When Eric Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist, was waiting at Penn Station with an armful of groceries, he got a call from a publisher at Penguin. “Hey,” said the publisher, “I have a random question for you: Have you ever heard of a comedian named Aziz Ansari?”
“I was like, Yea,” said Klinenberg, “Aziz Ansari is my hero!”
At first, he thought Penguin wanted to just do a humor book. But on meeting with Ansari, it became clear that he really wanted to do a research project. Thus, Modern Romance was born. The book is a hilarious and illuminating take on the sorts of challenges our phones and computers pose for flirting, falling in love, and finding a soul mate, with scientific research to support it. Ansari also readily shares stories of his own romantic escapades gone awry, like his struggles asking a woman out on a date by text, and what he should have done if he had only known about some sociology and psychology studies. (Nautilus published an excerpt from the book, which is now available to read.)
Nautilus met with professor Klinenberg in his SOHO office recently to talk about the book. We asked him whether technology is ruining our chances for love, whether his research yielded any dating tips, and how falling for someone hard is like encountering a Flo Rida song.
What was it like working with a comedian?
Not just working with a comedian, but working with an extraordinarily talented person who cares about the facts and is interested in the research. I could see that there was a possibility to create a genre of scientific writing that just doesn’t exist: this blend of social science and comedy.
I grew up very close to the Second City Theater in Chicago, like a block away. I used to go to improv comedy all the time. And I think that Aziz and I both came to realize that great comedy and great social science have a lot in common. You have to see things that everybody is experiencing all the time in a fresh way that is counterintuitive and interesting. Good sociology involves making observations about everyday life that people won’t have recognized on their own. Good comedy does the same thing, but expresses the observation humorously. And so the way in which Aziz and I approach the world is fairly similar, except that I’m way more boring than he is.
Is technology killing modern love?
A lot of prominent people are saying that new technology is destroying our social life. Based on the evidence, that’s not supported. There are all kinds of challenges that the Internet poses for us; many of them are interactional challenges. Mobile phones have changed the way we meet and interact, but there aren’t yet any clear norms. That means people all over the world fret over, say, what to write in a first text message. (How many exclamation points should go into that first “Hey!”) That’s just the beginning. If you like someone, how quickly do you respond to a message? If you don’t like them, what do you do—say no, pretend to be busy, or ghost them—when they ask you out via text? If you’re married or in a relationship, do you read your partner’s texts if they pop up while you’re near their phone? Do you ever go into their Facebook account or email? Everyone is trying to figure that out, and it’s a rich area for both sociology and comedy.
Did anything in your research surprise you?
I was amazed to learn about how local romance was 80 years ago, when people in big US cities tended to marry someone who lived within a few blocks of them, or even on their block. Now, people marry in their late 20s on average, and people have this long stage of life called “emerging adulthood.” Aziz calls it the time when people are just dicking around and having brunch. And, much of that time is spent searching for the perfect person, and doing that on a large scale, and probably not in the city you grew up in but a different city. So, to approach the topic as if the thing that has happened is Tinder is to miss the bigger transformation.
I was equally surprised to see just how popular online dating is now: It’s the most popular way for heterosexual couples to meet their spouse, and for same-sex couples it’s completely dominant—70 percent of current GLBT couples began online.
Do you have any dating advice?
There are a couple things. One is, if you’re doing online dating, try to spend less time online, and more time dating. People spend way too much time sorting through profiles, flirting, and don’t ever meet in real life. The anthropologist Helen Fisher has this great line where she says that your brain is the best algorithm, and that’s right. You’ve got to meet people.
I think the second thing is what Aziz and I came to call the Flo Rida theory of acquired likability through repetition—people are basically like Flo Rida songs. At first you’re like, Nah, it’s not that great. But then if you listen over and over again, the song is great. You realize: This person is amazing. Give people a chance. So many people swipe left on people way too quickly. You’re never going to discover what’s interesting and terrific about a person from one coffee date at Starbucks.
Regan Penaluna is an assistant editor at Nautilus. @ReganJPenaluna.
Portrait photograph by Rona Talcott. Eric Kbinenberg.