From Ask MetaFilter, January 16, 2007, comment posted by Tangerine (Andrea Donderi):
In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.
In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.
All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person — and you obviously are — then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.
If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.
Obviously she’s an Ask and you’re a Guess. (I’m a Guess too. Let me tell you, it’s great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises.)
Thing is, Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people — ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you’ll have to embrace Ask behavior. Otherwise you’ll spend your life in a cloud of mild outrage at (pace Moomin fans) the Cluelessness of Everyone.
As you read through the responses to this question, you can easily see who the Guess and the Ask commenters are. It’s an interesting exercise.
Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian:
The advice of etiquette experts on dealing with unwanted invitations, or overly demanding requests for favours, has always been the same: just say no. That may have been a useless mantra in the war on drugs, but in the war on relatives who want to stay for a fortnight, or colleagues trying to get you to do their work, the manners guru Emily Post‘s formulation – “I’m afraid that won’t be possible” – remains the gold standard. Excuses merely invite negotiation. The comic retort has its place (Peter Cook: “Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night”), and I’m fond of the tautological non-explanation (“I can’t, because I’m unable to”). But these are variations on a theme: the best way to say no is to say no. Then shut up.
This is a lesson we’re unable to learn, however, judging by the scores of books promising to help us. The Power Of A Positive No, How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty, The Book Of No… Publishers, certainly, seem unable to refuse. (Two recent books addressing the topic are Marshall Goldsmith’s Mojo, and Womenomics, by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay.) This is the “disease to please” – a phrase that doesn’t make grammatical sense, but rhymes, giving it instant pop-psychology cachet. There are certainly profound issues here, of self-esteem, guilt etcetera. But it’s also worth considering whether part of the problem doesn’t originate in a simple misunderstanding between two types of people: Askers and Guessers.
This terminology comes from a brilliant web posting by Andrea Donderi that’s achieved minor cult status online. We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favour, a pay rise– fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid “putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.”
Neither’s “wrong”, but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who’s assuming you might decline. If you’re a Guesser, you’ll hear it as an expectation. This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it’s a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard Askers.
I’m a total Guesser.The agony of having to actually ask for something! And yet the few times I have acted more like an Asker and succeeded, it’s been liberating.
As for myself, I am an asker when it comes to information, but a guesser when it comes to making demands.
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration.
What’s more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us. I’m not a super hospitable guy, but I frequently find myself offering things to other people that I’d like them to take — say, leave their kids at my house to play with my kids — but they refuse to take because they think I’m a Guesser, offering hospitality I secretly hope will be turned down. Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness.
Maybe the next best thing to everybody becoming an Asker would be for more people to be aware of the two categories. That way, when you meet somebody in a situation where this sort of confusion might pop up, you could just state whether you’re a Guesser or an Asker and adjust accordingly.
Sadly, I’m a Guesser. But I wish I were an Asker, and I wish everyone else were too — though that’s assuming that Donderi is right about Askers all taking turndowns in stride. I have my doubts about that. Still, I hate Guess culture. And yet I’m a Guesser. We all have our little problems, don’t we?
But at least I learned about a minor internet tradition today. And now, back to my cave, where I have to neither Ask nor Guess. Can I just be a Writer instead?
The problem with assuming one way is better than another is that it ignores the obvious temporal heterogeneity in preferences. The “requester” (whether of Asker or Guesser type) is in more in need of a “yes” (or “no”) response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times than others. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” (or “no”) at some times than at others. The more you care about the outcome the more important it is to know your counterpart and time your interaction accordingly. It also matters if your counterpart is unique or if your request can be satisfied by many others.
Therefore, it is perfectly sensible to be an Asker for some things at some times and a Guesser for other things (or even the same things) at another. Cowen’s response most embodies this principle and Chait’s lack of flexibility is the antithesis.
As for me, I’m the opposite of Drum and tend toward the Asker type but think being a Guesser is sometimes better. Basically, I can be impulsive and blunt. So, I’m learning to be more of a Guesser when situations warrant it.
I’m fairly solidly in the Guesser camp on the whole—though I can’t hold a candle to my late maternal grandmother, a paragon of New England reserve. As was explained to me before one of her visits as a young child, I should not expect her to be so unspeakably gauche as to ask that I “please pass the potatoes” (say) during dinner. One might as well just leap on the table and plunge one’s head directly into the bowl. No, if the potatoes were down at my end of the table, she would say something along the lines of: “Oh, do have some potatoes” or “Have you tried the potatoes?”—it being understood that the civilized response was “Oh, no, you have some.” As I say, I don’t take it quite that far, but I do think I internalized the association between civility and indirectness.
This reminds me that I recently watched a good TED talk by Steven Pinker on our quirks of indirect requests—elaborated at greater length here. (Slavoj Zizek also has some clever riffs on this, which I’m too lazy to hunt down at present.) The thing to remember, of course, is that whether one is more of an asker or a guesser generally, there’s probably still greater variation in how the same person behaves in different contexts. The polite indirection of “Guess Culture” is, as Pinker suggests, often a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity, which we generally want to do in social relationships where there’s an intermediate level of intimacy—whereas relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. So, for instance, a purely commercial transaction with a bartender will be ask-centered: “I’d like a Magic Hat, please.” And if I’m at the home of a good friend I visit frequently, the same: “Hey, mind if I grab a beer from the fridge?” If I’m visiting an acquaintance for the first time, on the other hand, I’ll probably wait for them to offer.
We do this, I think, precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous: We’re indirect because we’re negotiating just where on the gradient we fall. So, to use the example from the original Metafilter thread, a close friend could certainly ask to be put up for a few days on a visit to town, in part because there’s no worry that if (for whatever reason) I have to turn them down, it somehow reflects on or defines our relationship. (It would be bizarre for a stranger to make the same request, but not really awkward—and maybe not even so bizarre anymore, since there are sites like CouchSurfing which work to arrange such things in a businesslike Ask Culture fashion.) Ambiguity in the intermediate stage is useful precisely because it takes two to tango, and the precise contours of the relationship need to be defined by small mutual adjustments. To ask too directly at that stage can seem rude because it effectively demands a binary verdict on a work in progress.
As a native Southerner, I’m definitely farther down the Guesser spectrum. The Ask vs. Guess dichotomy is a somewhat useful way to understand the anxiety Southerners often experience in social situations in the North, especially in New York City. As a general matter, Southerners don’t make requests they aren’t reasonably sure the person being asked will respond favorably to. This is not about manipulation, but about not making the other person feel uncomfortable or put-upon. To succeed in a Guess culture requires cultivating an acute sensitivity to reading the other person’s mood. In general, if there’s any question that the person might say no to your request, you don’t ask, in part because if the other person answers affirmatively, he might have answered yes because he didn’t want to disappoint you, causing him to passively resent you for having imposed yourself on him.
You see what a hall of mirrors this can be. Southerners typically find the directness of Northerners, especially when it comes to asking, startlingly rude. On the other hand, many has been the time when I have appreciated the directness of Northern friends of colleagues, who have taken the most direct route through a problem instead of stopping to plot out a more Byzantine path, which would have been the Southern inclination. Again, as the Guardian columnist writes, it’s not that one way is right and the other wrong; each have their strengths and their drawbacks. Incidentally, I am probably overgeneralizing by making this a North vs. South thing; Julian Sanchez talks about how his late grandmother was a “paragon of New England reserve,” and gives a table-manners illustration of Guess culture that goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the South. Back home, there would be nothing wrong with asking Grandma to pass the potatoes, but you’d better make sure you say “please,” “thank you,” “yes ma’am,” and the lot.
Alex Eichler at The Atlantic with a round-up