In 2015, actor-comedian Aziz Ansari spoke up about becoming a feminist: “What I've learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say.”
In 2018, he was accused of sexual assault.
An anonymous 23-year-old woman gave a vivid account in an article titled “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” where she details their sexual encounter.
The story goes like this: He invited her out on a date. They went back to his apartment, and then engaged in acts of sex.
The night ends with him calling her an Uber while she cried her way home.
But here’s where it gets confusing: He thought it was consensual; she did not.
She said she “gave verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate that she didn’t want to continue.”
The article created a pubic relations crisis for Ansari.
He had just won Best Actor at the Golden Globes, where he declared his support for the fight against sexual harassment by wearing a “Time’s Up” pin.
The public response has been polarizing.
Some defended Ansari, saying it was just a bad date with bad sex.
The New York Times said Ansari is only guilty of “not being a mind reader.” The Guardian said that this woman’s “revenge porn” is “proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful - and very, very dangerous.”
Others defended the woman, sharing that they too had suffered uncomfortable and violating experiences because a date had deliberately ignored their verbal and nonverbal cues.
More nuanced commentators point out that women have lived within longstanding social expectations of femininity that pressure them to be pleasing, compliant, and agreeable. This makes it more challenging for women to explicitly say "No" and more confusing for men who can't read between the lines.
Here’s what is clear: both parties made social fumbles that night.
Yet, people have a hard time talking about it.
Saturday Night Live aired a revealing sketch poking fun at the awkwardness of addressing the incident by featuring a group of friends around the dinner table behaving uncomfortably as soon as one person dares bring up Aziz Ansari.
Here, we’ll revisit the events (as reported by the woman).
While there are wider societal challenges influencing sexual behaviors, we will focus on specific, actionable social intelligence tactics to help you avoid becoming a victim or perpetrator.
Ansari and the woman had first met at a party - they danced, flirted, and he got her number to ask her out on a date a week later.
She described it as “surreal” to be meeting up with a successful comedian and celebrity.
Tip #1: Avoid elevating people to a status symbol - such as “celebrity” - and view them as individuals with their unique motivations, biases, and triggers.
When viewing others by an abstract label, we tend to make all sorts of assumptions and generalizations that causes us to miss the finer details.
Consider every one as your equal.
When we elevate others, we give away our self-respect. And when we elevate ourselves, we don’t respect others. Both dynamics can get in the way of accurately reading a social situation.
They had a nice dinner and then headed to an oyster bar.
But the woman noticed that Ansari was eager to leave. “Like, he got the check and then it was bada-boom, bada-bing, we’re out of there.” It was abrupt and she hadn’t finished her glass of wine.
Tip #2: Always be decoding for another person’s motivations.
Find out what the other person wants; not what you would like them to want. Then, figure out whether their motivation aligns with your own.
Determine whether you will aid them in getting what they want, or be a barrier to their goal.
In this case, the woman can probably infer from Ansari's rushed exit what ideas he might have in mind.
They got to his place, and within minutes, Ansari began making his move.
He kissed her, put his hand on her breast, and undressed both of them. She felt uncomfortable, but hesitantly went along with it. When he said he would grab a condom, she asked that they slow down and relax.
He resumed kissing her and they then took turns performing oral sex.
This probably gave him the impression that she would be interested in other sexual activity as well - an encoding mishap on her part and a decoding error on his.
She claims he then wouldn’t let her move away from him.
“It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.”
The woman stopped reciprocating interest. When he kissed her, she stopped moving her lips. When he placed her hand on his crotch, she didn’t move it.
Tip #3: Pay attention to body language and other nonverbal cues.
People often find it harder to lie with their physical demeanor than they do with words. They also communicate a significant amount through microexpressions, voice intonations, and gestures.
In other words, if you have to fight for a kiss, she’s probably not interested.
When we are fixated on achieving a particular goal, we can be stuck in our own heads so much that we ignore obvious social cues and lose empathy for others.
The woman told Ansari that she didn’t want to feel “forced”, and he agreed, saying “Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun”.
And then he proceeded to sit down on the couch and motion for her to perform oral sex. Feeling pressured, she did as he suggested.
Ansari likely read into that as another confirmation.
Tip #4: In negotiation situations, check for “Yes” multiple times to ensure the other person actually wants the same outcome.
FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss has outlined 3 kinds of “Yes” that people will say: Commitment, Compliance, and Counterfeit.
Commitment is a firm “yes” - the other person is excited.
Compliance is an agreeable “yes” - the other person is fine with going along with the offer, and perhaps feels pressured to do so.
Counterfeit is a forced and uneasy “yes” that is really a “no”.
Negotiations are challenging because people don’t always use the words “yes” or “no”. Or they might give a “yes” that later turns into a “no”.
They might have changed their minds, or lied.
Ansari had interpreted a Counterfeit as Commitment. He assumed “yes” every time she responded to his advances and ignored every "no".
That’s why he later made a public statement that their sexual activities were “by all indications…completely consensual.”
The rest of the evening repeats the same pattern - he would try again, she would hesitate, and he would back off briefly. Then repeat.
Eventually the woman stopped hoping for Ansari to change behavior and decided to leave. She cried the entire ride home.
The next day, Ansari casually texted her that it was "fun meeting you last night."
It's unlikely we'll hear his play-by-play of that night, but we can probably guess that his experience was very different from hers.
Unfortunately, incidents like these are all too common because people have different goals, communication styles, empathy levels, etc.
Fortunately, a little bit of social intelligence can go a long way. Developing your social decoding and encoding skills can help with navigating these kinds of awkward social dynamics.
We can treat Ansari's embarrassing public scandal as a lesson for our own affairs.