A few years ago there was a girl in my life—let’s call her Tanya. We hooked up one night in L.A. We’d been flirting at a birthday party, and when things were winding down, she offered to drop me off at home. At the time, I was subletting a pretty nice house up in the Hollywood Hills. It was kind of like that house De Niro had in Heat, but a little more my vibe than that of a really skilled robber who takes down armored cars. I asked her to come in for a drink.
We chatted, laughed, and soon started making out. It was pretty awesome. When she was leaving, I said, “Tanya, you’re a charming lady….” She said, “Aziz, you’re a charming guy.” The encounter seemed promising. As everyone in the room had agreed, we were both charming people.
I wanted to see Tanya again and was faced with the conundrum that plagues us all: How and when do I communicate next? Do I call? Do I text? Do I send a Facebook message? Do I send up a smoke signal? (How does one even do that?)
Eventually, I decided to text Tanya. I waited a few days so as not to seem overeager, and then I wrote this:
A nice firm ask with a little inside joke thrown in. (Tanya had been singing that Drake song at the party and knew all the lyrics.) I felt confident. I wasn’t head over heels for Tanya, but she seemed cool, and it felt like we had a good connection.
As I waited for her response, I pictured our hypothetical relationship. Perhaps next weekend we would go see a movie at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery? Maybe I could cook Tanya dinner and try out that brick chicken recipe I’d been eager to attempt? Would Tanya and I vacation in Ojai in the fall? This was going to be great!
Minutes went by and the status of my text went to READ. I watched as those little iPhone dots popped up—the ones that tell you that someone’s typing—but then THEY VANISHED. No response from Tanya.
She’s probably just crafting her perfectly witty response, I thought. She started a draft, didn’t feel good about it, and wanted to get back to it later. I get it. She also probably didn’t want to seem overeager. I get it.
Fifteen minutes went by…nothing. My confidence shifted to doubt. An hour went by…nothing. Two hours…still nothing. By then I was panicked: Should I have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one? Did I ask too many questions? What was I thinking? There I go with another question! Aziz, WHAT’S UP WITH YOU AND THE QUESTIONS?
I tried to keep calm. OK, maybe she’s busy with work. No big deal. A full day went by. My thoughts got crazier: Did Tanya’s phone fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano? Did Tanya fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano? Oh no, Tanya died, and here I am, selfishly worried about our date. I’m a bad person.
Then I looked on social media. She’d logged on to Facebook chat. I thought: Do I send a message? NO! DON’T DO THAT, AZIZ! Be cool. Be cool….
Later on Instagram this clown Tanya was posting a photo of a deer. Too busy to write me back, but she has time to do a photo shoot with her a dumb deer she saw on a hike?
At this point it had been two days. The concert was the next day. I kept debating whether I should send anything, but I felt it would be too desperate and accepted that Tanya wasn’t interested. I told myself I wouldn’t want to go out with someone who treats people that way anyway, which was true, but I was still insulted.
Then I realized something interesting.
The madness I’d descended into wouldn’t have existed 20 or even 10 years ago. There I was, maniacally checking my phone, going through this tornado of panic, all because this person hadn’t written me a short message on a dumb little phone.
Had Tanya really done anything that rude or malicious? No, she just went dark to avoid an awkward situation. I’ve surely done the same thing to someone else and not realized the grief I caused.
I didn’t end up going to the concert that night. Instead I went to a comedy club, and in my stand-up talked about the frustration and self-doubt this whole “silence” nonsense had provoked in the depths of my being. I got laughs but also something bigger—the audience and I were connecting on a deeper level. Every guy and girl in the room had their own Tanya. Yet we all sit alone, staring at this black screen with a whole range of emotions. But in a strange way we’re all in it together, and we should take solace in the fact that no one has a clue what’s going on.
Why are so many people so perplexed by the challenge of doing something that people have always done quite efficiently: finding romance?
The big changes—technological developments like smartphones, online dating, and social media sites—are obvious. But there’s much more to the story. In a very short period, the whole culture of searching for love and a mate has radically changed. A century ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet, and after deciding that neither party seemed like a murderer, the couple would get married and have a kid, all by the time they were 22. If you don’t believe me, check this out: In 1932 a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania looked through 5,000 marriage licenses of people who lived in Philadelphia. One third of these couples lived within a five-block radius of each other before they got married. One out of six lived on the same block. Amazingly, one in every eight couples had lived in the same building.
Today our pool of romantic options is greatly expanded. We move to new cities, spend years meeting people in college and at work, and have infinite possibilities provided by dating apps and similar technologies. But what’s really changed are our underlying goals: When my coauthor, Eric Klinenberg, and I visited a nursing home and asked older folks to describe why they married their spouse, they said things like, “He seemed like a pretty good guy,” or “She was a nice girl.” When you ask our generation why they married someone, the quotes are much more dramatic: “She is my other half,” “I can’t imagine experiencing the joys of life without him,” or “Every time I touch her hair, I get a huge boner.” We are in an epic search for the right person.
Sometimes the search is fun. I had a great time in the casual dating scene, but at a certain point the single world had worn me out. I had been staying out like a lunatic and complaining that I met only lunatics. After poring over all this research, I realized if I was going to find someone to settle down with, I had to change the way I was looking. Instead of hanging out in bars and clubs, I began doing things that I’d want a theoretical girlfriend to be into. I went to more museums, more food events, and more low key/interesting bars at earlier times. Not long after, I started dating an amazing woman who was beautiful, funny, and a chef (at the time, she worked at Momofuku Milk Bar). Pretty soon we were staying home, cooking food, and doing nothing all the time. It was great.
Of course a lot of our early relationship played out on the screens of our phones. At our one-year mark, my girlfriend gave me a huge book that compiled the entire history of our text messages. Let’s examine one of our exchanges. To set the scene: I got her number at a barbecue in Brooklyn, and we talked about getting ramen later that week. I called her but then sent a text in lieu of a voice mail. My now girlfriend didn’t call me, though; she texted.
Hey, it’s Aziz. Call me back.
Delicious tsukemen ramen = Minca on 5th btw A and B. What’s your sched like?
I could maybe go for din-din tonight before stand-up obligations if that works.
I can’t tonight. Having a going-away dinner for one of the milk bar gals.
I could do tomorrow or Wednesday. Also—never seen you do stand-up, DEF want to get down on that. Curious—on a scale of 1-10, how funny are you?
10:13 A.M. (Note the delay.)
Hey—let’s do Minca tonight at 8:15, and we’ll go to Comedy Cellar after and I’ll drop in. Cool? My skill on a scale of 1-10…hmm, let’s just say I’m kinda like the Hokey Pokey cookie of stand-up comedy.
Sweet! The Hokey Pokey is definitely Milk Bar’s funniest cookie. See you at Minca.
BTW: The Hokey Pokey cookie is a reference to a cookie made at my girlfriend’s restaurant, one I knew she loved.
Notice I let time pass after her second message; I definitely intentionally waited so as not to come off as overeager. And I specifically remember running a draft by a friend and rewriting it several times before sending it off. Today I know that my waiting caused her uneasiness; she told me she felt I must have been offended by the “How funny are you?” comment. But that same night she was waiting, she got word that I’d asked a friend of hers if she was in fact single, so she knew all was well. Still, the waiting had an effect: She told me she’d been really excited when I wrote back the next morning. Looking back, those early messages reveal so much about our mind-sets at the time: Both of us were anxious about the texts we were crafting, but we were oblivious to the fact that we were in the same boat.
In our book of text messages, she talked about how, as things progressed in the relationship (and in our texts), it meant a lot to her when I sent some early loving texts saying I missed her or was thinking about her. When I read the later texts, they took me back to all the excitement and fun we’d had.
So although these new tools may cause us stress and angst, the same technology has also given us a new place to store, remember, and share our love for each other. I’m glad we have it.
1. The Most Hated Texts of All Time
Thousands of people let me and Eric Klinenberg, my coauthor, look at their phones. They despised these texts the most—so, uh, avoid!
The Generic Text “Hey” “Heyyy!!” “Wsup” “Wsup!” “Watcha up to?” Generic messages just come off super dull and lazy.
The Endless Back-and-Forth Text These texts are of this mundane, useless variety: “So where do you do your laundry?” followed by 10 back-and-forths about laundry (“I recently switched to fragrance-free detergent. It’s been DOPE.”). Name a specific time and a place, then meet already. It stunned me how women’s hearts fluttered when I just posed, “What if a guy just asked you do a thing at a specific time at a specific place?” If you are somewhat nice, and somehow slightly humorous too? People lose their sh-t!
The Bad-Grammar Text One man said he was dating a spectacular woman, but things went downhill when he asked her about a mutual friend. Her response: “Hoo?” Not who, but HOO. A little autocorrect is one thing, but overt bad grammar and spelling are a turnoff.
2. Exactly When to Text Him Back
Lab rats prove: Waiting (a little) works.
Playing hard to get can be frustrating for all involved. But in recent years behavioral scientists have shed light on why doing it—occasionally—can
be powerful. Psychologists have conducted hundreds of studies in which they reward lab animals in different ways. One of the most intriguing findings is that “reward uncertainty,” whereby, for instance, animals can’t predict whether pushing a lever will get them food, can dramatically increase subjects’ interest in getting a reward (while also enhancing their dopamine levels so that they, you know, basically feel coked up).
If a text back from someone is a “reward,” consider the fact that lab animals who get rewarded for pushing a lever every time eventually slow down because they know the next time they want a reward, it will be waiting for them. So basically, if you text back immediately, you’re taken for granted—a guy doesn’t feel as much of an urge to text you or, in the case of the lab rat, push the lever.
In other words: Waiting, in general, is a good strategy. But texting conditions our minds; these days, when we don’t get a reply, we freak out. Even people in relationships experience this kind of anxiety with texting. I’m now in a committed partnership, and I’ve still felt uneasy because of texting delays. Below is one of our exchanges—my texts are on the right.
You coming back to the hotel before going to the comedy club?
Don’t think so. Gotta get ready for show and having a quick glass of wine with Zach.
Want to meet us?
Is that a grump txt or not?
Not a grump text at all. I’m just resting at the hotel. Been walking around all day and I don’t feel like leaving.
OK just checking 🙂
When she didn’t reply right away after “Is that a grump txt or not?” I was certain she was grumpy—why would she wait so long to tell me if she wasn’t grumpy? See? Texting messed with me. Bottom line: Waiting is still a strategy that works. Just accept that it may drive him crazy.
3. My Dating Rules for All Humankind
People complain a lot to me about the conundrums of modern romance. Three guidelines I think help:
Treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen. Would you ever go up to a guy and say “hey” 10 times without a response? I didn’t think so. Your phone self should match your real-world self. Be thoughtful, and invite this person to do something interesting. A casual encounter could lead to more, so treat that casual encounter with respect.
Don’t think of online dating as dating—it’s an introduction service. The key is to get off the phone and meet these people. Don’t spend your nights in endless exchanges with strangers. Communicate with people you have some chance of liking, then after a few messages—enough to know if there’s something really, really wrong with them—ask them out.
Give one person a fair chance before moving on to the next. With all our romantic options, it’s easy to dismiss people and move on. But this is really unfair to you and others. Study after study shows, the more time we spend with people the more we like them and really get to know deeper truths about their personality. Think of the music of rapper Flo Rida. When you hear his latest song, you think, Dammit, Flo Rida. You’re just doing the same thing, song after song. And by the tenth time you hear it, you’re like, FLO, YOU’VE DONE IT AGAIN! THIS IS A HIT! We’re all like a Flo Rida song: The more time you spend with us, the more you see how special we are. Social scientists refer to this as the Flo Rida Theory of Acquired Likability Through Repetition.
Aziz Ansari most recently starred in Parks and Recreation. This piece is adapted from his new book, Modern Romance.
Want more Aziz? Catch him here as we play Emmys trivia with the casts of Modern Family, Girls, The Big Bang Theory, and more:
Photos: Aziz: Danielle Levitt; Couple: Adam Kats Sinding/Blaublut Edition