David Brooks: Mobile Phones Are Destroying Courtship

from the why,-I-do-declare... dept

It looks like David Brooks has officially entered into the old curmudgeonly “well, back in my day” phase of his NY Times op-ed columnist career, with a rant about how mobile phones are breaking down the proper social rules of courtship between a man and a woman. What is his basis for this? Would you believe the “sex diaries” of NY Mag? Seriously. Brooks apparently has been spending time perusing the lurid details of what people send into NY Mag for its “sex diaries” feature, and decided that it’s a representation of how the modern single person uses mobile phones for the process of hooking up (er… courtship):

Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era. So the search was on for more enlightened courtship rules. You would expect a dynamic society to come up with appropriate scripts. But technology has made this extremely difficult. Etiquette is all about obstacles and restraint. But technology, especially cellphone and texting technology, dissolves obstacles. Suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments.

People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.

The opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization, as people try to establish different kinds of romantic attachments with different people at the same time.

I have to admit, in reading this, even as he’s condemning it, it sort of feels like Brooks is… envious? Does he feel like he missed out on his opportunity to have been a young player?

But, seriously, he presents no evidence other than the “sex diaries” quotes to support this. He seems to assume that, thanks to technology, suddenly everyone out there is a player with multiple partners, all lined up via mobile phone to figure out who makes the best pairing for the night. I know plenty of single people these days, and I don’t know anyone who does anything remotely like this. I’m sure there are some, but is it really that different from people who went out to bars and compared their different options in the past? This has nothing to do with mobile phone technology at all.

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Comments on “David Brooks: Mobile Phones Are Destroying Courtship”

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TheStupidOne says:

Why Cell Phones?

The internet is even better about the anonymous, guilt free “courtship”

check out:
or even

If you so choose you can meet people on there and have all the “relationships” you want and even bring them into real life if you like.

So my question simply is why did he decry cell phones?

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Halfway between stupid and obvious

The thing that bugs me is that there is such a great missed opportunity for meaningful analysis here. I mean, there can be no denying that communications technology is altering our social interactions (how could it not?) — but there are a lot of worthwhile and interesting questions about the details, and about how deep these changes actually run. It’s not limited to courtship either.

But why stop and think when you can just wildly extrapolate on one particular theme?

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s the way people wanted it, and here it is. What’s the problem? Even if this was well-sourced and meaningful, it still wouldn’t explain why anyone dating today has a responsibility to play-act old peoples’ nostalgic fantasies. If those “social scripts” had any value, people would still be following them.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

He does concede that the old standards don’t apply now (though he calls it the “post-Feminist era” which would not be my first choice of phrasing)

But he complains that no new standards have taken their place without realizing that they quite clearly have, and that “social scripts” are a constantly evolving thing anyway, and they just happen to be a bit chaotic right now since mass communications are, y’know, completely changing the world in an ongoing revolution.

p.s. I love the phrase “play-act old peoples’ nostalgic fantasies”

Anonymous Coward says:

Who pays this guy's cell phone bill?

I don’t even know where to start with this editorial.

Does this guy even have a cell phone? If he does, he needs to ditch it for a few months. But then again, it may be that he doesn’t have a cell phone, and needs to get one.

Or maybe he just got a Palm Pre and the salesperson told him he could ‘socially share’ music with others like he could with his Zune. Something isn’t right here. Poor guy.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Ooh, the first comment on the Times site really nails it:

“Seems to me that texting has changed the nature of promiscuous adventure for adventurers, but the second date is still the second date, and relationships are little changed by the technology, except that a partner may demand more contact, more constant intimacy. Those who used to write love letters are now parceling out their love letters throughout the day.” – David B, Boston

Gumnos (profile) says:

Certain accepted social scripts

There were certain accepted social scripts

Yeah, back when men used to club women over the head and drag them into the cave. Dread lest times change and we progress further up Maslow’s hierarchy from physical needs (caveman sex) to love/belonging (Brook’s view of sexual intimacy) to self-actualization (spontaneity and problem-solving).


John Fenderson (profile) says:

The funny thing is...

I am engage to a wonderful woman. Our courtship was, I think, fairly normal. Whatver that is. It certainly wasn’t without rules.

And yet, particularly in the early days, probably half of our communication was through texting and emails.

Just because the social scripts change doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Also, people tend to romanticize their past (I’m looking at you, David Brooks) and turn it into something better than it really was. Courtship is as healthy and strong as it ever.

LBD says:


Personaly, I don’t see how it’s a bad thing that people are being forced, by the frictionlessness of social media, to be more open with others about their intent.

And what he seems to be ranting about is that people are being more open with others about their intent instead of hiding behind complex social dances because there are ‘some things you can’t say aloud.’

Personally I like the fact that if someone doesn’t want a romantic relationship they’ll usualy just say it via cellphones or text instead of a long ‘will they won’t they’ period.

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