Note: This is the first book review I’ve written since college.
I decided to review Modern Romance because it’s currently relevant to me. It’s a relatively simple book too. Attempting The Wealth of Nations right off the bat didn’t seem like a good idea. Walk, then run.
Unlike a book summary, a book review should do more than condense the content. A book review should have its own narrative and commentary. I first attempted this with my review of Yale’s happiness course. Think of it as literary criticism, school of yours truly.
A review inherently omits parts of the book. For example, I didn’t cover any of the dating advice in Modern Romance. You’ll have to read a summary for that, such as Nat Eliason’s.
Reviews also take longer to write than summaries. Going forward, I may publish summaries in addition to reviews. It’ll depend on the book. Some books, like this one, are better off as summaries.
I’ve read a lot of books on dating and romance.
What started as an attempt to understand my first breakup became an intellectual fascination with intersexual dynamics. I’ve probably read enough on the topic to write a master’s thesis. So while Ansari’s book wasn’t bad, it didn’t teach me anything new.
That said, refreshers are useful. Plus, it’s good conversation fodder for first dates!
Modern Romance takes a sociological and anthropological approach to romance. It is written in a humorous tone and easily digestible. Although I’m not familiar with Ansari’s comedic style, I imagine that the book’s voice is similar. I finished it over the span of two mornings.
The book’s central thesis is that dating norms are heavily dependent on time and place. Not only has romance changed over the years, it still varies wildly from location to location.
Dating has norms
When someone sneezes, it’s customary to say “bless you” in Western cultures. That’s a norm.
Norms refer to actions over which people have control, and are supported by shared expectations about what should or should not be done in different types of social situations.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Like other social phenomena, dating has norms. Norms exist for every aspect of dating, from meeting to breaking up and beyond. “Guys make the first move”, “don’t talk about politics on a first date”, and “wait three dates to have sex” are all examples of dating norms.
When someone says “I don’t know how to [dating action, e.g. ask someone out]”, what they’re really saying is “I don’t know what the dating norm is”.1Unless the question is technical, like how to tie shibari knots.
Dating norms vary by culture
Very few dating norms are universal. Ansari investigated the dating cultures of Qatar, Japan, Argentina, and France.
How aggressive and forward are men? In Tokyo, not very. Japanese men are especially afraid of rejection, only asking a girl out if they are extremely confident that she will accept. On the other hand, Argentine men are very aggressive and bold. Parisian men will send “fancy a fuck?” as an opening text to women they just met, who aren’t offended by the proposition.
How do couples meet? In Buenos Aires, women expect to get hit on in public regularly. But Qatar bans the mere act of socializing with the opposite sex in public. So Qataris will organize small parties in hotel rooms through private group chats. And in Japan, the answer is “they don’t”. Marriage and birth rates have fallen so precipitously that the Japanese government is now subsidizing both.
How important is fidelity? In North America, cheating is considered immoral. Some places have made cheating illegal, punishable by fines, imprisonment, or death. However, French people don’t see it as a big deal and Argentine women frequently have a chongo, i.e. side piece.
Unfortunately, I don’t have enough dating experience in any of these cultures to validate Ansari’s findings.
Dating norms change over time
Not only do dating norms vary by culture, they also evolve over time. Modern Romance provides an overview of romance’s evolution in North America.
The average age when people get married has increased. 70 years ago, people married young. It was expected for both men and women to be married in their early 20’s. Back then, marriage signified the beginning of adulthood. Fast forward to present day and people aren’t getting married until their late 20’s and early 30’s, preferring to spend their 20’s in a stage known as “emerging adulthood”. During this stage, people go to school, start a career, and date each other with varying levels of seriousness.
People’s expectations for a spouse have also increased. Once upon a time, we were willing to settle for “good enough”. It was common to marry someone close to you – geographically. Not anymore. Influenced by parents who settled, the emerging adulthood phase, and an abundance of choice, people in the 21st century want the best partner they can get.
Many other smaller norms have evolved as well, propelled by the advent of smartphones and online dating.
Technology changed dating norms
The tech wave drastically changed most aspects of our lives, including romance. Modern Romance argues that smartphones and dating websites/apps have had the largest impact.
Smartphones have changed dating norms
Texting was invented in 1984 by a German engineer named Friedhelm Hillebrand.2Incidentally, people born after 1984 seem much more comfortable with texting as a communication medium.
As texting gained prevalence, it became more acceptable to ask people out, flirt with, and break up over text. Each piece of technology introduced a dissociative buffer. Phone call breakups removed the visual element. Text breakups removed the audio element. And ghosting removed both.
Smartphones changed the nature of other age-old dating concepts. It’s easier to have affairs thanks to the private communication that smartphones allow, so more people do. Suspicious spouses snooping followed soon after. And although sexting has been documented throughout history, a nude photo is now only a few taps’ away. Today’s teenagers are much more comfortable with sexting.
Yesterday’s no-no becomes tomorrow’s norm.
Online dating has changed dating norms even more
Over the last few decades, the number of couples that met online has risen dramatically. I joke that time could be saved by asking couples which app they met on rather than how they met.
I suspect the uptick in the “Bar/restaurant” category can be explained by couples too embarrassed to admit that they met online.
While the advent of the internet increased the reach of classified ads, dating websites like Match.com and OkCupid represented a paradigm shift. And then the ubiquity of smartphones led to swipe apps like Tinder, shifting the paradigm again. Online dating websites and apps provide people with orders of magnitude more options than were available to previous generations.
Match.com will bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ.Gary Kremen, founder
In theory, online dating is a fantastic innovation. As a market, it is better in almost every way. More options, more efficient, more precise, always available (even during pandemics), and accessible from the comfort of your living room couch. What’s not to like?
More options are a double-edged sword though. With more options come heightened expectations and “grass is greener syndrome”. After all, if you subscribe to North American monogamy norms, you only get one significant other. And why work things out with your current boyfriend or girlfriend when someone “better” is potentially a swipe away? For an extreme example, I present “Barney Stinson and his magic phone“.
Having more options is correlated with unhappiness. Remember this next time you’re at a Chinese restaurant.
Today, if you own a smartphone, you’re carrying a 24-7 singles bar in your pocket.
Not to mention that online dating is akin to a second job. Not only can it be time consuming, it has its own skill set to master. Yes, it is possible to be good at online dating.
Finding someone today is probably more complicated and stressful than it was for previous generations – but you’re also more likely to end up with someone you are really excited about.
Modern Romance provides a good overview of how dating norms have evolved over the last 70 years in North America and how they continue to differ from locale to locale. Interspersed throughout is actionable dating advice that can help you achieve your dating goals. And it’s pretty funny. Ansari is a comedian after all.
Although norms tend to vary, a few appear to be universal across time and place. One such universal norm is “men make the first move”. I suspect that our different biologies and the importance of honest signals have led to the staying power of this particular norm.