An American stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari, who usually performs in Los Angeles and New York, has found time to conduct an international investigation of the mating habits of the young in the digital age. Like most other stand-up comedians, male and female, Ansari evidently bases his act on nationalistic, ethnic and sexual misanthropy, expressed with facetious cynicism. The first words of his introduction are ‘OH, SHIT!’, which seem to promise streetwise modernity but nothing romantic. Is the book only some kind of wise-guy scam? No, it’s not that simple.
Born 32 years ago in Bennettsville, a small town in South Carolina, Ansari apparently felt restricted by what he calls his ‘brown skin tone’ until he moved up to the less racist north. In the bachelorhood of his twenties and the freedom from inhibition of his career in comedy, he felt well able to explore the amorous adventurism of his contemporaries, and a publisher encouraged him to record his findings in print. Before undertaking ‘a massive research project’, he decided to collaborate with Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist, who helped to set up focus groups and hundreds of interviews, almost entirely with middle-class heterosexuals, and to present the results in generalisations of academic probity, with graphs and pie charts exhibiting slices of statistical percentages. To save his target readership from the danger of ennui, however, Ansari spices his prose with naughty informality.
For comparative purposes, a preliminary focus group was assembled in a retirement community on the Lower East Side of New York. The researchers provided Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee, which
the staff had said would be key to convincing the old folks to speak with us. Sure enough, when the seniors caught a whiff of doughnuts, they were quick to pull up chairs and start answering our questions.
In spite of their crepuscular years, the subjects were able to remember how they escaped from parental control and supervision by marrying the first available acquiescent neighbours they encountered. A typical oldie, 68 years of age, confided that ‘she got married when she was 21 — to a man who lived in the same apartment complex, one floor above her’. On their first date they went to a movie and had dinner with her mother, and thereafter progress to matrimony was easy. The customary pattern of courtship in the olden days, Ansari deduced, meant that people used to get married very young, for practical convenience rather than love. Love was an incidental possibility, but passionate and spiritual harmony was rare.
The mating process is quite different now, deliberately protracted, in the search for the most snugly compatible fit. Electronic communication provides an unlimited variety of experimental partners, for one-night stands or for ever. Having a smartphone, Ansari points out with proprietary pride, is like having a singles bar in one’s pocket (or handbag) 24/7. There is an infinite, constantly replenished supply of men and women willing to hook up with strangers, to find out whether they like each other sufficiently to stay hooked. The only disadvantage, Ansari acknowledges, is the fear that beyond a final choice there may be an unknown somebody even more wonderful. The uncertainty, he says, is stressful.
People who are shyly hesitant to make initial contact by landline feel able to express themselves boldly in text messages. Ansari offers tactical guidance on how to text most effectively. He warns against ‘useless banter’ and crude sexual advances in the opening gambits of getting acquainted, such as asking, ‘Hey what’s your bra size?’ or ‘Afternoon sex?’ With a whole decade or so to play the field, texts should not reveal neediness and impetuosity. ‘Don’t text back right away,’ Ansari advises. ‘You come off like a loser who has nothing going on.’ He recommends transmitting carefully selected photographs. Women should send selfies displaying cleavage and ‘a slightly coy look’; for men, ‘the most effective photos are ones with animals, followed by showing off muscles’.
The authors are concerned mostly with the mating practices in their own country, of course, but the book includes research in Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Doha. Ansari discovers bizarre behaviour wherever he goes in silly old Abroad. He reports that French women don’t mind their husbands’ infidelity; 60 per cent of Japanese male singles in their twenties and thirties ‘show no interest in sex and romantic relationships’; the young men of Argentina are always ‘throbbing with sexual energy’; and young Qatari women gain virtual freedom from their families only through social media.
Ansari’s conclusions are sweeping and not flawless. He shows that the United States is the place technologically best equipped and temperamentally best conditioned to find a soulmate — or at least get laid.