen, leaving the poor guy or gal wishing they had the opportunity to miss you occasionally. On the other hand, that stomach-churning obsession over whether he hasn’t texted back because he’s really busy at work or because he met a supermodel in the last 12 hours and is already shopping for her engagement ring isn’t exactly healthy, especially once the romance has become established. It’s a sign of insecurity about your relationship.
So, okay, space out your texts so your message convo doesn’t feel like a frenzied textual Ping-Pong match. But don’t start your relationship off with a pattern of psychological antagonism! A 2013 study about the impact of texting on relationships suggested that while texting to express affection increased relationship quality, texting hurtful things or attempting to resolve issues over text decreased it. Moreover, the authors wrote, “even communication instigated through technology connections may help emerging adults feel that their romantic partners are accessible, responsive, and engaged, or vice-versa.”
Sensing this textual availability from one’s partner, they note, makes one more secure in the relationship and therefore more comfortable exploring beyond it. If your girlfriend is always good about texting you back when she can, then the occasional failure to do so may feel less threatening -- your security in the relationship will allow you to assume that the delay isn’t malicious and that you’ll be fine until the response comes. So, make the other person feel secure that you’ll respond! Let them make you feel secure! Be vulnerable! Generally just, I don’t know, act like a sane, nonwithholding person.
So I wasn't sold by every page of the book. Still, even my deeply cynical, introvert’s brain found most of the insights and tips in Modern Romance to be pretty solid. If you, or your highly eligible son or daughter, are navigating the treacherous waters of dating today, you’ll want to know which parts of people’s online dating profiles are helpful and which are simply leading you astray, for example, and this book has got you covered.
Plus, Aziz has a serious girlfriend now, so he must have figured something out.
So as a bonus, I’ll leave you with my favorite piece of non-questionable dating advice from Modern Romance:
"With so many romantic options, instead of trying to explore them all, make sure you properly invest in people and give them a fair chance before moving on to the next one."
One date almost never gives us a real shot at getting to know a new person well enough to make a decision about a relationship, but if you feel like there’s another option around every corner, you might not want to “waste” time on a second date with someone who didn’t blow you away. Or, if you’re a socially anxious introvert like me, you might not want to “waste” time on a second date with someone when you could, instead, be at home enjoying a glass of wine and a book with your cat. Aziz points out, “A person may seem just okay, but if you really invest time in the relationship, maybe they’ll be greater than you assume.” Familiarity does tend to lead to warm feelings, and a nonstop merry-go-round of new strangers means no familiarity. Ever!
Aziz also remembers a time when he felt scared about committing to a relationship when he wasn’t yet totally head over heels in love -- but he made the decision to dive in and give the budding romance its best shot. Dive into your relationships, treat them like a project shared by you and your partner, and you’re bound to get better results than if you sit back and wait for them to impress you. “Modern romance” notwithstanding, it’s true today as it was for our grandparents. Good call, Aziz.
Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance will be published June 16 by Penguin Press.