Idealism and Tech: Modern Dating

Not that they’ve evaporated entirely, but physical introductions are growing rarer in the Millennial St. Louis dating sphere. Although, in such a small city, it’s more common than not that even an online date will have mutual friends on Facebook. You realize, hey! We could’ve met through three different social circles. But you were both too busy trawling for dates online to run into each other in the real world.

My online dating experience is average, I imagine. A score or so first dates in a couple years, most of them dead ends. A handful of second dates, even a couple relationships. I have been lauded by friends on the rare occasion I ask out a friend-of-a-friend at a party. But those dates I oh-so-bravely requested in person? They were scheduled by text — not on the spot, nor by phone.

In fact, since high school (Hello Mrs. Smith, this is Eric, may I speak to Amanda?)  I haven’t even considered a phone call until I read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, his plain-spoken analysis of the subject assisted by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Using both formal interviews and his access to crowds at stand-up shows, Aziz explores how tech and romantic relationships interact and what cultural shifts are even more impactful than Tinder.

It’s a nice companion to OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm, his math-fueled exploration of the selves we are when nobody is looking and we have to be honest, if only to the computer. One is hard data, the other collated stories. Real sociology research supports Modern Romance, but the heart comes from anecdotes and interviews. But just when you think you can rationalize out of some uncomfortable hypocrisy in Aziz’s book, Dataclysm hits you over the head with inescapable numbers.

I tore through these books because it’s cathartic to have your experience validated. Dating is frustrating; online dating is bewildering: it can seem like you must be the lone crazy person in a sea of well-adjusted, coping adults.

Thankfully, we’re all bumbling around.

Aziz digs particularly into texting culture. First, the terrible: over-sexualized first messages; repeated ‘hey’s without response; discussing minutiae instead of scheduling a date.

But even when you and your date are really excited to meet up and eager to keep the conversation flowing, you both have to contend with the waiting game. Not wanting to appear overeager, each of you tries to out-wait the other person, even as you feel dread when they don’t respond promptly.

We all internalize the waiting game, even as we deride it. I had never heard hard rules though. Some people Aziz interviewed stuck by a firm doubling of their partner’s waiting time, to make sure they appeared the most aloof. Others just made sure they waited a minimum of three minutes. I wait as long as feels right — then I add some time, because I know my instincts are hasty.

Aziz goes a step beyond simply describing our texting angst: he explains it. In the language of reward schedules and gambling, a text from your date is a hit of dopamine, that addictive, rewarding neurotransmitter. And surprisingly, if people are given predictable rewards every time they ask for them, they lose interest. Slot machines run on a pseudorandom reward schedule because it works to entice play and build addiction. Waiting to respond, particularly to somebody who wants to hear from you, draws them in further.

Then your date does the same things to you, and you freak out!

And beyond the sociology and catharsis, Modern Romance got me to consider how I conduct my own dating life.

I haven’t called a new date for scheduling or chatting since graduating high school. With serious girlfriends, I’d call to keep in touch when we were out of town or the like. But phone calls are so rare these days that, as one woman tells Aziz, they “seem like an emergency.”

Yet, I reflected that phone calls are actually amazing. During my stint as a science journalist, I grew exacerbated with scheduling interviews by email. I was always thankful when I could call a communications director who was happy to pick up right away. Phone calls are fast; they are direct; they have tone and nuance and no excessive exclamation points!

I’d love to have a woman ask me out. And if they went ahead and called me to ask and set it up? I’d swoon. Since that’s not too likely, maybe I should be placing more phone calls. Some women told Aziz it set the caller apart — unfortunately, others said it’d appear far too forward. Tough call.

Another bizarre reality of dating online is that if you don’t feel an intense spark right away, you usually never see each other again. Quite the opposite of many successful real world interactions, where you might become friends first or at least run into each other several times before realizing there could be a deeper connection. Instead of a flurry of forgetful first dates, Aziz recommends deeper interactions with fewer partners. That goes along with his rebranding of online dating to online introductions — no need to fall in love right away; it’s really just a chance to expand your social circle. 

From the first chapter, Aziz tells us that his book isn’t just about Snapchat and sexting and our supposedly deteriorating culture. He spends a lot of time describing how radically our entire search for a mate has shifted in just a few decades. Instead of settling down with the kid across the street, women and men are on an epic quest for a best friend, lover, and confidant: a soulmate. I instinctively recoil at that archaic phrasing, but it’s not wrong. We ask so much of our partners now that of course the journey to a good one is frustrating, tearful and long. We need time to explore, to grow as individuals, and to meet a lot of different people in order to be successful finding and maintaining a relationship that strong.

So in the end, our arduous journey through the dating world — so extended compared to just 40 years ago — is a reflection more of our idealism than our technology.