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A lot of talk has been going on around the idea of Ask versus Guess culture. Captain Awkward has some great thoughts on the matter here. This is, if you haven't heard, the difference in interaction styles between people who prefer to always overtly ask questions/make requests and situations with low context and established behavioral rules, and people who prefer to deduce the right answer or the proper thing to say or do based on a lot of context and a lot of pre-establishment. Like, people who think it's okay to ask "Can I crash at your house?" and people who think it would be too presumptuous to make the request. This is mostly stuff I've been musing about on my Tumblr, but since my Tumblr is otherwise just nonsense I thought I'd transfer it over here.

I am a Guess culture person. Partially it's my upbringing, partially it's my damage, partially it's my sense of how one demonstrates consideration for other people. I think if we lived in a perfect world, it would always be superior to Ask, because then all communication would be clear and everyone would just explicitly state their needs. But in the world we live in, I don't think it's that clear-cut.

I would vastly prefer not to make someone uncomfortable by asking them for something they feel they bad about not being able to give, and I really hate being asked for something that I am unable to give. I feel an extreme pressure to always be kind, generous, accommodating. Partially I think this is socialization, how women are made to feel like they always have to make everyone cared for and comfortable, and partially because I think being giving is a good thing to be. But when somebody asks me to do it, I feel like there’s no way I can refuse without seeming selfish, exclusionary, or mean.
I hate people inviting themselves to things I’m doing or hosting; it messes up the dynamic I’ve planned for. I hate being asked for rides, I’m not a taxi service. I hate being asked to borrow money, I’m not very liquid and my resources are limited. Or maybe I technically CAN do all these things, but I just don’t want to. But how can I turn down “Can I come?” without seeming mean to the person asking? How can I refuse to share what I have without seeming greedy or ungenerous?

I really do think people judge you for not being willing to do these things. They think you’re mean or a bitch or selfish if you turn them down when they ask. And as much as I can ill-afford doing a lot of those things, I am more afraid of people thinking I’m an asshole for saying no. So I feel obligated, even if it’s not good for me. Not everyone who asks does so with the true assurance that it’s okay to say no.

Additionally, Guess culture also accounts for people who are not ABLE to assert themselves. Because Ask culture requires people who are assertive of both their needs and their boundaries, and that’s really hard for a lot of people.

Guess culture posits, basically, “The safest course is to say nothing.” And I think that recommendation is used in a lot of contexts. Like, every time feminists suggest, hey, don’t go up and act like you’re entitled to that woman’s time, they’re basically suggesting “The safest course [to respecting her and allowing her to feel safe] is to say nothing [to her].” Not to Ask her and back off if she says no, but to just not Ask her at all, Guess that she wants to be left to her own devices. Because it accounts for people who may not be assertive enough to hold their own boundaries. Saying, yeah, you always need to be able to push back against things you don’t want has some problematic implications. Especially if you extend it to things like consent.

Honestly I wish I could feel more comfortable asking for things. But I am TERRIFIED of somebody thinking, "How dare you presume? How can you be so self-centered?" It makes it hard to get things like raises, or even something like networking, when I feel like I'm presuming on somebody else's time and resources. But it's something incredibly difficult, and I worry about situations where people can't assert their own needs, or the fallout of someone thinking I'm rude for asking. That’s why I default to Guess culture. If we don’t impose on each other, no one is ever put in an awkward position where they feel obligated to something they don’t want. Yeah, it definitely has drawbacks, but it has advantages too.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2014 07:59 pm (UTC)
Only tangentially related: Do you clean the dryer's lint filter before or after you do your laundry?
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:04 pm (UTC)
This sounds like the "which way does the toilet paper hang" rule.
Jan. 7th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
Does it matter? In both cases you are cleaning the filter between loads of laundry, which is the important thing. And there's no discernable impact on waiting to clean the filter as there might be with other between event actions.

Then again, I learned in college to always -check- the filter before doing laundry. Because -other- people's choices can impact your actions.
Jan. 7th, 2014 05:29 pm (UTC)
You're getting the idea -- the question is largely moot if you are the only person with access to said dryer.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:04 pm (UTC)
Perhaps due to the combination of how I was raised, and being a man in the West, I am one of the more Ask-ish people on the planet, so I offer you this:

Rest assured that I am always, always willing to say no, and I will only ever say yes if I mean it. This is not to say that I will ever expect you to Ask, but I will do my best to be a safe person for you to Ask things of. Further, while I will endeavor not to Ask of you since I know that's not how you roll, should I do so accidentally, I am telling you now that you can always say no to me in the future without fear that it will make me think less of you in any way.

(This offer does not necessarily extend to other people, though I certainly have strong tendencies in this direction naturally.)
Jan. 8th, 2014 06:01 pm (UTC)
That is good of you to say, and I appreciate it. I guess what I really want from the world is total assurance that my Asking is not, in itself, an imposition. A "No, I can't give you that, but I do not resent you in the slightest for asking," is great, and enough. And I'm sorry if I gave off the impression of "No, you can never ask." What I really mean is, "If you are going to ask, please only do so if you are absolutely without resentment if the answer is no." But I get the vibe that that's all wrapped into it for you, so I really really appreciate you saying that to me. Thank you.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:16 pm (UTC)
I think I agree with all of your musings about the relative merits of the two cultures. I especially agree where sexual consent is concerned, because for a lot of people (almost all of them women) saying "yeah, okay, I guess" can mean "I don't want to, but I really don't want to argue about it, so okay" which is some Good Intentions brand pavement.

I agree that on the face of it, Asking is seductive, and it does seem like in a perfect world, making everything explicit would be better. In practice, I think xkcd nailed it even for things that have nothing to do with sex. In my experience, the root cause is this:

Nonverbal negative feedback is easier to deal with than verbal negative feedback.

The easiest place to see this is if you've ever spent any time watching internet moderation - it's nearly impossible to do. The problem is that we're trained to send and receive low- and medium-intensity feedback signals via body language, tone, and facial expressions, and actually committing things to words is often reserved for Serious Business. If someone transgresses in person, suddenly everyone looks at them funny and they [hopefully] get the hint without losing much face. Any time you have to actually speak against a person, it feels less like defending yourself and more like attacking them, and is more likely to escalate things. And since there's no body language on the internet... etc.

If everyone was 100% comfortable with Asking, that'd be great. But most people aren't, because "no" is really hard to hear.

Despite the fact that it's not in my nature, and very difficult for me to emulate, I think there is a really really good reason that Guessing evolved.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
Honestly I wish I could feel more comfortable asking for things. But I am TERRIFIED of somebody thinking, "How dare you presume? How can you be so self-centered?"

Oh boy, do I hear (the flipside of) this, and very much appreciate this description as it gives me a far better window into something I know less well. I'm also deeply daunted by Guessing, because I feel like I'm enough of a space alien that I'll just get it wrong.

I, too, am always willing to give you an honest and respectful answer to Asking, whether it's yes or no. (Also not expecting you to ask, but want you to be aware that I am okay with it if you do.) I can also offer that I will not see you as rude or presumptuous for asking.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:28 pm (UTC)
(Came here via a friend's link.)

(nods) Sing it! Absolutely right.

A while back one of my Asky friends frustratedly asked "So, when visiting a Guess-culture host, how in the world am I supposed to make my preferences known?" which I've been giggling about ever since.

My response was "You aren't supposed to, because if you did, your host would be obligated to satisfy them, and imposing such obligations on your host is rude. Your host has been desperately trying to express to you what the possible options are, so that you can choose one and everyone saves face, ever since you walked in the door; what you're supposed to do is listen carefully, because the options may have changed, and then pick one."

The idea that there might have been information being handed to them which they disregarded while they were worrying about how to phrase their own thoughts was entirely new to them.

I can relate.

This is one reason I hate the phrase "Guess culture." I prefer "Hint culture," and frequently observe that "Guess culture" is a very Ask-culture way of describing Hint-culture.

All that being said, I recognize the difficulty. What I'm doing right now (inserting myself into a stranger's conversation without invitation) is unspeakably rude by the standards of the culture I was raised in... and yet, some of my favorite people entered my life by doing just that.

So... I dunno.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:41 pm (UTC)
The problem is that implicit communication relies heavily on cultural assumptions and patterns. All communication has substantial implicit components, but the more implicit the communication is, the harder it is to come in from the outside and figure out what the important pieces are and what they mean.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's certainly true.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:39 pm (UTC)
One thing that I see in a lot of Ask-cultures is way of indicating the priority of a request. The problem is that those indicators are not necessarily consistent between cultures, and that Guess-Culture people have a hard time believing that low priority indicators are real. I really want a consistent indicator that really truly says "No is a perfectly acceptable answer here." I often say that explicitly, but I have also had a few people tell me that they actually see hedges like that as worse than just asking.
Jan. 8th, 2014 02:38 pm (UTC)
I really want a consistent indicator that really truly says "No is a perfectly acceptable answer here." I often say that explicitly, but I have also had a few people tell me that they actually see hedges like that as worse than just asking.

I think I've heard you say that; and agree that, in context, it could come across as a bit condescending ("I know you might not be capable of doing this"). I think lately I've been trying to indicate, when asking for something (a favor, a ride, crash space, etc), that I have other options and that I'm not counting on them saying yes.
Jan. 6th, 2014 08:52 pm (UTC)
I was raised by a Fundamentalist Guessed and have done my best to rebel. I acknowledge that many people are not able to Ask and try to do my best to accommodate that and make things easier for them, but I tend to try to live in such a way that if everyone behaved the same way, the world would be a better place, and I believe that's Ask culture.

Jan. 6th, 2014 09:49 pm (UTC)
I really do think people judge you for not being willing to do these things. They think you’re mean or a bitch or selfish if you turn them down when they ask. And as much as I can ill-afford doing a lot of those things, I am more afraid of people thinking I’m an asshole for saying no. So I feel obligated, even if it’s not good for me. Not everyone who asks does so with the true assurance that it’s okay to say no

Man, do I hear that. This is how I end up overcommitted.

Interestingly, while my behavior towards people is very Guess-y, I am not overly bothered by people Asking me. As I see it, it's my responsibility to say no, and if I'm bad at saying no, that's my problem. Although I have been told "you look like someone who can't say no," so I don't exactly appreciate people using that to wheedle commitments out of me. But generally I find people are in earnest when they ask for my help with something.
Jan. 7th, 2014 07:27 pm (UTC)
I pretty much feel the same way. I find the "Ask me to do something" situation much less awkward, personally, though. I can honestly answer, "I really don't think I have time for that," if it's not a thing I would like to do so much that I'll make time for it, and I think that that answer is quite socially acceptable in our culture - it's considered good to be busy, and to be seen as busy.

The real stickers for me are questions like the one that started the original conversation - "Can I come and stay with you?" - when I gather that the real answer is "I have the resources and ability to host you, but don't feel like we're close enough / I enjoy your company enough to justify the effort involved." I consider myself a fairly tactful person, but for the life of me I can't think of a way to honestly express that sentiment which wouldn't also stand an unacceptably-high chance of hurting someone's feelings.
Matt Cederholm
Jan. 6th, 2014 10:58 pm (UTC)
Culture or personality?
Is this a cultural thing or an individual thing? Or are you using "culture" loosely.

Do you reject help even when you desire it and it is offered? That's a common trait, not wanting to "be a bother."

I'm a mix of the two, but I've learned that the best way to expand a friendship is to ask for something (something real, not just an excuse). Hunting for a job? Ask someone to introduce you to a contact of theirs. Most people want to help.

I think this is a symptom of a culture where people are more and more isolated, with many casual connections and few significant ones.

For the record, please ask if you want/need something. You have permission.
Jan. 7th, 2014 12:54 am (UTC)
This has been sticking in my head.

One question: should T@F not ask you to design costumes for us? I would hate to find that you resent doing that, but didn't feel able to say no.

One other observation: you seem to place a very high value on what other people think of you--not just in this entry. Is that something you see as a problem and are working to fix? Or do you have another perspective on that?
Jan. 8th, 2014 05:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, I knew the minute I posted this it was going to suggest to everyone, "Oh, don't ask Phoebe for anything, it'll upset her!" Which is not the impression I want to give. Especially in the area of offers to be part of projects, I very much enjoy being asked and don't feel a lot of discomfort if I can't for some reason and have to say no. So please don't stop asking me about that sort of thing. But that does make it hard for people to interpret how I want to be approached on any other given thing-- will it be something she feels happy to be asked, or something she'll resent because she doesn't feel free to say no? And I do want to be the sort of person that a friend feels like they could go to for help without having to feel sorry about it. I guess as long as the ask if made totally ungrudging of a possible no answer, then it's definitely fine to ask. I hope that doesn't seem like an unfair standard, and that I've either made myself unapproachable or impossible to please.

But, as you just pointed out, I always worry about what everyone thinks.</p>

Yes, I am definitely fixated on that. As to why, the flip answer is that people tend to think I'm a stuck-up asshole, and if that's true of me, then I'm working not to be like that, and if it's not true of me, I'd like to get as little of the punishment for something I'm not as possible.

The real answer is I worry that if I write off the opinion of the wrong friend/person I will get kicked in the teeth for it later. I know I have problems with being mean, self-centered, and ungenerous. I worry that if anyone else thinks I am, then it's just confirmation and I've behaved badly and have to change. But even when I honestly don't think that's how I'm being, I know because I come off that way sometimes people will write me off for it. It's hard to not just try to do whatever I think nobody will call me a jerk for.

Like, right now, I'm dealing with somebody who felt the need to take me to task for something I wrote on this blog. As far as I can tell, they're offended by the substance and have told me I'm rude and toxic for putting in "a public space" like my own blog. And it exemplifies "a pattern about me" that has hurt an unspecified number of other people. I don't really agree with their position, but what can I do? If I say, "Well, that's your opinion, sorry you were hurt," how many of those "other people" will end up thinking ill of me? And what will the fallout from that be? Will I damage relationships I don't want to damage? What if that being my answer makes me an asshole after all? What if, on the rare occasion I do get up my courage to ask somebody for something I really need, they turn me down because this incident made them think I was a dick?

Sorry for the infodump, you probably don't care. But that's a typical situation that reinforces my fear. It's a real problem, but one I unfortunately don't really know how to solve.

Jan. 8th, 2014 06:15 pm (UTC)
I asked :) And by asking, I was inviting you to think it out and I am perfectly happy to read it and understand the problem space in more detail.

I'm glad that you don't mind being asked to work on projects. One of our biggest problems, actually, is people who don't say no when they can't actually commit to a show. Saying no is always fine--we'll find someone else and we'll hope to work with you again in the future.

I'm sorry that you've been caught in this kind of drama. That used to happen to me more often and I've learned through sometimes painful experience to keep letting go people who are likely to believe the worst of me. When I was rehearsing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf I realized that part of what was hard for me was that I know there are people out there who would think that me playing Martha is type-casting and it was painful to think of exposing myself that way.

I hope this all gets easier for you.
Jan. 7th, 2014 01:00 pm (UTC)
You probably know I'm more of an Ask person than a Guess person. With that disclaimer... I find Guess culture extremely problematic, because it sets up the expectation that what you say is different from what you mean. That creates at least as many problems for consent as Ask culture does, and (I think) it's extremely destructive to interpersonal trust.

But all that being said, this isn't and shouldn't be a binary choice. In the case of consent, you need some Asking when you're Guessing, because otherwise you could easily Guess wrong; conversely, you need some Guessing when you're Asking, because as you say, institutionalized power structures can make it difficult for some people to say what they mean.
Jan. 7th, 2014 05:02 pm (UTC)
I operate as mostly a guess-culture person myself, but with people that I know are askers, or for things that are very important, I Ask. Which only makes it all the -more- frustrating when I Ask and don't get a clear response or any response at all. Because guess-culture me says that if I've put out the energy to ask, you should put out the energy to answer. *sigh*
Jan. 8th, 2014 02:31 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to remember -- did you grow up in the South (or have cultural roots there?). Guess culture is what I'm used to by default, although I've been trying to get used to more explicit communication since living here. I'm still not good at it, but I'm better than I was five or ten years ago.

Explicit communication relies on everyone involved being able to say no and accept no for an answer. Both of these can be difficult; especially if someone's put on the spot or they feel like they don't have a choice.

But I've seen a lot of failure modes with expecting people to guess; especially when someone really wants something, but doesn't want to ask for it directly. I don't think communication can really be 100% explicit, but trying to read minds can lead to a lot of badness.
Jan. 8th, 2014 05:57 pm (UTC)
No, I'm not from the South. Just from an extremely polite family that abhors above all else the notion of being Takers-- or, the kind of person who places their needs and desires above anyone else's. Asking can imply Taking in that schema-- that if you cared not to impose on others, you wouldn't have even mentioned it.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

My productions:

Upcoming Productions:

MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

presented by The Chameleon's Dish

Vivat Regina
by Phoebe Roberts

at 2PM


Base Instruments
by Phoebe Roberts

at 6PM

Saturday, May 13th 2017
at 274 Moody Street, Waltham, MA

Other Achievements:

"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
Quarter Finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition 2013

"Adonis" screenplay
Top Ten Percent in the Bluecat Screenwriting Contest 2015

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