Ask, Guess, Throw Up Hands in Confusion?

For some reason, Askers and Guessers put me in mind of the Seussian Yooks and Zooks of The Butter Battle Book.

[Credit for this post goes to Robby Bensinger, for posting his usual though-provoking Facebook statuses. I accidentally wrote him a novel, which turned into this blog.]

Around my corner of the internet, there’s a post that’s reappearing: Ask Culture and Guess Culture. The point isn’t so new–people relate to each other in different ways, and feelings get hurt and resentment builds when there’s poor alignment between conversational participants. What makes the Ask Culture/Guess Culture piece so loved–besides the ever-popular There Are Two Kinds Of People categorization–seems to be that it suddenly made everything make sense to everyone. Huge differences in what behaviors you and your family think are appropriate? They must be [Other Culture]! Arguing over etiquette? Must be a Culture difference. So, Asking? Guessing?

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.

Brienne chimed in at Less Wrong with a definition of Tell Culture:

The two basic rules of Tell Culture: 1) Tell the other person what’s going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you’d both benefit from them knowing. (Do NOT assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it will even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance.) 2) Interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.
Ex: “It would be awfully convenient networking for me to stick around for a bit after our meeting to talk with you and [the next person you’re meeting with]. But on a scale of one to ten, it’s only about 3 useful to me. If you’d rate the loss of utility for you as two or higher, then I have a strong preference for not sticking around.”

[Note: Both because Brienne wrote her post after I’d written much of this and because I see much more crossover in Askers and Tellers than between Guess-Tell or Guess-Ask, I’ve grouped Ask and Tell together for the rest of the piece. Dissent and debate encouraged in the comments.]

I come from a Guess Culture that tried with all its might to be an Ask Culture. Straightening out that “you can just ask us, the worst we can say is no!” said earnestly and regularly was entirely false did wonders for me. As it turns out, you can say no in ways that sound like, “you’re a horrible person for considering asking, why would you even do that?” Body language! Tone! Turns out they matter. 

I seem to default to Ask Culture in behavior. Which is to say, I will Guess: “Oh, Acquaintance, sorry, I need to pick something up at the library, so sorry, but I can’t walk to our next class with you.” (Subtext: I’m way out socialized and need time to walk without providing any sort of social face.)

My preference for Ask/Tell, however, will define who I get close to, date, and otherwise prioritize in my life.  As a result, my ingroup is distinctly Ask Culture, and I adore it. To me, it seems very caring and warm. We confirm and decline with each other in out-loud ways. When I spend time with someone, I know its because they’ve decided this is something that will make them happy, not because they didn’t have a fast excuse at hand when I asked.


Ask/Tell Culture is really hard to break into! I would bet that joining our group of friends is hard, even prohibitively so, if you either haven’t figured out that we do voice our preferences like that (ie, you feel like your non-explicit preferences are being ignored, but we just don’t know that they exist, and assume you would tell us if they did.) Also, if you hate being put on the spot, that can be awful. Also, Ask Culture can be overly certain that it’s accounting for everyone (because they’d just ask….right?) and that, over time, can cause resentment.

I’ve seen this be explosive or divisive in cases where the person did finally say something. When they opened with, in their frustration, “You guys have been doing this to me for AGES” we were upset that they had been angry with us, because we would have changed! And we don’t want to feel guilty. I mean, if they had only told us… They were angry that we hadn’t noticed.

And, because so much of what makes friendships happened is accidents and coincidences, this is particularly hard to negotiate. You show up in a class of mine, and then we run into each other on the way to an event, and then we have mutual acquaintances, or we meet again at a party
(hey, you’re in my—
—yeah! have you started that assignment?)
And in all of this, the little things of Asking/Telling, can be too blunt. (She cut our coffee meeting off early because she said she was getting overwhelmed by socializing and needed to be alone, instead of making polite white lies. He said he was feeling overwhelmed and needed to change the topic, instead of maneuvering it himself.) Explicit communication of those Cultures can jar. Maybe not even enough to register as too rude or impolite or socially awkward, but to be the tipping point in just not mentioning that party you’re hosting? Seems plausible.

Okay, says you, but why would I want someone who doesn’t have the same communication style as me? On the entirely utilitarian side, they might be useful. Surely you’ll need to befriend someone because they’re your sister’s girlfriend or boss’s wife, no? Or you’ll need to have the reputation of being approachable or nice or friendly. A Guesser will be your boss, a client, a professor you need to impress. 

Me? I have an unsustainable need to be liked by everyone I meet, and the idea of putting someone off seems too scary to write off Guessing entirely.

Yeah, okay, but still, why would anyone do Guess Culture anyways? Shouldn’t we encourage everyone towards Ask/Tell?

Sure, social interactions and interpersonal relationships would be so much easier if everyone around me could Ask and Tell. Not even a question.

Conversely, Guess Culture doesn’t fault people who are shy, unsure of how to justify their preferences, or socially anxious *nearly* as much as Ask Culture can. If you’re Asked point-blank if you want to do something, or in a position where you aren’t comfortable (or even sure!) why you strongly prefer one option, or have years of conditioning against asserting your needs, you’ll want to be near Guessers. 

Further, I’d be willing to bet that for some people, Guessing is how they’ve gotten attentive to things like body cues, etc. For all that I’m a fan of Asking for myself, but it’s certainly used to justify pursuing someone in uncomfortable ways. “I know ey wasn’t opposed to that time I cornered em and flirted while they were trying to work because ey would have said something!”*

 So, what say you? Should we make more people Ask? How? I’m unlikely to be persuaded, I think, but what’s the best case for everyone switching to Guess? 


*A Facebook commenter pointed out that Guess Culture can be used to do similar awfulness: “Asking might get me an answer I don’t like, so I’m going to use my powers of Intuition(tm) that are telling me ey totally wants it.”


  1. machintelligence says

    Talk about possible conflicts! Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(You are supposed to guess.)
    Asker assumes the other person is in a general bad mood and says “To hell with it.” resulting in a total lack of communication.

  2. says

    I like that this idea’s popularity has put terms to the ideas floating around my head for years!

    I think the downside to the extreme end of all Ask Culture is that we will all have to become extremely comfortable with knowing more exactly our relative importance and relationship status with everyone. If it’s commonplace to be honest about the fact that reading quietly in your room alone is preferable to talking to an acquaintance over coffee, that’s pretty blunt. Constantly being reminded with conversationally direct cues about the current, minute statuses (relative to you) of everyone you meet based on their responses to requests or questions seems a bit exhausting.

    Would it be a better world overall? Perhaps! But it’s more foreign the closer you approach it. We currently live in a world where the lines aren’t as defined, and there’s a fuzziness and a slower, nicer curve/arc to the closeness or willingness of people to interact, do favors, or enjoy others’ company. We enjoy some buffering and some ambiguity.

    So I land, as I often do, appreciating both in their place, for their strengths and weaknesses, as you address. Though Ask as the norm and Guess as the exception seems preferable.

  3. =8)-DX says

    I find the distinction completely bewildering. I mean I might be more of an asker than a guesser, but it seems one would have to be a sociopath (or teenager) to think only one strategy is appropriate for all situations. Both asking and telling-guessing happen all the time, often from the same person within a few minutes or depending on context. That might seem to be a contradition, but since people are often contradictory in their behaviour and because communication is after all about using a whole host of strategies to transfer information, I think it’s ok. I’d say instead of worrying about distinguishing asking from telling, distinguish known *harmful* behaviours:

    – passive-aggressive behaviour: don’t tell if you want to ask and vice-versa. If you’re lying in every request or statement of intent, you’re just trying to harm/control/dominate another person – cut it out.
    – ultimata: allow the other person to express themselves, don’t state your intentions as fact or ask leading questions.
    – subtility blindness: don’t ignore body-language or evasiveness. It’s not worth hurting another person, just to be “right”, conversely forcing someone to “answer the goddamn question” all the time is just being a dick.
    – use all methods as appropriate – if people aren’t catching onto your body language, tell them. If people don’t take a serious problem you voice seriously, use body language (leave the room).

    Being stuck in one rut of communication is still often a problem for me, but the resolution has always be to take multiple approaches to expressing oneself and to never assume to know exactly what other people are thinking and feeling.


  4. =8)-DX says

    Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(You are supposed to guess.)

    I hate this kind of binary thinking. What about:

    Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(Guesser just wants a quiet moment to themselves.)
    Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(Guesser is annoyed that everytime they frown you pretend it’s a relationship crisis.)
    Asker “Is something wrong?” Asker: “NO”.(Asker is angry at someone else, it’s none of your business and for the purpose of your interactions there is no problem.)
    Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(Guesser has indigestion they don’t want to discuss.)
    Asker “Is something wrong?” Guesser “NO”.(They’ll tell you in their own time when they’re ready.)

  5. fantysq (a Radical Feminist and a Militant Atheist) says

    Hah, this kinda reminds me of back when I was a teen and was at my friend’s birthday party, and I randomly asked her if I can stay over for the night. Everybody else in the room made a horrified face at me, especially the friend of whom I made that request, and after a few moments of dead silence, she said “No…”. I was completely baffled by the reaction. If it’s “no” then just say “no”! I 90% expected a “no” and actually wanted to use that whole request-thing as an opportunity to talk about maybe having a sleep-over sometime down the line, but after the reaction I got, that conversation didn’t really fit anymore…

    Actually, I might hail from a Haggle-cluture…

  6. rapiddominance says

    I read this post last night and tossed it about in my head today. I talked about it with my wife and we concluded that she’s an ask/teller and I’m a guesser.

    I think guessers come across as more fragile, probably because we really are. In my case, I had something of an abusive upbringing where I was constantly called “stupid” and was treated by this same parent as if my own ideas and goals in life didn’t matter. Also, there was physical abuse and other things I don’t want to talk about–all in the name of LOVE. I think, sometimes, that my dad loved me more as a “project” and less as an “individual” (though I do sense a little bit of the latter). Anyway, I just sort of learned to be reluctant about sharing myself with him and to be careful of what I inquired out of him. Plus, this habbit extended to my life outside the home as I was very sensitive to ridicule and dissapproval.

    I don’t think that abuse is the root of the “guess culture”, but I think its a great way to create a guesser.

    Anyway, I can’t

    • rapiddominance says

      (I hit “submit” prematurely by accident)

      Anyway, I can’t decide if I like askers or guessers better. I like the bluntness of the former, I appreciate the sensitivity of the latter.

      Thanks for a good read.

  7. lpetrich says

    Mark Rosenfelder in a book on conworlding, I think, notes that difference also. He suggests that Japan has more of a Guess Culture, and he noted Richard Feynman’s culture shock there. RF wanted a room at some hotel or something, and his hosts kept saying that that would be difficult or something. After a while of this sort of runaround, RF gave up. From the looks of it, RF had a more Ask-Culture sort of approach.

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