One thing that has plagued me recently is the lack of anything intelligent to read by young authors speaking to situations immediately relevant to me. I would love to read a work that really speaks to my generation and to the changes in culture, media and conventions currently taking place. If I had the talent to write such a seminal work, I would. Alas I do not. Dave Eggers is probably our greatest hope. In the interim, I thought I would write a series of posts on a topic very relevant to me and to many of my friends and readers: dating in 2007.
I’m 27 and single. For the most part it sucks — I would love to be in a fulfilling relationship with a great women who I might one day marry. I know most of my friends both male and female) feel the same way. Most of my single friends (all 27-29) have exciting jobs, are extremely well educated and all decent looking.
However, like me, in the last few years they have become jaded with entire dating scene (or is it it’s own culture?). This is what I want to examine over the next few posts by sharing some insights and analysis. In particular, I hope to highlight the significant role of that technology and media are playing in modern day relationships.
Part I: Exposure and Choice
There is a tremendous book I read recently called the Paradox of Choice. In reading it my immediate reaction was that many its central tenants resonated with my experience dating. The book’s key argument is that despite all â€œthe choiceâ€� we currently have in our lives (from salad dressing to blue jeans) overall our levels of satisfaction have actually decreased. More choice does not always lead to more satisfaction. In fact greater choice can have the opposite effectâ€¦
The most successful relationship I can think of is that of my grandparents; happily married for over 60 years. Amazingly my grandparents are likely not dissimilar from many other couples from the World War II generation. Specifically, I think my grandfather and I are great examples of how this â€˜paradox of choice’ is affecting our generation, and in particular, relationships. Let me explain.
In my lifetime I have been exposed to far more people than was my grandfather by age 27 — including single women. I have moved around my entire life and lived in some of the greatest cities in this country. I go out a lot. I meet a lot of people. I have access to cars, computers, networking events, dating website, cell phones, IM, etc, etc types of connectivity and communications that did not exist in the 1940′s. To state the obvious, my exposure to people is on an order of magnitude far greater than was possible just a generation ago. I have lots of choice (or at least potential for choice).
Still, despite my grandfather’s exposure restraints (growing up in a very small New Hampshire town, being a small-town lawyer and marrying someone from a neighboring town) my grandfather has one of the greatest relationships I know of. How could it be with such limited choice my grandfather was able to find the woman of his dreams, while I have met so many more women and yet cannot find someone to date, let alone think of marrying? Among my friends, I am not an anomaly.
According to the paradox of choice, and myself, there is a combination of things occurring with greater frequency (at least within modern, affluent western culture):
1) It’s difficult to enjoy something when you know there are so many â€˜other’ alternatives
2) With more choice and more sophisticated media, expectations increase dramatically
3) Trends of modern society are devaluing offline relationships
First, with so much access to such large numbers and varieties of people, it’s difficult to avoid a mindset of â€˜sampling’ while always knowing there is more. For example, if I go out with someone and don’t immediately hit it off, there is likely no â€˜next time’ because the mentality is that there is always someone else. The danger of this is that relationships and people need time to develop. I might easily send the women of my dreams packing simply because she had a cold and I wasn’t immediately thrilled with what appeared (falsely) to be a passive demeanor (little did I know she was sick).
Second, with greater choice and exposure we expect that we can always do better: the â€œgrass is always greenerâ€� perspective. Growing up I was told never to settle and it’s a great mentality for business — but not for people. Without a benchmark, it’s impossible to ever not settle because, what is good enough? Also agonizing over details (or minor flaws) can take the fun out of what could be a great relationship. Thinking, â€œWell she is great, except for Xâ€� in a world of potentially unlimited choices, has one solution — to move on. We live in a world of consumerism where we are accustomed to researching, critiquing, waffling, and comparing as fast as possible. All good for shopping, but not necessarily good for evaluating people.
Another important point is that the benchmarks many people use are skewed with unrealistic expectations. We live in a culture of media that values the most beautiful people. I have heard a lecture on how watching porn can destroy some men’s ability to ever enjoy sex, as their expectations of how a woman should look or act become so twisted. Likewise as people enjoy greater specializations and niches (from work to activities to musicâ€¦think the longtail) it becomes increasingly difficult to find that idealistic someone that you have everything in common with.
Finally, the trends of modern society devalue offline relationships. Why talk on the phone, when you can text message? Work is now 24/7. It consumes so much of our time and identity. More and more is done online. We have fewer days of vacation. Focus is on speed and efficiency, hence the rise of speed dating events. All these things take away from the art of building relationships and really getting to know people.
All of the above issues have elements that relate to my own experiences and the experiences of friends. The key is to figure out how to appropriately leverage the great exposure and access we have, but to do so in manner that values relationships and maintains realistic expectations. One obvious outgrowth for managing and sorting through such choice is with the use of technology. In the next installment I will examine the role that technology and the Internet are playing in modern dating.