Books | Modern romance

A review of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating, by Paul Oyer.

Before my mom was my mom, she was one of the best dental hygienists in Chicago. In 1979, an older woman sent a typewritten letter to the surgeon my mom worked for, a letter that I now have framed above my desk. “I would never have conceived of writing a fan letter in praise of an oral hygienist,” she writes, “but this young woman is quite extraordinary in her intelligence, technique and sensitivity to her patients.” Several years later, she met my dad when he came in for a teeth cleaning.

Theirs was the first story I heard about how two people met. A fluke encounter in an unromantic setting. From childhood, that’s what I wanted for myself: love that finds you by surprise.

I have witnessed the entire ascent of Internet dating. And although many of my friends and friends’ parents are enthusiastic participants, I always had a knee-jerk revulsion to the whole concept. Even more so when dating sites began cranking out commercials, often set to the song “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).”

So I’m preparing for the comeuppance that the universe probably has in store for me: meeting someone online after another decade of resistance.

I went out of my way to secure a copy of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating (Harvard Business Review Press, $25, watch the book trailer here), which I undertook with an open mind. Stanford economics professor Paul Oyer found himself single again after his 20-year marriage ended in divorce. He decided to combine his first-time experience on the digital dating scene with his area of expertise, spelling out Nobel-recognized social patterns to those of us without an MBA.

First of all, Oyer’s title -- a riff on the adage “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten” -- is misleading, mostly because it’s false. Oyer received his MBA from Yale and his MA and PhD from Princeton. Since 2009, he’s held his current professorship at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He invested decades in his education, and he’s in the business of academia. If it’s true that all anyone ever needed to know about economics could be gleaned from online dating, Oyer would be out of a job.

A more accurate title would have been A Lesson in Everyday Economics from Someone Who Happened to Try Online Dating. Oyer’s narrative is threadbare. Readers learn that he had a marital breakup, and (on the second-to-last page) that he now has a girlfriend. The end. “I’ll leave it at that and spare you the details,” he writes. Wait, what? No, no, no. Anyone paying $25 to read about a bumbling professor self-experimenting as a Web wooer deserves to hear about fumbled emails, awkward first dates, and unwise assumptions about dating protocol. When he does wax sentimental, Oyer writes, “Suffice it to say that the benefits of sticking with her clearly outweighed those of trying to trade up.”

Things immediately felt amiss when I read Chapter One’s subtitle: “Deciding When to Settle.” Giving up already? But you haven’t even started looking! My mind jumped to another title that makes me squirm whenever I see it on the shelves, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb. Three guesses as to who wrote the topmost blurb on Oyer’s back cover.

This book exacerbated all my cynicism about finding romance on the Internet. In 215 short pages, Oyer compares dating to (among other things) buying a home, a used car and car insurance, as well as eating at a buffet, acquiring a lamp and choosing a gas station (a lot of auto analogies; makes me think of all the jerks who compare women to cars, and how they share more than pronouns).

The most memorable section of the book is Oyer’s argument about how men who indicate on their profiles that they are “separated” and not yet “divorced” are discriminated against by women who are too finicky. Rarely have I had less sympathy for an individual cause.

Women don’t come off looking great, either. Any woman who sets a height requirement for a potential mate is truly obnoxious. And the general obsession with how much a man earns is upsetting, to say the least. Financial independence should be something every single adult strives for. Somewhere, new billionaire Sheryl Sandberg is seething.

Wait until she gets to the part where Oyer, a man, discusses women’s “pregnancy plans” and what may lead some of us to end up “childless.”  

I have qualms with all sorts of the author's word choices from “no pun intended” (for clearly intended puns) to phrases such as “…in ways I don’t really understand…” Call me one of those finicky women, but I believe that a PhD should understand every word he or she publishes.  

(Photo: iStock)

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