Happy Blogaversary and New Year!

Somewhere over the weekend, this blog turned three. Happy new year to all of you kind, wise, beautiful internet citizens!

As I dig out the back steps and dig back into the mailbox, here are some links that I’ve found interesting of late:

Miss Conduct, who I admire greatly, has a fantastic take on the “Loved one, I think your chosen partner is bad for you” talk. It is practical and compassionate and respectful of boundaries. Tech note: Sometimes I’ve been able to read the whole piece at The Boston Globe but then when I go back it’s behind a paywall for me. I don’t know what you’ll find when you click.

Ask vs. Guess Culture. This is one of those insights that’s gonna be with me for a while. Preliminary thoughts:

A lot of social awkwardness boils down to trying to figure out culture – “If I do x, won’t it violate some unwritten rule?” “Everyone else seems to effortlessly know how to do x, where do I even start?” And sometimes it comes from the other side – “Someone asked me a question or for a favor that’s weirding me out, don’t they know better than to ask me that?” Like when a rejected dating partner asks “WHYYYYYYYYYYY DON’T YOU LIKE ME?”

I do a writing exercise sometimes in my classes that touches on perspective. The prompt is “Tell us about the ‘cool kids’ table in your high school cafeteria. Who sat there, what did they wear, what did they talk like, what did they eat for lunch, tell us everything you can remember.” They have 10-15 minutes to write and then we hear some of the stories.

Even though the specifics vary based on where the students grew up – What, for instance, makes a cool kid in China? – some students produce a description straight out of a John Hughes movie – fetishistic in detail, sometimes painful in awareness of power structures. These are (usually) written by outsiders. “What do we covet, Clarice?” “We covet what we see.” 

Some students don’t remember or didn’t have a “cool kids” table. They went to a huge high school. They were home-schooled. But often the “Everyone was friends with everyone, there were no cool kids!” writers were at the table, or one of those tables. They weren’t keenly observing for clues of how to behave and dress because they had absorbed the unwritten rules of the subculture and took them for granted.

This isn’t a fully developed thesis yet, but some insightful Twitter person mentioned gender and the way women are expected to live in Guess culture (soft requests, soft refusals, parsing lots of unwritten rules and indirect communications) where men are (relatively speaking) expected to be “bold” and pre-forgiven for being clueless. Which leaves a lot of confused people out in the cold.

Again, it’s relative. Men certainly have their own unwritten social rules and assumptions and punish other men for breaking them. Ditto for women. So it looks like we’re talking about power again. “Guess” culture, like all cultures, privileges insiders – people who were raised in the culture and share certain assumptions and people who can read social cues. People who can figure out the rules have an advantage in joining the culture. As the commenter in the original thread said:

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.

Once I read the link (and the original thread) I started seeing places where the work of the blog was about translating Guess-y stuff to Ask-y stuff and vice versa.  Like, when someone breaks up with you, it’s okay to ask why,  but it’s not okay to demand an explanation and refuse to leave until you get a satisfactory one. Like how a “soft” no is still a no. Like how your expectations of what a “best friend” should act like don’t match the other person’s, and you need to actually hash out your expectations. It’s not a perfect model, but it was pretty useful and revealing of where my own cultural biases are.

Interestingly enough, this is part of what the whole Advice Columnist/Agony Aunt gig has always been about: Privileged white ladies explaining stuff about stuff.  Emily Post, that snob of snobs, saw her work about etiquette as outreach to new immigrants to the United States and about helping class mobility. She emphasized kindness and shared humanity over “silly” rules, which is where we get the “it’s worse to point out someone’s etiquette lapse than to have an etiquette lapse” rule, but she wanted people to understand the rules so that they could adapt to the place they had come to live. Edith Head, costumer extraordinaire, also pioneered the makeover show. Rife with privilege and assumptions about what is the “correct” way to look and dress, to be sure, but with the intent of democratizing style and making ruling class culture understandable and affordable to others. One of the reasons that Vertigo is so chilling as a film is Judy/Madeline’s transformation. To the audience (of middle class women in the 1950s) if you could look like Madeline, all cool gray suits and coiffed blonde hair and gloves and polish, why would you choose to be brash, cheaply attired Judy? There must be something perverse and subversive about you. It creates vertigo on the part of the audience during the horribly creepy makeover stuff – the wrongness of Jimmy Stewart’s fetishization and manipulation is contrasted with our desire to see the finished product. (I may have made a movie about this).

To apply the concept to what we do here, I’d like to be more aware of my own biases around this stuff as I answer questions going forward. My instinct says that “x” is true, but what is that based on? Experience? Cultural bias? Fancy education? Growing up white and middle class in New England? An unwritten rule that I take for granted? Is it even a good rule, i.e., are we enforcing existing power structures that harm people by explaining things this way?

More collectively, if we think of these as cultural mores or preferred modes of operation vs. inherent personality traits and abilities along the lines of extroversion vs. introversion, attachment styles (as in, no one and no culture is ALL “Ask” or ALL “Guess” and people switch modes all the time relative to one another, etc. ), we can gain insight into moments of friction. If you feel annoyed at someone for asking you a question or asking for a favor, maybe ask yourself, is this an Ask vs. Guess Culture thing? Because in Guess Cultures, direct requests are less common, because people lay some groundwork ahead of time (or have common understandings of what is ok), and do not ask without being pretty sure the answer will be yes.  So a helpful reminder for a “Guess Culture” survivor is:

A request is just a question, and one possible answer is “No.”

Because I can identify with that paralysis, of needing badly to speak up about something and being so angry and frustrated that other people don’t just magically know that they shouldn’t cross boundaries in x way. I’m trying to think of an equivalent axiom for “Ask”ers. Perhaps it is “Learn to heed indirect refusals for what they are.” And for “Guess”ers, “It is ok to be more direct and explicit.” May we meet in the middle and be kind to each other.

I’d be interested to hear what you guys think – did the Ask vs. Guess Culture idea raise any strong feelings or thoughts for you? Do you have an example of these expectations colliding?

202 thoughts on “Happy Blogaversary and New Year!

  1. Whoooooooooooo!

    Sorry, I’m just geeking out at the new paradigm with which to view/analyse my thought processes 😀 I’m throwing it in there with the feminism and intersectionality and socialism and possibilianism and all the other stuff…

        1. I just finished a medical anthropology essay full of reflexivity and shit which I’m taking as an elective summer paper, so…. nope!

  2. I was most certainly raised in a Guess culture. My mother has flown off the handle at me for making the wrong request. Or grown increasingly frustrated when I don’t read her mind. And to be fair, I’ve gotten pretty good at it with her. But I hate it. And I feel quite strongly that an Ask culture allows for much, much clearer communication for everyone. The only groundwork needed for that one seems to be, respect a no. The only reason we need to look out for soft refusals is because Guessers do exist.

    Sometimes my mother doesn’t even want to use soft words to ask me something. Here’s an example (although it contains more issues than just ask vs guess culture:
    Setting: I had just finished barn sitting for my horseback riding instructor. Usually I’m still at the barn when they come home, but this time I was not. So there was no “passing of the baton.”

    My mother: “Have you heard from [Trainer]? Is she home?”
    Me: “No, I haven’t heard from her. But I’m pretty sure she’ll call if she needs me.” I go back to my computer
    Mother: *Worried face, doesn’t leave the room*
    Me: “You want me to call her don’t you?”
    Mother: “Well I just think it would be better….”
    So I called, no answer.
    Mom: *more worried face*
    Me: “She’s probably in the barn and away from her cell phone. She could be riding.”
    Mom: *fidgeting, still won’t leave the room.*
    Me: “I don’t think I need to go out there.”
    Mom: “But it would make me feel better.”
    After several more minutes of hovering I cave and agree to go to the barn. Might as well exercise me horse anyway while I’m there.
    The icing on the cake was her response.
    *In a huffy tone* “Well, we were planning to go to [restaurant] for dinner. But I guess we can wait for you.”
    This was what SHE wanted.

    At this point with her, I often refuse to state aloud what she won’t say. I’ve told her repeatedly that I want her to be direct with me. Because guessing is VERY stressful for me (I’m socially anxious). Ask culture feels safer. I know that people will tell me what they want/need. I don’t have to worry about guessing.

    One of my favorite parts of my romantic relationship is that we are cultivating an ask culture in our home. We will make a supreme effort to avoid that dancing around we were both raised to do. It makes me feel safe that he will tell me what he needs and that I can tell him what I need without worry about him reacting to the question.

    1. LOL, that is so familiar. It reminds me of the angriest that my grandmother ever got at me: we were sitting in a Pizza Hut with my grandfather, and she said “I’m glad there are some places you can still smoke” (this was the early 90s). Which did not seem to require a response from young-teenage me, so I kept eating. We finished, they sat there. I pulled out a book & started reading. Finally my grandfather got up & brought my grandmother’s cigarettes in from the car, and suddenly I was in trouble for not knowing that *I* should have done that. She was sincerely furious at how insensitive and lazy and unkind I was for making my grandfather go do that. And all I could say was “but you didn’t ask me to!” Her response: “I shouldn’t have to.” I might have grown up in Guess culture, but I still haven’t really learned the rules.

        1. Or “If you don’t know why I’m angry, I’m not going to explain it to you…”

          To which I say cool, could you glower and sigh somewhere else then, too?

          1. I haaaaate that. That was a favorite of my mother’s, but she’s gotten much better about Using Her Words. I have found myself doing it on occasion – “I’m going to sit over here and sigh and look neglected DON’T YOU SEE HOW SAD I AM,” but these days I try to keep it behind the computer screen where no one has to see it.

          2. Guessing at what made your parents mad is an absolutely terrifying game when you don’t know. I think the last time they pulled this was in high school. They came home from parent teacher conferences LIVID. What had my biology teacher told us in class that morning? My gut sank and I tried to remember everything. Would this be another moment my daydreaming undid me? I cried, I don’t know, I don’t know. They’d waited in line 45 minutes to see him, only to be turned away because I wasn’t with them. I couldn’t remember anything like that. Eventually, I recalled, “I missed the first 15 minutes of class because of the orthodontist, remember?” My friends forgot to tell me in those first few minutes and when he saw my parents, he hadn’t remembered that I’d missed the announcement either of this policy.

            A policy he had instituted because one year he had a wonderful A student, bright enthusiastic girl. He’d given her parents a glowing report, and she returned to school in tears the next day wondering why he’d told her parents she was failing and was such trouble in class. Shocked and angry at their abuse, he wanted to do what he could to prevent any similar abuses and decided on a policy of including the student to hear everything the parents did — which I think at a high school level is a great way of treating the student as a capable near-adult. It just backfired for us that night.

            [Amends were made, and he remains one of my favorite teachers every. In fact, I think I’ll go look him up right now.]

            P.S. I choose to believe that young woman’s good grades got her a good ticket out of that house of evil bees, because I can’t bear to imagine otherwise.

        2. I’m struggling with this a bit in my head, and I’d appreciate a reality check from the Awkward readers — I agree with most of what’s being said here on principle, but part of my brain is going ‘But! But!’ because there are definitely times when I do feel that being made to ask for what seems like basic courtesy is insulting to me as a person. A concrete example:

          My ex tended to walk very fast. We lived in NYC, and Ex had declared cabs A Waste of Money, so we walked a lot, to and from train stations and when the weather was nice sometimes clear across town. I like walking, and usually I wear flats, and I didn’t mind lagging half a block behind him most of the time and just catching up at lights.

          But Ex also thought high heels were sexy, and when I did occasionally put on a pair for special occasions, he would get excited. He definitely knew, and specifically noticed, that I was wearing heels — and he definitely knew, because we had discussed it at length and he had also observed it, that I had difficulty walking in heels. Not only did heels not prompt him to reconsider his stance on cabs (which honestly, I wouldn’t have expected) but they never even prompted him to slow down, until I got upset and agitated because he was getting out of sight in a Manhattan crowd on the way to a destination that only he knew the directions to (this was more of a problem in pre/early cell phone days.)

          Eventually I would make a point of telling him each time I set out in heels that he needed to walk slower, but it really did feel like he was ignoring the fact that I was a person and being wildly self-centered by not being able to complete the logic train “Girlfriend is already slower than me” + “I have observed that girlfriend is wearing contraptions on her feet that make her even slower” –> “I will need to slow down.” It’s possible that I’m being self-pitying but that just seems like the sort of mental work that anyone does who has another person in their life or even a dog or something. And ever time I asked him to slow down, it went in the little basket marked ‘Girlfriend is demanding’ and meant I couldn’t make a different request, unless I wanted to go over the high-maintenance threshold — which is a separate issue.

          1. See, to me that would fall in neither Ask nor Guess, but just what I would consider common courtesy. But then again, what I consider courtesy might look completely unintelligible to someone else. Maybe Offer Culture, as another poster said?

            But when you said “he was ignoring the fact that I was a person,” it makes me think more of gender expectations. It seems like there’s a not-insignificant number of guys who think the perfect girlfriend is the one who does everything they want and asks for nothing more, and any request marks them as high maintenance. To be fair, there may be women who do this, but I don’t know any.

          2. Not to be totally assumptive, but it sounds like your ex was kind of a butthead.

            My best friend and I run into the “walking speed” issue a lot (funnily enough, we also live in NYC!). We both naturally walk pretty fast, but she has a genetic disorder that messes with her joints and I have some shoe troubles, so sometimes one of us needs a much slower pace. But even though we’re both naturally Guessers, we’re comfortable enough that we can ask out loud if we need to.

            What helped me initially, and what might help you, is just a little repetition. Remember that it’s just a tiny request, and if your walking buddy cares about you and your comfort/safety then they shouldn’t hold it against you. It’s a request along the same lines of “Hey, I need that object that’s right next to you and out of my reach. Pass it here, please?”

            It should get a little easier each time you ask. And if it doesn’t, or if you receive a lot of eye-rolling and whining and “coooome ooooooooon, we’re almost theeeeeeeere,” then maybe tell your walking buddy that they can wear heels next time, or they can choose to go somewhere closer.

            Or, you know, public transit. If a subway/bus isn’t viable and walking isn’t viable (which it isn’t, if it’s not viable for YOU), then there is no shame in taking a cab.

          3. That’s true. There is a line for common courtesy. But did your ex even slow down or reconsider when you did ask? Because that sounds like more like he didn’t actually care/think about your needs than he thought you would ask if it was a problem.

            And I get the sense that you did ask and it didn’t get better. There is some wiggle room for, “I wish you would have noticed, but it’s okay if you change now that I’ve pointed something out”

          4. As someone with a moderate muscular dystrophy that cuts my walking speed to about half the average, I can identify with that. In my experience, people are not naturally great at noticing when I’m falling way behind- they have to train themselves to watch out for that. And when I’m only barely keeping up, even the people who’ve known me a while can’t easily tell that the pace is too fast for me. So I end up having to say/shout “Hey, wait up/slow down” every now and then. And my friends are always cool about it.

            Because of that, I don’t think that your ex’s inability to see when he needed to slow down for you was (by itself) a big problem. Even if he knew you were wearing heels, he might not have had a good sense of how fast was too fast for you, and so he would not have realized on his own when he needed to slow down for you.

            I think the much bigger problem was the fact that he treated you like you were so unreasonable when you asked him to slow down. You directly told him what you needed, and he basically said “Your needs are not legitimate or really worthy of my concern.” Even by Ask Culture standards, that’s a jerk thing to do. If someone responded to me that way, everyone would brand them “A-hole for Life,” because society generally agrees that being an obvious jerk to people regarding their visible physical disabilities is wrong. However, your walking difficulties in heels are no less real than my disability. But because you don’t have the Visible Physical Disability Exemption Card, your needs in this area apparently Don’t Count, and therefore it’s somehow ok for him to dismiss them. Not okay of him.

          5. Thanks for everyone’s feedback. There’s definitely a reason why Ex is Ex, but I don’t want to make him sound like a total monster – when I asked, he would in fact slow down. But the slow down was Valid for This Trip Only. Next time I did the heels thing we would have to have the conversation over, so some of my frustration bleeds into the cultural pressure to not be a nag by repeating myself.

            Ex is with a lady who is much more vocal about her needs, now, and they seem very happy, while I’m with someone who is more attuned to my communication style, so it all worked out in the end.

          6. This sounds painfully familiar to me, and it points up one of the failure modes of Ask culture that I find very difficult to handle, which is that people can and do – unconsciously, consciously, and sometimes, alas, maliciously – veer into a level of Expecting To Be Asked that’s somewhere between Stonkingly Inconsiderate and actually abusive.

            Btw I am on the Ask side of things for where I live, which is Ontario, Canada.
            I am on the Offer side of my particular subgroup.
            I am very definitely strongly on the Offer side of many places in the US where I spend time, and so far on the Offer side that I am basically invisible from where everybody else is when I am with the particular group of people I spend time with in the Bay Area. So I’m pretty comfortable with fluctuating levels, is what I’m saying. I don’t think High Ask cultures are awful or inconsiderate or abusive – that’s not what I’m saying. (Though I find them utterly exhausting in large doses.)

            But I would find that behaviour beyond the pale. Once I’ve Asked for the same thing two or three times without time limiting it, like, once I’ve said once “when I am wearing heels I can’t comfortably walk very fast” and offered one or two reminders – I am probably done asking. I will get angry and say so, or I will stop wearing heels around that person, or I will call a cab – to take me back home. That kind of thing isn’t about using one’s words, it’s about keeping your agreements.

            Somebody else pointed out the difficulty of distinguishing Asking from boundary-testing.

            Basically, whether you’re in Ask culture or Offer culture, I firmly believe that it’s important for people to make an effort to figure out what things it is broadly agreed that nobody is supposed to have, like, say, sex with people who don’t want to have sex with them, however acquired, and some requirements – like, ‘do not walk into my personal space and/or make personal comments uninvited’ – that it is not okay to refuse to meet.

          7. Ohhhh the walking speed issue. My boyfriend and I (more me than him) are struggling with this. He walks SO FAST – I can either jog to keep up or walk quickly and not be left too far behind. It kinda came to a head when it was raining, so he sped up, and I ended up completely out of his sight and would’ve been lost, had I not known where we were going. Honestly, if it had been practical I would have turned around and gone home.

            I arrived in tears, we talked about it and he… Still walks faster than me. We haven’t ended up separated again, but it’s still a problem.

            I totally agree that one should not have to ask one’s companions to stay reasonably close if you’re walking together. That’s just courtesy, surely?!

          8. I can sympathize with the ‘walking off’ because even if I try my best to slow down for someone, I frequently forget. Which does not mean ‘being way ahead’, just a few steps, which is still annoying.
            With my partner, we have a convenient way of solving this (he walks faster. We’ve compared treadmill speeds): we hold hands. It gives instant feedback for how fast works for both of us. I realise that this won’t work outside relationships, but it’s great because the faster party can get feedback without feeling nagged. (‘Slow down.’ ‘I know’. ‘Yes, but you don’t slow down.’ Repeat.)

          9. (Argh, can’t edit): Forgot to add that someone who walks way ahead and lets you catch up, or who does not take your special circumstances into account is being an arsehole, no excuses. Forgetting and rushing a little is one thing, your exes behaviour is another.

          10. It’s definitely reasonable to ask “Hey, slow down – I’m in heels!” once per encounter. Beyond that, your ex was an ass, and the first time you lost him in the crowd, you should have just gone home.

          11. “You should have” is very rarely a helpful thing to say to anyone, unless they ask you “What should I have done?”.

          12. Crap, you’re right – I’m sorry. (I would have done better to phrase it “you would have been entirely within your rights to,” and I’ll try to remember that next time.)

      1. I am the only “Asker” in a family of “Guessers” and I spent so much of my childhood feeling broken and angry with myself for not being able to do what everyone else in my family seemed to do without thinking. Namely, be telepaths. Now I’ve grown up and realized what I need (explicit requests and directions) does not make me something lesser and started to try to ask them to communicate with me in a way I can understand, they’ve take to insisting I’m being rude/unreasonable/selfish/dumb for even DARING TO ASK to be asked to do things.

        I still feel broken on bad days. But I’m starting to be able to ignore their anger at me when I fail to meet their expectations. After all, I was upfront and clear on what they need to do if they want me to succeed. My “failure” isn’t really my problem if they chose to ignore my request, nor is it truly failure at all.

        Also, I pray no one need ever know the terror of NEEDING (like “this is something incredibly important thing in your life and you will lose it without their help” NEED) something from a “Guesser”, because you know the very act of asking could produce a tantrum to rival a four year old from a GROWN ASS ADULT. (Example, after taking almost an entire week off school to travel to a funeral, needing to go home because I had a test the next day that could determine my entire future, and subsequently being screamed at because “I don’t know how I raised a child so selfish who would even ask for me to drive them at a time like this.” And no, the idea of me finding my own way home didn’t fly, either.)

        1. Storyranger: I appreciate that ‘ask vs. guess’ played its part in that, but I would venture a guess that a far bigger issue with that last experience of yours was “It is completely unreasonable of my child to dare to have any needs or ambitions of their own that might possibly conflict with my wishes!!” culture. Which is one of the many sub-varieties of Jerk Culture.

          1. You make a very good point! And I think the conflicting my needs/their wishes played a part in everything. This is all really nuanced and I’m glad we’re all having this conversation and learning from each other.

      2. Oh, jeeeeeez. I just positively identified one of my martial arts as Guess culture and the other as Ask culture.

        The Guess culture art has a bit of a “do EVERYTHING for Sensei, before he has to ask” thing going for it. The Ask culture art is *much* more straightforward – if a senior student (or the sensei!) wants you to do something, they ask you to do it.

        This helps me put into words why, while I appreciate both arts and enjoy training in both, I really don’t want to go back to Japan for higher-level training in the Guess culture art.

  3. In functional cultures that discourage direct asking, there is a corresponding responsibility for people to do a lot of offering, so that no one has to ask directly unless it’s an emergency — instead they just say yes thank you to the offers they need, and no thank you to the others. There is no more guessing inherent to this kind of culture than there is to a culture that encourages direct asking. It should be called Offer culture, not Guess culture.

    People in either Ask culture or Offer culture can be passive aggressive and try to put others in no-win situations, so I suppose Guess culture could be seen as a dysfunctional subculture of either Ask or Offer culture. And anyone who is dealing with a culture they are not familiar with is going to feel like it is Guess culture.

    Since large parts of the world have functional Offer cultures it would be good to avoid talking about cultures that discourage direct asking as if they are bad.

    1. I really like this framing, thank you. The original piece at the link tried hard not to make value judgements about either kind of culture being better (and even Offer Cultures have some places where they Ask, and even the Askiest people have some things they Guess/Offer about). What’s more important to me than a “which is better?” judgment is figuring out where friction/fear comes from – is it someone violating boundaries & kind treatment of others or is it someone making a mistake or having different expectations about shared cultural expectations? There’s a very permeable line between “what makes a well-mannered person” and “what makes a good person.” And not all offers are created equal, like ones that are made with the expectation of being refused.

    2. I’d always kind of assumed “Guess Culture” was invented to punish and humiliate people with autism spectrum disorders, for fun. Can it be bad that way?

      (At least 75% joking).

    3. My mother came from an Ask Culture, and moved to the Offer Culture where I grew up. I have values from both, and have spent a long time figuring out how to mesh them in a functional way.

      Offer Cultures have members who are intensely connected, though it is common for value to be placed on discretion, politeness, and the pretense of not knowing extremely personal things about each other. Information is often passed indirectly via joking, teasing, complements, and gossip.
      The expectation is that everyone knows what is going on in each others lives, and people offer each other what they think would be helpful.
      What people receive from the group is based on other people’s framing of their needs, and may not match what their actual needs are, but assistance is more sustained and long-term, as the group is willing to make solutions part the community structure.

      Cultures that prize privacy and individualism are Ask Cultures by necessity.
      People are expected to be blunt and open about their needs. Asking for things is the start of a negotiation (I need x,y,and z. What can you give?). Solutions are more immediate, and based on the the individuals framing of their own needs, but are usually short-term.

      For example if I wanted to start a garden and knew my neighbors had all of the tools I needed in an Ask Culture, I would ask each neighbor for what they had that I needed, they would provide what they were willing to give, and the conditions for their use.

      In an Offer Culture I would complement several neighbors on their gardens, and make offhand comments about how I wish I knew where to start. I would then start gardening for a bit every day.
      Over the next couple of weeks various neighbors would stroll by to ask questions, offer advice, tools, and labor. They would tutor me in the proper use of whatever tools they lent, and casually mention that they are also useful for ___ that you do in ___, letting me know that I need to return them by that time.

      Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. In the Ask Culture, I would have a full set of tools in a day, or at least know what I had to buy, and be gardening right away with no one standing over my shoulder or meddling in my decisions, and no expectation of anything other than returning the tools promptly.

      In the Offer Culture while it would take longer to get started, the assistance from the neighborhood would be ongoing, and I could count on being the recipient of tools, plants, labor for larger projects, and information about how best to garden in that area. But I would be expected to assist others in their projects, and would be influenced to create a garden that did not dramatically clash with others in the neighborhood.

      1. But in an Ask Culture, you can also ask for advice, help, labor for larger projects, plants, a visit in 6 weeks to see if you’re doing it right, etc. And you can say things like, “I’m interested in starting a garden, and you seem to be doing right. Where/how do you recommend I get started?” And if they say something along the lines of, “I use this handy-dandy tiller to prepare my beds,” you’re allowed to say, “That’s a great tool. Would you mind if I borrowed it?” You can also add, “Would you mind showing me how to use it?”

        Just because it’s an Ask Culture doesn’t mean long-term assistance and relationships never happen. My next-door neighbor has been my best friend for the past 15 years, and our relationship started with me asking her directly for help with stuff around my house.

        1. Sorry, my prejudices are showing.

          My examples were skewed towards Guess culture, because that’s what I grew up in.
          Living in Ask Culture was terribly lonely for me, but that was due to my lack of knowing how to directly ask for things, not because the culture is flawed.

          Some of my closest friends are Ask people, and I can depend on them for damn near anything. It did take me a very long time to be comfortable enough to do so.

      2. Haha this is pretty apt for me since I really want to get into gardening (my problem is housing). The offer community sounds like my dream come true! And now I’m thinking about what sort of culture my twitter community is – I think a lot of it is Offer, particularly in a couple of specific cores of it where many members have health problems – but obviously there’s Ask as well, I guess depending on whether you need something concrete in the short term, or what. Like if someone’s visiting another city they’ll post saying “Hey, I’m coming to Wellington. Does anyone have a couch or know of a good cheap motel in x area?” and in not very long they’ll have somewhere to stay and meet ups planned. Whereas when someone’s known to be in a less than idea situation they’ll get people checking in on them and finding out what they need and sending them things. It’s a pretty good balance, really.

      3. This entire conversation – and this example particularly – reminds me a lot of “Debt: The First 5000 Years” by David Graber. While nominally about economic history, it has huge portions dedicated to anthropology and sociology, as well as how economics influence social interactions. He provides examples of a number of cultures with almost entirely “offer” based economies, with reciprocity in time of need expected and a means of strengthening communal relations. The book is long but readable and offers an interesting social sciences perspective on how obligations influence how we interact with each other, from how we thank each other, forgive each other, and ask for favors.

        Sorry if this is a derail!

        1. Also, offer culture is still very much an economic thing.

          Spouse makes about 30% more than I do. When there was talk of layoffs at his company, and most of the jobs in his field were halfway across the country, he seriously considered taking contract jobs out of state until he could find something here, instead of moving us to where the jobs were.

          My job is less specialized, and generally available, but the ‘capital’ we’ve built up in the favor economy of our community after the better part of two decades is considerable. The cost of paying market prices for services we now get at marginal cost or free, would have put us in a much worse place financially.

          Our next door neighbor’s oldest son had trouble finding work after he graduated.
          He’s a good person, but was not handling the lack of structure well. One of our neighbors has a commercial lawn service, and suggested he could borrow his older tools to do jobs that were too small for him to take on, in exchange for doing bookkeeping and paperwork once a week. He does most of the yards in the neighborhood now. He’ll make more money once he finds something in his field, but in the meantime it’s not a bad gig.

    4. Oh, yes, I like this rewording. Because the whole thing about a Guess/Offer culture — when it’s a functional culture, rather than a manipulative family dynamic — is that you don’t HAVE to guess too much, because if they were willing to give you the thing they’d’ve offered. So you figure out what you’re willing to offer, and you offer it preemptively (“Well, let me know if a ride would help!” “You know you can always stay with us, assuming we’re free then…” “Okay, cool, and I’m happy to catsit if you’re on vacation and I’m not!”) whether in specific terms or in vague ones, and that way they know it’s okay to accept, or to ask later for a specific instance of what you’ve offered in general. If you’re not willing or able to offer, you don’t, and that’s the boundary.

      Obviously, there are potential flaws here. It’s sometimes hard to tell (especially if you don’t know someone well) if a lack of an offer is because that’s a boundary or because they didn’t think of it, so you have to figure out how to put out those delicate feelers — and that can be difficult, depending on your relationship and everyone’s ability to read social cues. And there’s the dreaded unspecific-and-maybe-a-platitude “anything I can do to help, let me know!” But done right, it really is a culture of offering first, not of guessing.

      And that means that if someone asks for something you haven’t offered, you know they’re desperate and it’s an emergency. So you can take that into account. (Which can be another source of friction between Offer cultures and Ask cultures — “oh, come on, this is the third emergency this month, REALLY?” for what the asker maybe isn’t meaning to signal as an emergency.)

      Which I guess comes back to what the initial linked post up there pointed out: the further you get from your home culture/group/etc, the more you have to move to Ask, because you don’t know the subtext. But I still like your reframing, because they can both be perfectly functional cultures; it’s just a matter of who is expected to take the lead.

      1. Hm, yeah. I wouldn’t ever ask my mother for money or anything related to it because she is Guess Culture and would be monumentally pissed off and offended, but if it’s HER idea to offer something… then it’s fine.

    5. I think this is a really valuable distinction to make. I do feel that the dysfunctional variant of Ask culture is different from Guess culture, though I’m not sure what term I’d use for it.
      In my experience, it’s basically commands disguised as requests–so on the surface, a casual observer might think they were witnessing an Ask culture transaction–but where there’s some kind of punishment hanging over the askee’s head for saying no. And, in my experience, this works where there is an existing power dynamic and history of dysfunction being exploited: in my case, parental figures’ “requests” were not ones I was genuinely free to decline. If I did hold my ground and refuse to do what they wanted, it was always at a cost, but I’d been trained from an early age to avoid paying that cost in the first place.

      1. This seems right. And another variant of dysfunction in Ask culture, I think, is that there’s a potential for power plays in making someone ask you for something that you know they badly need or that you’d normally be expected to provide as a matter of course, a weird sort of ‘beg for it!’ vibe.

        1. I’ve experienced a slightly different failure. This example reflects life but is not an exact transcription.

          Day 1
          “Here are some chips, eat them”
          /eats chips/
          Day 2
          “Here are some chips, eat them”
          /eats chips/
          “You know I don’t really like chips much, maybe less chips in future?”
          “How should I have know that! you should have asked me not to feed you chips in advance of me making chips! How dare you make me feel bad for not reading your mind on the subject!”

          Now, personally, I feel that it is incumbent on the person providing food to say “are chips good?” not the person receiving un-solicited food to say “btw chips are bad” without any previous hint that chips are going to be served. Because reciting my entire list of things I do/do-not like to do every time I meet someone is kinda tiresome. And anyway, chips are OK sometimes just not always.

          1. As a card-carrying member of Ask culture, I’m not sure I agree with you. I don’t think anyone was in the wrong here until chips-offerer took great offense at the request for less chips. Or, chips-receiver could have just said ‘no thanks’ the first or second time chips were offered and either left it at that or said ‘but I’d be totally into popcorn, I’ll make some!’

      2. I think I’ve seen the dreaded “boundary testing” masquerading as “ask culture.”

        Incident: During a phone call with a newly arrived partner/boyfriend in our group, the conversation topic moves into a territory that I deemed better for face-to-face. Since he’s already mentioned feeling (mildly) unwell, I offer to pop over on my bike to their place to continue the conversation. (Additional background: I’m a “lark”, he’s a night owl, and the conversation is taking place in the early afternoon, so he’s just awakened while I’m in the middle of the most productive part of my day.)

        He says, “Gosh, if you’re coming over anyway… well, I suppose it’s a really a big bother, but could you pick up a sandwich for me? I’m really hungry.”

        How I replied was, “No. I have the time to make a straight trip over. I don’t have time for extra errands.”

        And our conversation moved to a normal close.

        Now, my thought processes:

        • He knows perfectly well that the shops are located so that this “little errand” involves significant backtracking for me.

        • He’s an extremely picky (and extremely vocal about it) eater; had I said yes, the next ten minutes would have been a series of “don’t want that item.”

        • The state of the shared kitchen is, shall we say, disorganized. I refrained from the obvious enquiry of why didn’t he step into his own kitchen to make himself breakfast. Nor did I confront him with the notion that it wasn’t up to anyone else to make up for the lack inherent in their kitchen-keeping.

        • I had the distinct feeling that the “I know it’s a lot of trouble” was only camouflaged as an acknowledgement, but in fact had two functions: taking away my “excuse” that he was being out of line (as in, “See? I already admitted it, so why are you being mean and rubbing my nose in it?”) and as bait for me to reassure him by way of contradicting his “confession” (Ah no, no trouble at all!) which would slide right into agreeing to get that sandwich.

        I consider myself a well paid-up member of Ask Culture, but… yeah. Red flags all over the place.

        Crazy(because, do I have Guess/Offer antennae y/n?)Soph

        1. Sometimes, I think in situations like this, it’s a bit complex. If my partner did that to me, I would not think he was trying to influence me – I would think that he had forgotten/didn’t know that I wouldn’t have time to also get him a sandwich.

          Now, you know this person and I don’t, and if I believe that he does do that thing like you explained. However, I don’t think that incident is exactly a failure of “Ask Culture” – he asked if you could get him a sandwich, and you responded that you only have time to come and speak to him more personally about that issue. That’s pretty much Ask Culture in a nutshell. In an ideal Ask scenario, you could have asked him if he wanted to continue in person (“This seems like a sensitive topic – would you like to talk about it face to face? I can come over for a bit.”) and he would ask “Sandwich?” and you would say “Sorry no time for sandwich.”

          And then, him being a boundary pusher, would attempt to push those boundaries, and THAT is what makes it ick, not the fact he asked at all.

          1. Agree with epigraphical. It’s not the asking what’s wrong on his part it’s the part were he adds coments to make you feel guilty of you don’t do that favor to him or to minimice the effort that it would take you to do that favor. For me, the “guilt trip” it’s what makes the difference with a harmless request.

        2. I agree entirely with your assessment — context matters just as much to Asking as it does to Guessing, IMHO!

      3. I can think of two dysfunctional modes.

        One is the freeloader: the person who constantly asks for things. This is particularly problematic when a power imbalance is in play and people feel they can’t decline. When this goes too far, people will be far less inclined to give _anyone_ assistance, including the people who need it/situations where the askee really does not mind much at all ordinarily.

        The other is tally-keeping. Favours work best in a community, because _someone_ won’t mind/can afford to help/is hardly at all inconvenienced by the request. When the person ‘doing you a favour’ presents you a bill (you must now do me a favour of size x or bigger) not only does it poison the relationship between the people in question, it upsets the balance of ‘everybody does what they feel capable of to help everybody else’ and turns it into something that’s all about obligations.

    6. This! As an adult I moved to another country where the baseline social order is guess-oriented. There is a LOT of expectation that you follow the unwritten rules, but also a lot of expectation that offers will be made, and frequently refused.

      Offering is the key to having a guess culture that is not a mess of neglect; offer culture shouldn’t be talked about like a third way because it’s actually important already.

  4. I think by making this a simple dichotomy, something is left out here: the Tell Culture. Which is when people just try to tell you what they’re going to do and what they want you to do. Sometimes done through bestowing (an unasked for) favor and then telling you what you’re going to do for them, sometimes by simply demanding it because they have power over you in some way. You obviously have the option of saying no, but they have trouble accepting it and/or make it super, super awkward, or it’s work (or school, or whatever) and you don’t really have the option of no unless you want to lose your job/get a bad grade/etc. It’s like Ask Culture in its directness, only there’s no expectation that you would ever say no, but it’s also like Guess Culture, because there’s subtle ways they try to make sure you’re free to say yes. Happens a lot with controlling parents/relatives, or anyone with leverage in your life. You can say no, but you will pay for it.

    Examples: “I’m giving you this book for your birthday, and then I can read it when you’re done!”
    “I expect everyone to watch this triggery movie and compare it to this book in a paper.”
    “You’re going to see *insert movie you’re looking forward to seeing with someone else* ? I’ll go with you and we can share popcorn!”
    “Are you busy Friday evening? No? Good, you can *insert babysitting/work/something else you have no desire to do on a day off*.
    “When I get home, the kitchen and bathrooms had better be spotless, I don’t care who made the mess.”

    1. This is definitely the culture I grew up in with my family. It’s like a Guess culture turned on its head in that the people with power (namely mother and older sibling) would ask things, only with the clear expectation that they were really telling you, just in the form of a question.

      Meanwhile, I had to bend over backwards to try an accommodate them while needing to pick my battles wisely so that I wouldn’t upset anyone by asking for The Wrong Things. The end result being that I stopped asking for things completely because my mom wouldn’t so much as pay for dental care. Now they make a game of getting me things that I don’t want and refuse to accept, then assert how spoiled I am because of all the things they got me.

      Sorry for turning this into a rant.

      1. Not at all. I know exactly where you’re coming from! It’s so frustrating to need something and have to sit there and wish really hard that they’ll pick that thing to get you.
        And also, really brain breaking to be asked for something and not have the option of “no”. That really messed with my understanding of consent for a while, because consent had been something non-optional for me for so long.

        1. And also, really brain breaking to be asked for something and not have the option of “no”. That really messed with my understanding of consent for a while, because consent had been something non-optional for me for so long.


          Reading this made my brains (to add another layer on top of the metaphor) record needle scratch. I really really *really* think this is an extremely cogent and unsettling insight.

          Reading the theory of Ask vs. Guess culture was fascinating and exciting to think about. This, though, hit me on a visceral level just as much as an intellectual one, which is what makes me think it’s extremely important to think about further.

      2. Yes, I think the counterpart might be Quietly Blows You Off culture? My dad can be a Teller. Or a Facts on the Grounder.

    2. I don’t think that’s a separate culture so much as a common strategy used by assholes with privilege/rank/power.

    3. I think this is more an “asshole” thing than a “culture” thing, but another issue here is that I think people from Guess culture often hear Ask culture people in this way, even though it’s not intended this way. I’m an Ask person myself, and I’ve never had issues asking for things from other Ask people (“hey, any chance you can give me a ride to work tomorrow?” “yes, no problem” or “no, I’m busy”) but I’ve had Guess people get quite offended on the level that I would have expected if I was making a rude demand. They seem to sometimes hear “you need to rearrange your life to drive me to work tomorrow” when I meant “I need a ride to work tomorrow, is that something you’re willing and able to do?”

      1. This can depend, too, on specific circumstances. Just last week I had a friend whose car broke down and she was upset at her new hour-long bus ride and asked me for a ride to/from work. I was kind of shocked and offended that she asked, and I explained that the 35-mile round trip I’d have to make for her in rush-hour traffic would take me much longer than her inconvenient bus ride. Though I can see the benefits of Ask Culture, I have to recommend instead a Please-Think-Before-You-Ask balance.

        1. And as someone who lives primarily on the Ask side of the line, I’d never be offended (let alone shocked!) that someone asked this of me. I’d simply assume they didn’t understand how far out of my way I’d have to go, explain it to them, and move on.

          1. I think it’s a weird situational thing! If Moniqa Aylin’s friend knew they lived a long way from Moniqa Aylin and knew/had it in the forefront of her mind that rush hour traffic would implicate the trip, then I agree with Moniqa that that request is not a part of Ask procedure, it’s more pressuring. But if the friend simply wasn’t thinking about rush hour, or it’d slipped her mind how far away they really live when you take into account rush hour, then it really just is Ask culture, and the idea would be that Moniqa Aylin would say “Well, I’d love to but that would add an hour onto my trip.” and the friend would be like “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even think!” or “Well. [implication they should do it anyway]” or [make “put out” face], and based on that response (and previous patterns), the conception of whether or not Moniqa Aylin’s friend had a slip of the mind or is a boundary pusher.

            What do you think of this conception?

          2. Yes, this, so much this! I’ve asked for things before, and assumed that if people have a problem with it they can just tell me no, and everything is cool. I generally preface stuff like that with a disclaimer, though, so yeah.

            Like when our daughter was born and we had extra complications – I fired off an email to 20-30 friends and coworkers, saying “Guys. We need stuff. Here is what we need. If you can’t help, I totally understand — not everyone has spoons all the time — but if you can help, it would be greatly appreciated!” and some people could help and some couldn’t and it was ALL OKAY.

    4. ^apparently I just needed to read further down the thread. Tell culture sounds like a good term for it (Comply Or You’ll Be Sorry culture seems too cumbersome, alas).

      @cuntessvonfingerbang, I think the difference between a Tell culture transaction and the kind of miscommunication you’re describing is that in the former, both participants know what’s up. Superficially, it’s a request, but both people involved knows that the only acceptable answer is yes, and a no will be punished in some fashion.

      1. You’re right that there is definitely the implied “right answer” in the Tell culture transaction that both people are aware of, but I’m talking about situations I’ve had with Guess culture people (I’m very much an Ask) where I’ve made what I thought was a very straightforward request that could easily be denied with no guilt tripping from me, and they have responded as if it was a question/implied order with only one right answer. So in the miscommunications I’m describing, the Guess culture person “knows” that I won’t take no for an answer without resentment or retaliation, despite the fact that I was asking a genuine question and there isn’t actually a universal understanding. Does that make sense?

        1. In Ask Culture a direct request is simply giving and receiving information.
          They are used frequently.

          In Offer Culture a direct request is either the last resort after one’s community has failed to see or accommodate a need, or used in emergency situations where you don’t have a week for the community to see your need, and come to a consensus on how they will handle it.
          They are functionally a demand for immediate attention and action, and are used sparingly.

          So when you give a direct request to a Offer Culture person, you are (in their mind) either accusing them of being a negligent friend (They should have noticed…), or in an emergency. Either way, they would feel obligated to accommodate you.

          Since most Offer Cultures cloak direct requests in layers of politeness to diffuse the awkwardness of having to ask, simply assuring an Offer Culture person that they don’t have to do ___, doesn’t work.

          When dealing with someone you suspect (or know) is an Offer Culture person, the way to ask them for something is to refer to the need briefly in casual conversation.

          They will then offer whatever whatever they can, though it may be day or two later, as Offer Culture people often have a network of relationships in a favor economy.
          So while they might not be able to directly help, they may know someone who might be able to help. They will contact that person, and bring up in casual conversation your need, the other person will mention that they have ____ and wonder if that might be of use, Then your friend will call you up and casually ask if you still needed ___.

          This is a genuine Offer of Assistance (and admittance into their favor economy) and should be accepted with casual thanks, and the knowledge that you may be called on to do something of equal proportion for someone else sometime in the future.

    5. I’m having trouble forming my thoughts today, but some of your examples (“the kitchen needs to be cleaned”) seem okay in the context of a family, parent-and-minor-child type relationship, and others (“watch this movie and write this paper”) seem okay in the context of a high school/university class. (Although with PTSD triggers, the best course is probably a doctor’s note…in the absence of that, then I’d hope the teacher would be understanding about PTSD, but I don’t think merely *assigning* the topic is bad – the badness only comes in if/when a student’s needs start to become ignored.)

      But I’m not sure if I’m on t he right track here.

  5. Ooh, I love this. I’m a veteran Asker who was often frustrated by Offer/Guess culture, especially when I lived in the South and had to learn to hear what, to my ears, was the second language that was being spoken under the words used. I’ve adapted somewhat, as a result, but it is still hard for me sometimes to pick up the message I am being sent.

    Brief Example:
    Boss (who is a nice person and not at all passive aggressive): It would be great if we blah-blahed the X and schmooped the Y in the next week or so.
    Me: Totally agree! Also, if we’re going to do that, we should make sure X and Y also boopboopboop.
    Boss: Definitely. And John will want to see it when we’re done, so it will have to be in Excel.
    Me:Oh, sure, and…Wait, am I the “we” in this scenario?
    Boss: Would you mind?

    He doesn’t do this a lot, mind you, and is really a wonderful boss so I don’t have any concerns about anger or retribution if I don’t pick up on it, but he becomes a representative of the Offer/Guess culture when he wants me to do something that he’s uncomfortable asking me to do because of workload or sensitive topic or what have you.

    Which, come to think of it, so do I…I wonder if it’s not so much a matter of one vs. the other as it is a scope question. In other words, the list of topics I include in my Offer/Guess circle is a much shorter list (or a list with little overlap) than that of the original metafilter poster. Maybe that’s it — if we don’t have the same topics on our Offer/Guess list then you’re going to think I’m rude when I ask if I can stay at your house when I’m in town, and I’m going to think you’re rude when you agree, but then don’t want me there. Housing is on your Offer/Guess list and on my Ask list.

    1. Ha, and I think this is where cultural issues come into play too, because your boss’ first statement comes across as a completely unambiguous Ask to me.

      1. Right, to me, a boss’s “we” almost always means “you.” But I wasn’t born knowing that and had to figure it out from context clues. 🙂

        1. Well, yeah, but even if a friend said something to me that way, I would think they were asking (and respond with “how about Thursday?” or “sorry, I can’t do it” as appropriate.) It’s really good to know going forward that many people will interpret it as just shooting the breeze.

      2. Ha! If he were a different kind of boss, I would have the same interpretation as you, Jetamors, but he’s mostly an Asker and his “we” sometimes means “we, the team, not necessarily you.”

        1. I think that sometimes bosses get mixed up with their management. They don’t want to come across as too pushy, so they use “we”, but then also use “we” when they really do mean it … I think its something bosses should be cognisant about not something employees should have to “Guess” though.

  6. That’s a really cool post; I suppose I’ve always been a Guess and am always gobsmacked by the things people ask me about my personal life and about things I’ve deflected over and over and over and over. In the last 6 months or so, I’ve been tackling my anxiety with the mantra, “It never hurts to ask,” and working to ask for the things I want more frequently while being clear to others and myself that I don’t mind if someone says no. But I still hate the presumptions of Askers. Maybe with this new insight I can pause to re-evaluate such situations.

    1. Do you also work on saying no and feeling OK about it? When you say, “the presumptions of Askers”, I’m guessing that you mean that you feel that Askers won’t accept your no and are effectively pressuring you to do things?

      Part of functioning in a Ask culture is being able to say no to Askers’ requests (they are assuming that you will say no if you don’t want to), not just being OK with other people say no. Do keep reminding yourself that too, if getting better at Ask culture is a goal for you – it needs to work both ways!

      1. The problem I have saying no with some Ask-ers is not so much a direct “No, I can’t do that/that won’t be possible/that’s not ok” but variants on “No, I don’t want to tell you and I don’t think you should have asked” e.g. what I consider personal (shading to intrusive) questions about health and relationships.
        Them: Oh do you have that [bug] that’s going round? Have you got to the [totally gross medical detail] stage yet?
        Me: Er …

        I suppose they’re not actually requesting anything (except maybe information) but it still feels like an Ask/Offer culture difference, because of the directness of the question. (I’d be more comfortable with an Offer such as ‘Is it [bug]? I’ve heard that’s grim… *pause for me to be non-commital and change subject / give more details*”

        1. In general, I find Offer people to be more pushy for personal information (so they can know what to offer), and Ask people to assume you will tell them what’s important for them to know.

          You may be trapped in an Offer Culture that is desperate for information about you. If this is at your happening workplace, there is a counter-intuitive solution.

          At the beginning of your work day, pick a person or (better) a small group of people to engage with. Ask them a question about a shared experience (weather, tv show, movie, non-political news item), listen to their responses, throw out a few innocuous opinions. After 3-5 minutes go get coffee, check e-mail, other polite reason to leave. Do this every day.
          If it’s Offer Culture, this is enough for them to feel like they know you, and they will mostly leave you alone.

          There is another option. Both systems are (like most systems) biased towards extroverted people.

          In Offer Culture one has to be sociable (or have someone who speaks for you), in Ask Culture one has to be assertive (or have someone who asserts for you).

          Because introverts are sometimes seen as weaker you may be falling prey to Jerk/Tell Culture, in which case the Captain has many excellent strategies for shooting down boundary-jumping asshats gracefully.

  7. Thank you so much for this post.

    My friends and I already had a sort of phrasing for this– one of my roommates is very much an “Ask” and the rest of us (to varying degrees) are “Guesses”, and we’ve been calling it something like “liberal arts student subtlety-reader” vs “techie fact person”. It’s been a huge source of angst and fussing for the Guessers, and a source of complete obliviousness for the one Asker.

    We used to think that it was a problem with the way she thought, but this helps me understand her communication style much better. So thank you!

    1. I live in a very large household with multiple people, and the situation suits me well because I am mostly very direct (“Hey you, there’s a problem here. Please fix it”) and generally a bit lax about living standards (“The dishes will be done in the next day or so, but right now I desperately need to play Katamari Damacy”). I’ve also roomed with people who were, well, neither of those things. It resulted in a situation where one roommate very nearly ran and hid because I went to her and said, “Did you write that note on the board, the one saying that you thought we should nominate the messiest person in the house? I really don’t appreciate that. If things aren’t up to your standards and you’re pretty sure you know who’s responsible, just say so.” She moved out not too long after that, and is a much happier person living in a one-bedroom apartment. We get along a lot better that way – it’s just a question of needs.

    2. I think it’s really interesting how the “Guessers” framed it as a problem with her, rather than as a problem with the way your relationship operates. I think that’s the real damage with different cultural expectations, that the issue is always a way in which an individual is “wrong” than that a way of communication isn’t working.

  8. While I think if we lived in a perfect world, I would think that Ask culture is superior to Guess culture because of the clear communication, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut in the current complicated world we live in.

    I am a Guess culture person. 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. If they did (if the world were perfect) I might have an easier time feeling differently, but here were are.

    Also guess culture 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 sexual consent.

    That’s why I behave as a Guesser. 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.

    1. “While I think if we lived in a perfect world, I would think that Ask culture is superior to Guess culture because of the clear communication, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut in the current complicated world we live in.”

      I think you’re right, it’s more complicated than that. Ideally, in my perfect world, we’d operate on both. I think that the ability to ask for what you need, to communicate those things, is incredibly valuable–but that doesn’t come to everyone as easily, and the Ask-powered western world often punishes Offer/Guessers for that. Those who are Askers need to be sensitive to the fact that others can’t assert themselves in the same way.

      “Also guess culture 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.”

      THIS. So much this. This really applies, for me, not to just boundaries that might get someone casually offended if crossed, but more serious things, like consent, as you said.

      I’m having a surprisingly hard time figuring out what I am. I think I grew up mostly a Guesser, and now I’m trying to move towards Ask? Because balance is good, and helps me understand people.

    2. I think in a functional Ask environment/culture there wouldn’t be a negative judgement on the person who is asked but says “no” – direct question deserves a direct answer and no judgement or ill-will is meant either way.

      Interesting point about assertiveness and boundaries. I think another way to look at it could be in an Ask environment person A directly expresses interest in Person B. Person B directly declines. Both A and B move on with no ill-will either way. In a Guess environment Person A skulks and firths and makes hints at Person B who feel creeped-upon and annoyed because they want Person A to go away, while Person A feels ignored because Person B should just guess already (!).

      I think an assertive person would be assertive regardless of being in an Ask environment or a Guess environment: you can be self-assured and confident (without being aggressive) in both, you just use different tools and tactics to express it. I think a non-assertive person loses out regardless. That is the unfortunate consequence of living in a world that values assertiveness above all else.

      1. “In a Guess environment Person A skulks and firths and makes hints at Person B who feel creeped-upon and annoyed because they want Person A to go away, while Person A feels ignored because Person B should just guess already (!).”

        In my experience, in a functional Offer environment, Person A expresses interest in an acquaintance by mentioning a thing they would like to do or a place they would like to go. Person B has the option of dismissing the offer (oh, that’s cool), indicating an interest in just friendship (sounds good, we should go see if Persons C D and E want to go too), or accepting the offer (yes, let’s you and I go do that). As A and B get to know each other, A might make one or two more attempts, giving B the chance to change their mind. Because there is a pretense of sharing something that is not inherent to A’s worth as a person, when B expresses disinterest, it’s nothing personal, they’re just not interested in the same things. If B continues to decline, A accepts B’s lack of interest as an incompatibility between them, perhaps feels sad for a time, and moves on. In an Ask/Tell environment, B has expressly said “no” to pursuing a relationship with A. So it seems like it would be awkward or possibly even offensive for B to express an interest in A at a later time, perhaps after learning something new about A or some circumstance in B’s life changes.

        Ask/Tell cultures favor assertive, individualistic people, while Offer cultures (in my own experience) allow both more assertive and less assertive people to thrive. Perhaps you live in an area that values assertiveness above all else. I live in an area where community and consideration are given greater importance. I think we would be unhappy if we switched places, but one isn’t inherently better than the other.

        1. That is exactly how it works (ideally).
          If it became an issue, person A would mention to C, D and E that B seemed lonely, and they should invite them out to (mutual interest). They would take him out, B would mention A and they could emphasize that A was really not interested in coming

    3. how can I turn down “Can I come?” without seeming mean to the person asking?

      I’m like you– not everybody’s energy meshes well with mine (or with mine at that point in time), and sometimes I’m just not up for dealing with some people. First line of defense, don’t mention upcoming group plans to people who aren’t invited unIess you’re really sure they wouldn’t possibly be interested. If it somehow does come up and they invite themselves along, feel free to try out some of these: “Oh, you know, this time it’s going to be just the three of us!” *regretful smile, change of topic* “Oh, Jane and I want some time to catch up!” *regretful smile, change of topic* “Oh, I’m afraid we’ve only planned for a very small group.” *regretful smile, change of topic* If they actually try to push past that, your fallbacks are “I’m so sorry, I hate to disappoint you!” and “I’m sorry, it’s just not going to work out this time.”

      1. I suppose that is a place where I’m more guessy, or at least not-asky. I wouldn’t ask to come to something someone else was organizing without an express invitation, though I might say after the fact that I would love to [whatever the thing was] with them sometime too. Or I might organize something similar myself another time and invite them.

        And I don’t like it if someone asks if they can come to something I’ve already planned with other people, or if someone asks me if a third party can come while that third party is present. I’m okay with an interaction that mediates that request through someone else, as in:

        Scene 1 – somewhere I’m not
        Invited Person: I’m going to thing with Kacienna this weekend.
        Other Person: Do you think I could go too?
        Invited Person: I don’t know; I’ll check with them.

        Scene 2 – somewhere where Other Person is not
        Invited Person: Hey, would it be okay for Other Person to come to thing?
        Me: Sure, that would be great! OR No, I really don’t want any more people/want this particular group/don’t actually get along so well with Other Person/whatever

        And then it’s on Invited Person to convey the information to Other Person.

        But even then, when I’ve had problems with this kind of situation, I’ve resolved it by adding more clarity, not less: when I inititate plans with my husband I now explicitly tell him whether I’m okay with his girlfriend being invited, and on my party invitations I specify that bringing a friend is probably fine but check with me first.

    4. Quite a few people I know (including me) have made it fairly clear over time that we just don’t socialise that often. We like lots of time to ourselves. It’s not something we just came out and announced, but you make comments like “okay, it was nice seeing everyone, will be nice to take the rest of the week off too!” or “wow, I can’t believe I went out twice this week” or whatever, or turn down invitations like “I’d love to, but that’s just too much people time for me right now” and people generally get the idea that a) if you turn down a chance to spend time it’s not personal and b) turning up to their things is a bit of a compliment, esp if they’re really crowded 😛 Though sometimes you do need to make it CLEAR that it’s not personal and you won’t always say no.

    5. Oh my gosh, I’m so confused now. I really thought I was right behind the idea of Ask culture, but those things would make me uncomfortable too. I think a big part of Ask culture is “Are we one of those friends”? Because I have a couple of friends who I would give rides to, but not many (but I would give almost any of them a ride if it was important and I had nothing to do that day, but it would be in a “Favor” capacity). And I have no friends I would ask to borrow money off – but a few friends I would accept it from (for example, a few times I have been $5 short in cash, so I decided not to have a coffee with lunch, and a friend offered to spot me the cash until we walked to an ATM and I could repay her). But I also know that I am not allowed to borrow money off someone if I can’t repay them that day, because I am really forgetful, so I always say no to “pay me back” offers that take more than a day to pay back.

      I really dislike the idea that Askers should expect their Asks to be met (pressuring asking) or Asking someone whose relationship is inappropriate with them (for example, if my neighbor who I’d only had a conversation with a handful of times asked for a shovel, I would be like “What?” but if my neighbour who I speak to every time we cross paths asked, I would be like “Yep!”). So I think along with being confident enough to Ask and having good boundaries, Ask culture also requires Knowing What Level You’re At with a person – although having all of that be explicit seems a lot better to me than having to guess all the time. I think a lot of the problems of being confident enough to Ask would be solved if people knew they were operating from the same paradigm i.e. I’m asking, not expecting you to do this – I really mean that, and you know that i mean it … and not from other harmful paradigms i.e. I’m asking, but I expect you to say yes or I will be upset; or How dare you ask that, why didn’t you figure that out by osmosis.

      1. Yeah, I think Ask culture isn’t a blanket statement for “All is okay” and it makes me wonder if I’m really Ask or Guess or some mix of the two. I’m pretty okay with asking, say, my fiance to grab me lunch if I know he’s not busy and I am. I don’t mind my brother and his fiancee and dog-baby asking to stay on my couch for the night as they drive home. No problem. If someone I knew in college but hadn’t spoken with in four years asked to couch surf for 10 days, I might be confused/ maybe-offended-is-too-strong-a-word-but-close because hey, our relationship isn’t there, dude. That’s a guess culture tendency, because it requires a mutual understanding that we’re on the right level for that to be possible. But, I wouldn’t be horrified that this person had asked and I would just say “No.” Perhaps I’m Ask in the sense that I don’t mind being Asked, but if you’ve Asked for something outside your relationship circle, you’re gonna get a No, whether or not I’m actually free/available/inconvenienced.

        1. >>f you’ve Asked for something outside your relationship circle, you’re gonna get a No, whether or not I’m actually free/available/inconvenienced

          No, I think that’s a totally part of Ask culture. Ask culture doesn’t say that only certain reasons for saying no are acceptable. If you saying no just because the request seems inappropriate to you, but you’re not offended at the Asker and the Asker accepts your no, that seems to me to be Ask culture functioning successfully.

          If you’re side-eyeing the Asker for having Asked when they should have Guessed that the answer would be no because you’re not close enough, that’s a Guess culture tendency. But I think proper Ask culture explicitly doesn’t require the Askee to justify their no with an “adequate” explanation or a reason. No is a complete sentence and all that.

        2. Yeah, this is where I’m at in my responses to Asks, as an Ask. Like, I’m not upset that you, Random Person I Went to High School With and Haven’t Talked to Since emailed me and asked to stay at my house while you visit the city where I live, but the answer is no.

        3. Agreed 100% that Asking for something doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get it, just like hoping someone will Guess the meaning behind your many oblique comments won’t guarantee you’re going to get what you want, either.

          The crux of functional Ask culture is understanding that when you Ask, you’re 100% OK with getting “No” for an answer. That’s where the phrase, “It doesn’t hurt to ask,” comes into play. You may get a “No”, but you’ll be no worse off for asking. (Because getting the “No” just means you were in the same position before you Asked).

          The dysfunction in both cultures is being resentful when you don’t get your way. If I Ask and you say “No”, but then I hold it against you for not doing what I want, I’ve got bigger issues than Ask vs Guess. Similarly, if you obliquely hint at something (or just assume I should read your mind) and don’t get what you want from me, but then hold a simmering resentment against me, you’ve got bigger issues than Ask vs Guess.

          1. Yes! Assume people who seem to care for you do in fact care for you, and if one way of communicating with them doesn’t work, try another.

            Passive-aggressiveness is the dark side of Offer culture, Tell culture is the dark side of Ask culture. Jerks and users borrow from the worst of both cultures, but if someone has been good to you, maybe it’s a miscommunication and not that they are inconsiderate or don’t care.

    6. You have an excellent point about things being so complicated (especially with the socialization of women, and men, in today’s American society), but I also feel like you’re assigning motives/feelings to some of these Askers that are probably not there. That’s not to say that there isn’t some Telling (to reference a previous comment) going on, but at the same time I’ve found that many Askers don’t actually think/feel the things you (and I, and others) are worried they’re thinking/feeling when we ask them. Often, it’s an “ask and it’s done” type deal, no matter whether the answer is yes or no. To reference another previous comment, a commenter said that the Asker in that scenario was completely oblivious to the anxiety/issues/problems that the Guessers/Offereers noticed/thought were going on, because of the “one and done”-ness of a (healthy) Ask culture.

      1. When I say “but at the same time I’ve found that many Askers don’t actually think/feel the things you (and I, and others) are worried they’re thinking/feeling when we ask”, I mistyped. I meant when we REFUSE them.

    7. These are good points. I’m not exactly sure what I fall under, but I got raised in Guess Culture and I feel terrible about asking anyone directly about things, because I assume if they haven’t already offered, they’ll say no. And there are certain things I might get asked that I am really uncomfortable with and wish they wouldn’t. But then again, some things like rides I don’t mind (it took me forever to drive, so I think I owe the universe for all of my rides).

    8. As someone who finds it hard to assert herself, I find Guess/Offer culture to be much worse. Because it creates confusion about what is and isn’t acceptable to do, so I do as little as possible and take up as little space as possible to avoid offending anyone. I also find it hard to turn down offers I don’t want.

      So I don’t buy that Guess culture is better for the less assertive. I myself prefer Ask culture because, if I know it’s an ask culture, then I know both asking and saying no is okay. I can see how other shy/wimpy types like me would feel differently, but I don’t think Guess culture is actually better.

  9. Hahaha, this is so accurate!

    I am from Ireland, and we have an Guess/Offer culture (particularly in rural parts) that is so ingrained that I didn’t even notice it until people not from Ireland started pointing it out to me. It is quite literally a ritualised Offer-Refuse-Offer-Accept system. The Offerer understands that they will initially be refused and knows it’s only polite to offer at least twice more, while the Offeree knows it’s polite to accept straight off but is comfortable in the knowledge that there will be at least two more offers which they can accept if they choose. It goes something like:

    “Will you have another pint?”
    “Ah no, I’m grand, thanks.”
    “Ah, you will, you’ll have another pint on me?”
    “Ah I couldn’t now…”
    “You will now, just one more, what are you having?”
    “You know what, sure I will!”

    In Father Ted (for any non-Irish fans), this is what is being parodied by Mrs. Doyle and her endless offers cups of tea (“Ah you will, Father, ah g’wan g’wan g’wan”), the punchline being that once the offer is finally accepted, it is withdrawn.

    I don’t know whether this high-functioning Guess culture or well-masked Ask culture? It’s definitely true is that once you start moving away from Ireland (or any other specific culture/community/region), you either have to learn how to navigate a whole new web of social cues and hints and nuances very quickly, or become an Ask person (and also an Accept person). I have done this, as there was very little point blustering around wondering why everyone is being so rude and no longer offering me a slice of their pizza when I’d only refused it once!

    1. I must be just a little bit on the Offer side but mostly Ask because I see the conversation you provided as starting out well, with an offer, and the second offer after the refusal as perfectly reasonable. Stopping after the first offer and refusal is also perfectly reasonable to me.

      But the third offer? To me it sounds like harassment and a refusal to take No for an answer. I’ll keep your description in mind, though, if I hang out in any Irish bars.

      One thing I wonder: In your example conversation, what happens if the third offer is refused because the person truly doesn’t want that pint? Would the offering person cheerfully accept that since the three offers are understood to be one transaction?

      1. I grew up in a heavy Offer culture (Korean, not Irish) where three is the magic number, and yes, the third response is always respected.

        It looks kind of like:
        A: would you like x?
        B: oh, no thanks, I’m fine.
        A: are you sure? There’s lots.
        B: no need to trouble yourself on my behalf.
        A: it’s no trouble, I’m going to (do/get thing or go place) anyway.
        [B: oh, we’ll if you’re doing that anyway, sure. Thank you.
        A: no problem!]
        [B: no, it’s really okay, but thanks so much for offering!
        A: okeydokey. Let me know if you change your mind.]

        For big things, this might take place over several interactions, but the three attempts all count as one transaction. Oh, one exception. If the offer is one that would come at considerable expense/inconvenience to the person making the offer, it necessitates a slightly more intricate dance. Like when my boyfriend’s parents wanted me to come on a trip with the family and including me meant spending $3000 dollars more. Or my cousin dropping out if college and moving home to help care for her Grandma.

        I have a guess as to how strange it probably sounds to Ask/Tell people, but that’s the world I was raised in. I find it comfortable, and while some people have raised concerns about its viability for those with social, communication, or anxiety difficulties, I know many people from my own culture with those concerns who prefer the Offer style. Our Offer culture is ritualized, predictable, and the offers others will expect from us are pretty well codified and can be expressly taught. Seeking an offer from another is also a predictable process, and if the offer isn’t made, or isn’t pressed past the first offer, it’s because the answer was “no,” and that is socially acceptable and we don’t take that as an offense.

      2. G, yes, that sounds about right, if the third offer is refused, the interaction is concluded, although it can go on for longer… again, so so dependent on the culture and understanding the specific nuances of the situation! And as you point out, in any other culture is could well come-off as harassment, but at home it’s just understood as part of the social ritual.

        Also, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that all Irish people everywhere do this during every single social exchange. Younger generations (my friends and I) don’t do it as much (although we still do it quite bit over drinks and things) and I certainly shed the habit when I’m living abroad. I grew up in a small Irish town though, and I’d do this dance quite a lot with older people. Also, there are older Irish people (like, 65+) who will literally not let you leave their home without having a cup of tea or a bit of cake because it would be a breach of hospitality otherwise. I remember visiting my grandmother in hospital when she had a severe stroke… she couldn’t talk, couldn’t feed herself, etc., so I was feeding her lunch, but she was really distressed, refusing to eat and kept gesturing at the banana on her tray. For ages, I didn’t understand what she wanted… did she want to eat it now, should I get rid of it, did she want it mashed it up with her yoghurt? Eventually I realised that she was ordering ME to eat it, because she clearly felt it was highly improper that she was having a meal and I was not!

        In conclusion: OH CULTURE.

    2. England is somewhat less Offer culture than Ireland, but definitely still on the spectrum. I still remember being somewhat astonished as a 17-year-old when my boyfriend’s mother offered me a piece of cake, I said, “Oh, no thanks, I’m fine”, fully expecting her to say, “Are you sure?” and instead she said, “Oh, OK then.” Offer withdrawn after one refusal! I was outraged, but also found it hilarious how outraged I felt.

      1. When I’m offering something edible and it’s refused, I often say something along the lines of “Okay, well it’ll be here if you change your mind,” which is gentle enough that I don’t feel like I’m pressuring someone or not taking their word about what they do/don’t want and I hope offery enough to count as a second offer if someone needs one. Or if they genuinely change their mind.

        1. This is an excellent suggestion for offers in general. I’ve been trying to figure out where I fit in the “spectrum”; I definitely prefer to have a feel for the potential receptiveness to a request before I make it. But while I’m aware of the offer-ask thing (I think everywhere I’ve lived has at least had the convention of “are you sure?” Before backing off), I find myself feeling very annoyed when someone asks repeatedly if I want something. It seems disrespectful and manipulative, so I try to respect other people’s initial answers. Indicating that an offer is “there if you change your mind” seems like a good compromise.

    3. “while the Offeree knows it’s polite to accept straight off ”

      This should say “it’s NOT polite to accept straight off”


  10. But often the “Everyone was friends with everyone, there were no cool kids!” writers were at the table, or one of those tables.

    I’ve noticed this is many social situations. People who say “There’s no clique!” are usually part of the clique.

    1. I’ve also run into situations where two people from the same high school will run into each other and discuss this sort of thing–and they both think the *other* one was really popular and super intimidating! And they saw themself as being completely awkward.

      1. Ha, I did that the day I met a friend of mine. “YOU wanted to meet ME? But YOU’RE famous-on-LiveJournal and I’m no one in particular!” And she did it right back to me! I think it can happen in any social setting. It’s very rare to see oneself as the queen bee, especially if your position is precarious; you’re much more aware of people jockeying to take over than you are of the privileges of being popular/famous/important.

    2. But how do you distinguish between a clique and just a bunch of people who like each other? I’ve been accused of being a clique when there was no exclusivity or secrecy or bitchiness, just a group of people who liked each other’s company and chose to hang out together in a larger social setting. Is that a clique?

      1. I suppose the “real” definition of a clique is that it tends to be exclusive. However, when one is on the outside, even if a group is not actually exclusive, it can feel exclusive to the outsider (who may be too scared to ask for an in, or did it in an awkward way or to the wrong person and was refused).

        1. And maybe the person who is on the outside just plain isn’t liked by the people inside the group. Just because you’d like to join a group doesn’t mean you get in automatically. I see close-knit groups of friends kind of like monogamous relationships: You may think it would be nice to have sex with one (or both) of the partners, but that doesn’t mean you get to. There is no law in nature that says, “Everyone Must Be Included In Everything”. If your feelings are hurt because a group doesn’t want you, then learn the hard lesson that rejection is universal and find your friendships elsewhere. There is nothing inherently evil about not wanting to be friends with every single person who crosses your path.

  11. Oh my goodness, this is SO USEFUL. And there are so many layers of nuance that you can add to this model to explain different kinds of relationship difficulties.

    This just clicked for me, and I didn’t see it mentioned above: a big part of relationship troubles come from misidentifying who in a given situation is approaching it as an “ask” situation and who is coming at it as an “offer situation” — even with ourselves! I think actually most people are accustomed to switching back and forth from asking to guessing, depending on the scenario, but sometimes we switch incorrectly, or we switch because we think the other person in a situation is switching and they actually aren’t. I think also we often incorrectly predict whether a situation is going to be “ask” or “guess” based on what we know about the person we are dealing with — their gender, age, ethnicity, etc.

    I was raised in a culture that leans toward “offer” but myself lean more toward “ask” — not I am so direct, but because I feel uncomfortable even hinting that I need something. So if I really need help, I do ask; otherwise I generally don’t expect it or want it. Unfortunately I think people — men in particular — often assume that because I am a woman, my statement need to be interpreted as “hints” when they are not. So if I say, “Ack, I left my wallet at home,” my male friend hears, “I need a loan of ten dollars for lunch,” but what I am saying is, “That’s annoying.” This causes extra friction when that person thinks that I was making an indirect request (and so tallies that in their “this person has asked me to do something” column) and I did not, so we have different perceptions of what we are putting into the relationship.

    I think this is particularly damaging when you are trying to vent about something, but the person you are speaking to assumes you are trying to hint that THEY (usually it’s a HE) needs to do something about what you are saying, and he feels beleaguered and angry by being asked to do something difficult and upsetting, and you feel hurt that he can’t even take time to listen to you.

    1. Argh, I have a male friend who is always trying to interpret my statements as hints, especially when it comes to preferences/lack of preferences. For example, we have this conversation a lot:

      “Where do you want to go for lunch?”
      “I don’t care, you can pick this time.”
      “How about the Chinese place?”
      “Sure, that’s fine.”
      “Or soup? We could go to that place with the soup you like.”
      “That’s fine too, but so is Chinese.”
      “We can get soup if that’s what you want…”
      “Really, either one is fine. I’m not in the mood for anything special.”
      “Okay, Chinese then.”
      “Sounds good.”
      “Or sandwiches? What about sandwiches?”

      So there he is thinking “I’ve got to figure out what she really wants or she’ll be angry,” while he actually is making me angry (or at least annoyed) by not taking my statement at face value. It’s ridiculous!

  12. In pre-marital counseling, one test revealed a massive difference between me and spouse on the question of thinking about what non-specific others were thinking or feeling about me. I thought it was a waste of mental energy and just a way to stir up anxiety and worry, and he very much thought about others’ thoughts without that degree of distress. The thing is, I had worn myself out in the past worrying and guessing, and I’d gotten burned by guessing intentions were good when they were not and bad when they were well-meant (a side-note on intentions are not magic). The coping strategy of “take everyone at exactly their word, and if they don’t mean what they’re offering, too bad for them” worked fairly well for me to manage anxiety and reduce overload for a very long time.

    In later years, a boss and my MIL at various points both encouraged me to do more “reading between the lines.” Over the last few years, I have slowly started to loosen up towards looking for contextual clues that might be important. I still have no patience for passive-aggression (if I notice it). A turning point for me was the exercises in a Nonviolent Communication workshop. We were making empathy guesses (Are you feeling x about y because your need for z wasn’t met?) and was profoundly relieved that my exercise partners, people I’d just met, were not only not angry at me for guessing wrong, but felt touched at the guesses I’d made. I learned it is ok to guess wrong at others’ feelings, as long as you correct the guess by checking before you take action. The thing is, I was learning to guess at others’ feelings and confirm those guesses by asking, so it’s still Ask-mode, I think.

  13. This Ask vs. Guess/Offer thing is really interesting! I think I learn more towards Ask. In the garden example, I definitely lean way towards Ask because I want to do things my own way and don’t want all the additional requirements that Offer would entail.

    And while I’m often happy to be an instigator in my friends circle, I’ve also told some close friends flat out that I’m totally up for a request along the lines of “Hey, we’d love to come over for that dessert you make – do any of the following dates work for you?” despite the more usual cultural taboo of inviting oneself to someone else’s house

    And I’m sometimes kind of oblivious and maybe it wouldn’t occur to me offer [x] in a situation and I might not even notice strong hinting, but still be quite willing and even enthusiastic if asked. And if someone is in a tough situation and I don’t know what kind of help they need, it would be useful to be asked – though I recognize that being in a tough situation can make it hard to even figure out what one needs, so I do offer meals/company/housework when I feel like those might be useful.

    Also, sometimes the Guessier part of Guess/Offer feels icky to me – when I can tell someone wants something of me, but they won’t ask me for it and I don’t particularly want to give it. I have a reaction sort of like…I’ll do it, but they have to at least take the responsibility for actually putting the desire into words, because I’m willing but not enthusiastic and I don’t want to do it if it’s not really important, and being willing to risk rejection by asking is a way of demonstrating the importance…?

    And the whole thing about the offer-refuse-offer-accept…I know there are functional cultures that works for, and so it’s not a bad thing in and of itself. But I will never voluntarily live in such a culture, and it would pretty much be a dealbreaker for any sort of close relationship – the idea of an offer not being sincere just fills me with blind rage cannot deal no no no. Other people’s mileage will definitely vary – I know there are cultures where this is polite and the norm, and I mean no offense to them – I’m just very aware that that’s not a situation I can live in for anything but the most dire reasons.

    1. “And I’m sometimes kind of oblivious and maybe it wouldn’t occur to me offer [x] in a situation and I might not even notice strong hinting, but still be quite willing and even enthusiastic if asked.”

      I agree with pretty much your whole post, but especially this part. I am not a naturally caretaker-ish person; I’m the one that people go to for advice, not sympathy. That doesn’t mean I hate feelings or anything, or that I dislike helping people! It just isn’t something that often occurs to me.

      The worst, to me, is when I offer help, they refuse, but still seem kind of pissed off/grumpy when I take them at their word.

      I am very good at reading the social ‘mood’ of a situation, and sometimes I can figure out why something is happening, but I sometimes have a rough time figuring out *precisely* what is wanted of me. Especially when I start getting anxious about doing something wrong! Yikes yikes yikes. Even the thought stresses me out.

      I suppose both cultures privilege certain types of people over others, and mean that some will have trouble, though.

    2. Re: “I’ll do it, but they have to at least take the responsibility for actually putting the desire into words…”

      My rule at work is “I won’t volunteer for certain tasks, ever.” I don’t care how much (boss or co-worker) hints about it needing to be done, I’m not responding. If my boss wants me to do something boring/time-consuming/confusing, JUST TELL ME to do it. That’s why they’re the boss.

      I usually make sure bosses know that from the start, and that other departments can ask for help, but only boss can order me to do it. Peers/co-workers who try to pull rank and order me around get shut down, but I’m pretty much open to other requests!

      1. “If my boss wants me to do something boring/time-consuming/confusing, JUST TELL ME to do it. That’s why they’re the boss.”

        I had a boss for a while recently who seemed to feel that she could not tell people to do things. I felt as you do about this: you’re the boss; that means you get to tell me what to do! That’s the deal, here; you tell me what to do, and I do it. And if I have some kind of problem with it I can bring it up then, but probably I’ll be okay with it and just do it. If you make it a suggestion, I’m going to think it’s optional. And if you’re expecting me to pick up on more subtle hints than that, IT IS NOT HAPPENING. I can imagine literally a million different things your sighs or subtle intonations might mean; chances are very low that I’ll magically pick the one you want.

        Fortunately I now have a boss who is *awesomecakes* at direct communication and who thinks I’m awesomecakes at communication, too. [satisfied sigh of being on the same wavelength!]

        1. Yeah, I’m Offer Culture in my life, but with work? Clear directives please!

          I recently helped out a co-worker, and wasted an half a day on something that had already been cut from the project. I was supposed to know that because they had discussed it with another co-worker near my office door.

          Guess who did not not stay late to keep working on that? Got work of my own, a life of my own, and you’re on your own.

  14. Lol. If you’re having trouble, you can ascertain whether you are Offer vs Ask culture by seeing which other (presumably nice and friendly and kind!) posters’ comments rankle you as nearly-offensive and “bwuh?! are you serious?!”. Determine which side they fall on, and guaranteed, you are the opposite.

  15. The Ask/Offer thing got me thinking, and it actually kind of helped me put into words a tendency I’ve noticed about myself in the past year or so, and I’m trying to work on.

    Basically, I’m mostly an Ask sort of person, when it comes to any sort of action or physical object. I.e., if I want/need a favor or someone to *do* something (whether that’s “Is it cool if I stay with you while I’m in town?”, “Hey, want to see X movie?”, or “Can I try some of your fancy wine?”). And similarly, while I may offer stuff if it occurs to me, I might never really think to say “oh, by the way, there’s soda in the fridge, help yourself.”, but a request for a drink would get about the same answer.

    However, when it comes to personal information, I’m much more of an Offer person. I think it has to do with growing up in a really, really gossipy sort of family, where it’s assumed that anything you tell someone without a specific “hey, this is in confidence” tends to get volunteered. But basically, if there’s something I want you to know about my life, I’ll tell you. Not in an invasive “OH HAI HERE’S MY LIFE STORY!” sort of way, but I’ll respond to a “how’re you doing” with “I’ve been doing X, Y, Z, oh! and A and B interesting thing happened”. Whereas I’ve come to notice that many people wait until you ask about things A and B *specifically* before talking about them. So I think I sometimes come across as uninterested in people, where I’m kind of assuming they’d Offer information about themselves, and they’re waiting for me to Ask about it.

    So I’m trying to get better at asking specifics, but it’s a little hard for me to shake this idea that I’m prying, since I’d either tell you about whatever it is, or I don’t want you to know about it. But the Ask/Offer framing is helpful to let me get over that.

    1. Oh hadn’t thought about it on the personal information angle! I’m coming from the opposite end as you – I’ll happily tell most people most things about my life if they ask, but I sometimes refrain from volunteering information because I don’t want to be boring/pushy/TMI. At the same time, I’m usually glad to hear as much as someone wants to tell me – but I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s better for me to wait to get a feel for how much the person might or might not want to share, and that asking for all the details isn’t always the best way to show I care.

    2. I got into a disagreement with an ex (it could have been an argument, but she’s very strong Guess culture and doesn’t do conflict) because she did not think I asked about her life often enough in our conversations, but instead talked about myself. From my point of view, I was answering questions she asked me about X and Y, and I would ask general questions in return, and sometimes follow up on specific points. But (as I explained to her), I assumed that if she did not mention a topic, she did not want to talk about it, and I was respecting her privacy by not asking. SHE thought that it was clear that I SHOULD ask, and that I was being rude and narcissistic by not pursuing the topic more deeply. It was… enlightening. We then formed an explicit agreement that I would ask the questions when I wanted to know, but preface it with “I don’t mean to pry” or similar so she knew that this was one of those times that I’d held off previously, and she could tell me whether she wanted to answer, and would not see me as nosy.

      1. Wow. This is exactly my boyfriend. He is from a strong Guess family and thinks I don’t care about him if I don’t ask if he’s heard back from the doctor yet on a test, or how his mother is doing after he’s told me she has the flu, or whatever. I’ve always assumed that if someone (especially someone close to me) has something important to share, they’ll just tell me – because that’s what I do. If he hasn’t told me about the test results, I assume it’s because they haven’t come back yet. If he doesn’t give me an update about his mom, I assume her flu is progressing along normal lines. It seems silly to have to drag important information out of someone. If you have something you want me to know, just tell me!

        1. Yessss. If I have to ask my mum for medical information, I assume she is deliberately withholding it (this is at least in part because when she got her cancer diagnosis, she *did* try to deliberately withhold it, when she’s generally very good about telling me how things went if they went well; and she is five years clear now and very likely to stay that way given family history 🙂

          But I do this exact thing too – this answering general questions with specifics, and assuming other people will do likewise back, and I try really hard to consciously ask explicit specific questions about how people are doing but I do assume they will Offer the information. (Which is kind of hilarious, because a lot of the rest of the time I’m very Ask; though I have, in conversations about this post elseweb over the past few days, realised that actually I am Ask initially and shift much more towards Guess/Offer with close/intimate friends – I generally view Guess/Offer as more intimate – and this is some of why I form such close intense relationships so fast via discussing poetry…)

        2. Hah, yeah, or “If I haven’t mentioned anything about the job application/that I am dating someone, you should reasonably assume that I haven’t heard and I am not seeing anyone.”

    3. I probably am more of a guesser all the time, but I’m definitely like this when it comes to personal info and I often think about the same thing, “Do people think I’m uninterested?” What I’m trying to do lately is make sure in social settings where I don’t know people well like a house party, if someone asks me where I live or something like that to make conversation, I’ll answer and when the conversation starts to wane again I’ll ask, “What about you?” It feels foreign to me but I’m starting to remember to do it.

      With closer friends I still tend to let them jump in and tell me personal stuff at their own pace and I usually try to read the situation and tell my own personal stories at the level that seems appropriate for the relationship, but I try to pay more attention to how much I’m talking about me compared to how much they are giving me their updates, and if they haven’t volunteered much yet during a coffee date or whatever it is, I’ll make sure I say, “So how are you doing lately?” at some point during the visit. I like it because it allows them to decide what personal stuff they feel like divulging instead of me asking super directed questions about a specific thing. If I do ask a specific question that might be sensitive like “Holy crap how is that health thing going?” I usually explicitly let them know that if they’d rather not talk about it it’s okay and we can change the subject.

      1. Oh, I really relate to this. I have been in situations where I had friends (or sometimes ‘friends’) who really pried and tried to get me to talk to them about stuff I didn’t want to talk to them about, whether it was personal stuff, or opinions on things I felt strongly about and didn’t want to share, or other things, and it’s something I’m kind of sensitive to. I value my privacy a lot, and tend to feel kind of rude and invasive asking people a lot of questions in conversation, or trying to talk a lot about them or get them to talk a lot about themself. I guess I feel like if they have things they want to say, they’ll offer, and if they don’t jump in and start talking, the politest thing I can do is be careful to not try to push them to, and to talk myself instead of leaving long silences, so they don’t feel like I’m pushing them to talk when they clearly don’t want to.

        Some of those times I genuinely feel like talking about something, and just assume it’s all good because they clearly aren’t in the mood to talk (or they would be) but other times I’ll talk when I don’t even really feel like it, just because I get in a situation where I feel like it would be unfriendly or awkward not to.

        When I talk with family, it’s often either 1) taking turns where one person gives a really really long story or thinks out loud for a really long time, and the other mostly listens, or 2) a quick back and forth with lots of comfortable jumping right in when you have something to say. It’s very much a culture where if you have something to say, you’re expected to say it, and not expect other people to need to drag it out of you.

        But obviously some people were brought up almost directly opposite to that. So I think with certain people, especially if they have a different background than me, it just comes off as if I’m not interested in other people and just want to talk about myself all the time. So I know I have to try to find ways to ask people more questions, but somehow make them general enough that I don’t feel like I’m being pushy. And to leave longer spaces in conversations, without feeling awkward (or even impatient with the person).

        But I also recognize that I’ll probably always be more at home with people whose style is more like my own.

        (In some ways I’m way more Ask than Guess/Offer… I don’t know where conversation and sharing information comes into that, though).

    4. Oh, hello, me. This boundary/prying/offer culture about personal information was part of my break up with my ex besties. Both had had pretty traumatic childhood events (one lost a parent, the other had been abused), and at the end of things I was highly criticized for not caring. From my view, I was waiting for highly traumatic information to be offered – I didn’t want to pry, or, worse, trigger. From theirs, I was disinterested in their lives by not asking. It led to a lot of distress all around, and our mutually incompatible communication styles meant we no longer speak at all.

      I think it was made worse by my otherwise being firmly an Asker. I’m wondering, did you grow up in a place where the predominant style was different to the one at home? I did and it made learning how to behave much harder (also autism, so it never came naturally).

  16. I am really digging the Ask/Tell/Guess framework! It makes clear a lot of things I have grasped over the years intuitively. My birth family is extreme Ask/Tell and my in-laws are extreme Guess.

    There are things I enjoy about both. It can become exhausting when everyone is so gently dancing around making actual decisions about WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN, that sometimes nothing ends up happening. But also, Ask/Tell can feel very intrusive if you just feel like being left alone.

    One point that I think bears on the example of the linked post–someone asking to stay in your NYC apartment–is that it isn’t just a matter of culture that determines whether Ask/Tell or Guess is appropriate. It is also a matter of personal relationships. With my closest, dearest friends, of course they should (and do) feel comfortable flat out saying, “I’m coming to NYC in two weeks; can I crash at your place?” With a more distant acquaintance, they should only feel comfortable mentioning that they are thinking of/planning on visiting NYC, and then see if I offer.

    1. Right. We all live some variations on these depending on context, and I’m not sure that talking about it as broadly as people belonging to either one ‘culture’ or another is all that useful. Of course there are cultural differences, but it’s not as simple as Askers and Guessers, it’s probably more about mutual understandings about power, closeness, shared values, etc, that tell you how to interpret a request, or inform you on whether it’s appropriate to make one. E.g. there is so much context to your example situation that it would take paragraphs to write out!

      I’m not sure I agree with the bolded statement in the OP. All sorts of things can make a request something other than a straightforward question that can neutrally be answered either yes or no as your fancy takes you. But I feel like I must be misinterpreting, because the whole post is about how it’s *not* that way for everyone at all times, ha!

      1. I agree with this — I think these are more contextual tendencies than “cultures” per se. I’ve been thinking in particular about how this breaks down in work environments. For instance, I’ve definitely worked for people who ask, “Will you be able to get this done by the end of the week?” and it is actually a question about whether that’s a fair deadline, and I’ve also worked for people who will ask you the same question and it’s pretty clear they are actually TELLING you you better move heaven and earth to get that thing done by the end of the week, or come up with a really, really good reason you can’t. The latter type of environment, while often much more stressful, tends to work better for me because I have a better sense of management’s expectations.

        However, I can think of times in BOTH types of environments where I discovered I had violated an unwritten rule and paid for it somewhat. Interestingly, though, the consequences were different. When I was in an Ask/Tell environment, I left for a 15-minute mid-morning break and was told under no circumstances not to leave the building during the morning again, because that was our busiest time of day (even though breaks are legally mandated and they told us that the first day and everything! And people who smoked got breaks, why couldn’t I leave to get a cup of coffee?*). So my takeaway was, there is a big difference between what they say is kosher around here and what is actually kosher, but they will tell me what it is, though they may not do so until I’ve messed something up. When I was in a much Guessier work environment, things would happen where I would sort of get sideways looks or asked slightly passive-aggressive things and I would be like, “Hmmm, I guess some people wear jeans here on Fridays, but people in my department really don’t.”

        Incidentally, I’ve noticed that higher paying/more white-collar work environments tend to be (at least in my experience) Guessier and lower paying/more blue-collar work environments tend to be Askier, with clearer expectations (sometimes because there is a union contract in place).

        My parents ran their own business and both of them came from families where THEIR fathers were entrepreneurs, and while their work was technically white-collar in nature and both of them had experience working for other people, hiring and firing people and just generally doing business with others, the people they did business with tended to be more blue-collar because of where we lived and the type of work they did. So the only “office culture” I knew anything about was what I observed in my home, and while I actually work in the same industry my folks did (as a freelancer — apparently self-employment is The Way of My People), I deal with people in a different region and social class than they did, so there are different rules of interaction than the ones I witnessed growing up or in my first several jobs, so I’ve had to 1) pay close attention to what other people in the work environment were doing and 2) cultivate mentors in my field or fields similar to mine who I trusted enough to be able to ask blunt questions when I’m confused or mad about something.

        I also have to deal with stuff that was totally unfamiliar and daunting to me when I started out, like negotiating fees for my work. (Pay negotiation conversations are another place that can feel like a TOTAL MINEFIELD if you are used to hearing, “This is what this position pays, period” instead of being asked what you think is fair — with the former happening more often in lower-wage jobs and the latter happening more often in higher-paying fields.) And even though, having worked in several different industries I’ve noticed that some are Askier than others, even within one industry or one work culture people can be Guessier about certain things than others. For instance, a few months ago I was up for a full-time position at a company where a friend of mine worked, and it got back to me that my would-be boss was disappointed that I hadn’t called to ask how the process was going — which really pisses some managers off. (Which he pointed out to her. And in fact, I HAVE gotten somewhat rude, pissy responses to “Have you made a decision?” emails before, so I don’t send anything after the initial thank-you note.)

        That got long, but yeah: I think it’s more of a continuum than a set of mutually exclusive cultures or tendencies, and it’s really context specific. But as it relates to the workplace, this ask/guess stuff can be really complicated and I suspect white-collar workplaces tend to be guessier, which can be a big barrier to class mobility for a lot of folks…which, yes, is one of the reasons the advice business exists and I’m grateful for it.

        * I realize now that this “we have to tell you that you are allowed to take breaks, but actually, you are not allowed to take breaks” thing is really common in American workplaces, but at the time I had never encountered it before.

        1. I’m partway through the book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America by Barbara Jensen, and I think you might be interested in it. The author grew up working-class, then moved into the middle class, and she writes about the differences between working-class culture(s) and middle-class culture from both a personal and professional perspective (she’s a psychologist/counselor). You’re right that it doesn’t break down neatly across class lines; in what I’ve read so far, in some ways working-class cultures are more high-context (tending to be close-knit communities where people hold shared expectations and what’s regarded as proper roles and behavior etc. are assumed to be commonly understood/”picked up on” rather than made explicit) and in other ways are more direct–for instance, as you point out, in rules for the workplace. Likewise, in some ways middle-class culture is more direct/Ask-y, and in others it has its own unspoken rules and deflections that aren’t spelled out anywhere.

          Jensen talks about how, when she’s counseling couples in which one partner is working-class and the other is middle-class, the working-class partner will often feel that the other person isn’t picking up on their emotional cues the way they should, while the middle-class partner will feel that the other person should simply ask for what they want. And the canonical answer is that the one partner should Use Their Words and ask directly for what they want, but she wonders if that might be unfairly valorizing middle-class values of asking directly over working-class values of attentiveness and compassion. (Probably exactly what the right answer is varies a lot depending on the couple.) But she also talks about how, in a co-op she was involved in in her twenties, the middle-class college students felt intimidated by the working-class members and thought they were too loud and argumentative, while the working-class folks thought they were simply speaking plainly and that there was nothing stopping the other folks from speaking up for themselves.

          It’s complicated and fascinating!

          As I said, I haven’t finished the book, and I am worried I might be misrepresenting or oversimplifying her work. Anything that seems like an overgeneralization is probably due to me, not to her!

    2. I’m definitely a Guesser at heart – and I think that part of being a competent guesser is that you can ask for things that you use your guessing powers to *know* that the answer will be yes if possible. So sure, I could ask my close friend if I can crash at his NYC apartment (though it’s a NYC apartment so I think I’d have to sleep in the kitchen sink), because I know that it’s a question that defaults to yes unless he’s out of town or there’s already a house guest in the sink or whatever. But if it was someone that I wasn’t close to, then I don’t have a relationship that entitles me to ask that, so I’d have to scale back to mentioning that I would be in the area. At least for me, the Guess fuzzy area is to negotiate the things that you aren’t sure you’d get the answer you want, so you avoid having to ask a question that might leave everyone sort of unhappy with the answer.

  17. This comment has set off such a mental light bulb for me. I am making so many connections between different times when I have felt extremely frustrated in social situations, and I’m realizing that this has a lot to do with it. I’m thinking, “Why won’t X tell me what they want?” or “Is there a problem? If there were, Y would probably tell me.” While X and Y were probably thinking, “She has no manners because she didn’t do thing.” or “This is really awkward — why doesn’t she realize she shouldn’t do that?”

    As I reflect more, I’m thinking that most successful relationships are based on A) understanding each other’s nature, B) being understanding of each other’s nature. My best friend is my best friend because, even though she grew up in a Guess culture, she is able to be understanding of my asks. A lot of people react very badly to questions, but she does not. And I think, as an Ask, I have to understand that sometimes I will have Guesses in my life who will want/need something but be reticent to tell me and I might have to work to be aware of those moments.

  18. I’m an Asker, especially since I work in round the clock residential care, and employees have to find their own coverage for any time off. I regularly ask others to cover for me, and expect to be turned down often. I was surprised once though by a very passive response to an email I sent once asking for coverage…a coworker who told me “some people” were annoyed at getting a cc: email looking for coverage for shifts they “never do.” I guess the Guessers wanted me to figure out how willing they would be to cover before asking. I also sub for others, but have had friends and coworkers tell me they feel bad asking me to cover. I’ve always responded that I don’t mind if they ask, and I’ll just tell them no if I can’t. I’m not planning to change my Asking ways, but have been working on being explicit about what I’m doing and letting them know up front that my request does not carry my assumption that they will say yes, and there are no hard feelings for saying no.

    1. That will not go over well, as you have already been directly told to gain more knowledge of your coworkers before making any other requests, and that requests should be personal and not blanket spams.

      Doubling down on your Ask tendencies, will get you pissed-off coworkers who stop covering for you, and start making your work life as bad as it can be.

      Find people at work who are friendly towards you, and ask one of them who might be able to cover for you the next time you need coverage (in person is best, or at least on the phone, not in an email).
      They will probably take 15 minutes to tell you who you should ask and why, and give you a lot of information about who you shouldn’t ask and why. Pay attention to all of it. They are tutoring you in the established system you are currently trampling over.

      The next time after that you need coverage, you should use the information you have been given to make a guess as to who you should ask, then check in with a different friendly person (Part of this process is PR. The more people who can speak to your trying to learn, the better things will go for you). Do this every time you need coverage until your guesses are consistently confirmed as correct.

      This process is time consuming and way less efficient than the spam method you are currently using. But after you have learned their system, it’s going to be about the same amount of time spent asking, with much better results.

      Good luck!

  19. What do we feel about Ask culture coming from people who feel they have some individual agency or power? Is Guess or Offer culture more prevalent where there’s a stronger sense of the group’s interests taking precedence? ( – or the other gender’s interests taking precedence?)

    When I grew up, women were Guessers and men were Askers. I decided I wasn’t having that and became an inveterate Asker. I think I hurt the feelings of many Guessers along the way (not all of them female) and I’ve learned to try to meet them halfway. But it gives me the fear to think of having to abide by Guess rules. Offer rules I can do, to an extent; it’s rather lovely being in a situation where everybody is genuinely trying to predict and cater for everybody else’s needs, for a while at least. But Guess rules, where you have to act as if you don’t have needs, I do not like.

  20. My first, and very strong, response to this is that it might not be a positive thing to frame ask vs. guess cultures as equal. In part because I think guess culture is also pretty directly linked to rape culture (which assume implied consent of women, trans* people, WOC, children, any marginalized group who experiences higher rates of sexual violence), while ask culture is based in consent, so framing them as equal has hugely problematic implications for addressing structural power inequalities, in that it just kind of ignores those inequalities, which people in positions of power already currently use to their advantage (such as men in social groups who repeatedly violate women’s boundaries around touching, and rapists who often defend themselves with rape myths that look like guess culture to me – making assumptions, for example, that a woman’s clothing or flirting behaviour implies consent when it does not. The person in power can get away with not asking and they don’t ask because they know that their ask would be refused). In that way, it seems to me that framing it as guess culture could be just another way for predators to justify predatory behaviour. I was definitely raised in a guess-culture family and part of my values shifting to full consent and autonomy and transparency involve a shift to ask culture, which is hard to do. Unless we’re separating out asking for a favour from asking for consent? I see power differences there too, but this is already too long!! *I’m not invested in anyone else agreeing with my perspective on this, but I think it is worth considering this extremely concerning implication, even though I am tired and may not have explained myself clearly.

  21. *I’m sorry if this posts twice or is in moderation!!

    My first, and very strong, response to this is that it might not be a positive thing to frame ask vs. guess cultures as equal. In part because I think guess cultures are also pretty directly linked to rape culture (which assume implied consent of women, trans* people, WOC, children, any marginalized group who experiences higher rates of sexual violence), while ask culture is based in consent, so framing them as equal has some problematic implications for addressing structural power inequalities, in that it just kind of ignores those inequalities, which people in positions of power already currently use to their advantage (such as men in social groups who repeatedly violate women’s boundaries around touching, and rapists who often defend themselves with rape myths that look like guess culture to me – making assumptions, for example, that a woman’s clothing or flirting behaviour implies consent when it does not. The person in power can get away with not asking and they don’t ask because they know that their ask would be refused). In that way, it seems to me that framing it as guess culture could be just another way for predators to justify predatory behaviour.

    I was definitely raised in a guess-culture family and part of my values shifting to full consent and autonomy and transparency involve a shift to ask culture, which is hard to do.

    Unless we’re separating out asking for a favour from asking for consent? I see power differences there too, problematic issues with both frames, but this is already too long!! *I’m not invested in anyone else agreeing with my perspective on this, but I think it is worth considering this particular implication around consent, even though I am tired and may not have explained myself clearly.

    1. Interesting.

      Perhaps the rape-culture connection is at the crossing of ask/guess with gendering.
      When some groups, like women, are not -allowed- to be askers, then rape culture results. Or something like that.

      I don’t think it’s fair to equate offer culture with rape culture though. Rape culture is quite literally everywhere, not just in offerier places, but there is some food for thought here. Let’s chew on it.

      1. I think rape culture is a dysfunctional thing, and either Ask culture or Guess culture can be functional and non-rapey.

        Eg in a functioning Ask culture, a man can ask if a woman will go out with him and the question isn’t itself intimidating; and the woman can say no and he won’t take offense. And a woman can ask a man out and it’s not skanky, and he can say no and it’s not the most unheard of thing ever.

        And in a functioning Guess culture, a man can pay attention to the cues that a woman’s putting out (those ‘she glances at him and touches her hair!’ things or whatever) and if things look favourable then he can say hello and pay attention to the cues that result from that, and if she starts putting out unfavourable cues then he can politely end the conversation and walk away. And a woman can pay attention to a man’s cues of interest too and respond accordingly (flirting).

        In rape culture, a man can ask a woman out and she’s not allowed to be intimidated even though if she says no he’ll take offense. Because women are expected to only communicate by putting out cues even though men aren’t expected – are even actively discouraged – to notice or abide by them.

        And a woman can’t ask a man out without insulting his manliness, and if she did he couldn’t say no without serving himself up as fodder for jokes about his virility. And a man who tries to communicate by cues will be ignored because women are taught that men don’t do that, they only ask.

        Ask and Guess cultures have reciprocity, and responsibilities that match their rights: Both men and women have the right to ask and the responsibility to accept a no. Both men and women have the right to have their cues respected and the responsibility to respect others’ cues in turn.

        Rape culture breaks all of this. It’s a systematic double standard designed so that men (but not women) can ask but don’t have to accept no; and women (but not men) have to put out cues but can’t expect them to be heard.

        1. Right – this is why in our legal system (known for maintaining rape culture) we can have someone defend themselves of rape charges by saying “they said yes” or “they didn’t say no.” Just asking permission doesn’t mean the underlying power dynamics are such that someone would feel comfortable saying no, so Ask-ness doesn’t imply fairness.

      2. Now I want to have a sexual encounter that is negotiated using the Offer version of explicit verbal consent.

        “My genitals are a bit cold.”
        “I could warm them up with my mouth if you wanted. It’s no trouble.”
        “Oh well as long as it’s no trouble. But let me know if your orifice starts feeling too empty.”

        … I think you would need to frame everything you wanted as an act of service for your partner, which is actually kind of an interesting constraint.

        1. Funnily enough, sometimes it really does go kind of like that. Enthusiastic consent between two Offer-oriented people looks like a lot of fun things being offered and accepted.

          “May I give you an orgasm?”
          “Oh goodness, you don’t need to take that kind of trouble on my behalf.”
          “No really, I was planning on stopping by your genitals anyway.”
          “Oh, all right, but only if I get to return the favor.”

          I’ve also had someone say (translated) “please pardon the intrusion” before penetrating, and that was polite in a completely unexpected way. I kind of liked it. Of course, I have a protocol and manners fetish, so… y’know.

  22. Something I’ve noticed about cultural differences in a mixed neighborhood in Chicago: I get the impression that when an old-fashioned chivalrous gesture like offering a seat is made to me, a white woman, by a stranger on the bus/train/street who is a black or hispanic man that I’m expected to accept it and considered rude if I say No, thanks. I’ve gotten some dirty looks when I say something polite like ‘No, thanks. I prefer to stand.’

    Some Tell expectations, perhaps. I can’t be sure because I don’t quiz strangers on the street about their motivations but it’s happened enough times that it seems like a pattern.

  23. Ohhhhh this is wonderful. My siblings and I were all raised in Guess Culture with its frustrating and dysfunctional modes in full effect– now that we’re adults, we’re pushing back pretty hard versus our mom’s strange guessing games.

    We still have to be alert for them, though, like her attempts to get “permission” to bring her boyfriend on a family vacation by remarking often about how lonely he’d be at christmas. (So lonely, with his entire extended family in town. So lonely to be left alone for 4 days. So lonely. Much lonesomeness. Wow.)

    1. Interesting. I find that I’m offery enough that it might occur to me to offer to include someone if they dropped that sort of hint, but also asky enough that if I believed they were intentionally dropping hints instead of asking, I’d be annoyed.

      So if someone said “My boyfriend will be lonely while we’re on vacation” and I truly liked the boyfriend and thought it would be great to have him along, then I’d say “Hey, why don’t you see if he’d like to come?” but it would just be a spontaneous thing, not an interpretation of what the subtext is.

      And if I didn’t want him to come, no amount of hinting would generate an offer from me, and, if they asked, assuming it was my decision to make, I would say no with as good grace as I could manage, which would be influenced by how much hinting I was aware of before the actual request.

      So I guess I find hinting ineffective if I’m willing to do the thing but don’t pick up on the hints, and annoying if I’m unwilling and do pick up on the hints – annoying because I feel like they get to hide behind plausible deniability and keep poking at me without bringing the question out where I can openly shut it down. Of course, there are plenty of ways to work on making the hinting stop without bringing it into the realm of “Are you asking for [x]? Because if so, the answer is no”

      1. So much bell-ringing in my head right now. One of the ways in which I, an Asker, will exercise power in a relationship is by intentionally refusing to acknowledge the overtures made by an Offeror. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the sitch, of course, but I have definitely used that strategy for evil.

        1. Oh yes. I’m usually pretty good at picking up subtext, even if I’m more of a “Ask” person myself. And if I’m good at picking up subtext, I’m also good at ignoring it. This has lead to some less than stellar behavior on my part, though I wonder what an Offer culture person would want to hear/see if the answer is “No” and only hints have been dropped.

          On the other hand, the most frequent circumstance this has come up in has been young men trying to Nice-Guy me into a relationship, and so I don’t feel all that bad for A. Noticing and B. Doing nothing. I’ve rarely felt imposed upon when it’s some other kind of favor and have been usually quite happy to accommodate my hinting friends.

  24. So it seems like we have four cultures along two axes:
    | Unassuming | Presumptuous
    Direct | Ask | Tell
    Indirect | Offer | Guess

    There are two ways of expressing yourself (directly or indirectly) with two different expectations of how your expressions will be received (with “presumptuous” expectations often considered to be dysfunctional).

    I can directly express myself without assuming what your response will be: Ask culture.
    “Can I have that cookie?” “No.” “Ok!”
    I can directly express myself and assume what your response will be: Tell culture.
    “Can I have that cookie? Thanks.” *munch* “Uh… er… wait!”
    I can indirectly express myself without assuming what your response will be: Offer culture.
    “Would you like another cookie?” “No thanks.” “You sure?” “Yup.” “Ok!”
    I can indirectly express myself and assume what your response will be: Guess culture.
    “I would really enjoy a cookie right now.” “…” “…” “…” “That was your cue to get me a cookie.”

    As a socially awkward person, I’ll admit to being on the indirect side of things as a giver of information (as I don’t wish to impose on anyone), but direct as a receiver of information (as I don’t want to misinterpret others). Somehow I’m sure this is hypocritical in both directions, ah well….

  25. Mm! I’ve read the ask vs guess culture thing before, but this is the first time I’m seeing it connected to gender things. That is really interesting.

    I’ve found the ask vs. guess culture thing really useful for analyzing my own brain. Because it turns out that I want people to act toward me in Ask Culture ways, because I’m very bad at reading indirect things and I want to know what people might want from me so that I can a) possibly give it to them, b) actually make a decision about whether or not to give it to them, and c) feel like I’m contributing to the relationship (because if I do things without being asked directly, I often don’t notice the value I’m providing, and my brain refuses to count it when counting up whether I bring value to things).

    But meanwhile, my brain tells me that *I* need to act toward people in Guess Culture ways, because I never want to impose on anyone, including by asking an unwelcome question.

    So this turns out to be another way my brain has a huge double standard about how it’s OK for people to treat me vs. how it is OK for me to treat other people.

    Meanwhile, I also very much agree with another post that went around saying that all these people were treating Ask and Guess Culture as equally valid but different, but actually Guess Culture is really awful and problematic.

    The things that tend to get mentioned are how it encourages passive aggressiveness and is an obstacle to open communication and consent culture, and how it’s ableist. But the additional thing I’ve noticed is how it supports bad and unequal social systems by making them ‘the way things are’, normalized and unquestionable. It also creates an implicit reward and punishment dynamic – if you obey the rules and support the system, you’ll start getting the ‘perks’ of having your (system-acceptable) wants met, and otherwise you’ll just be excluded. And making it all not-explicit makes it harder to notice and fight.

    As an example, there was the recent discussion about families that give preferential guest treatment to those of their children who are married. But guess culture means that there isn’t space to say ‘it seem to me that my siblings are always getting to sleep in private rooms with beds, while I have to take the couch. That doesn’t seem fair’.

    Similarly, with the cool kids table, the idea is usually that other people just know not to sit there. Much more rarely is it a case of everyone coming up and asking and getting no’s. Because again a) this whole problematic system is something you’re supposed to accept as a fact of life, not draw questioning attention to. And b) it’s a public table. Unless they’re going to physically drag you away, they can’t stop you from sitting down. But that’s not part of the system, so people are supposed to not realize it.

    Saying things outloud, making them explicit, is the first step to realizing their issues and fighting them. And so guess culture is there to keep that from happening.

  26. very thinky wow such smart

    I was sort of relating near the end my relationship with my sister, which at first I figured was a lot of Guess because we know each other very very well. But then half a moment later I realised that there’s also a lot of Ask because, well, we don’t really do the subtle hinting around an issue thing. It’s sort of a… comfortable Guess that’s so comfortable that sometimes it just Asks. Whereas my dad is the passive aggressive kind of Guess where if you don’t phrase something just right you won’t get the answer. I called out this behaviour for what it was recently to my mother and the next thing I knew I’d gotten a proper answer from him (all through email since I’m out of town now). It was sort of stunning.

    Mostly I think I’m an Ask/Tell though I feel very nervous about asking sometimes. I prefer being told stuff because I get scared that I’m interpreting things wrongly. I don’t really know if it’s my actual personality or mental illness, but since I’ve been sick my whole life it’s a pretty academic separation.

  27. I like Offer Culture much better than Guess Culture: Guess Culture seems to me to be the failure mode of Offer.

    I live in a generally Offer culture, and by and large, nobody’s expecting anyone to “guess” – we’re expecting the situation to be obvious and sensible to you as it is to us, and when it becomes apparent that it isn’t, generally words will then happen. We have a lot of conventions and rituals and a finely-honed sense of tone and body language. But just as healthy Ask cultures don’t expect people to ask for the basic necessities and decencies of life, we don’t generally expect people to pass complex examinations to procure them.

    1. I originally gravitated much more toward the descriptor as Guess instead of Offer, but I think you’re right: Guess is a defective version of Offer. When my mother engages in it with me, it is Guess (which I know from our long and complicated relationship), but when my friend X engages in it with me, it’s Offer. I feel like Tell is a failure mode of Ask in the same way.

  28. I’ve seen people use a mis-match of Ask/Guess communication styles as a way of creating confusion around consent. Paraphrase of a real conversation of a conversation I had online once:

    Man: It’s on women to be clear about their refusal and say no loudly if they don’t want to have sex.
    Me: But realistically, that’s not how people communicate. Look at how people refuse a piece of cake: you don’t just say no, you say that you’re not hungry, or you’re full, or that it looks lovely but it wouldn’t agree with you. Research has shown that men use “soft nos” to communicate lack of consent to things they’re not interested in, so why put the burden on women to refuse in a way that’s outside the ordinary?
    Man: Because this is important. It’s no good hiding behind a soft no: if preventing rape matters, then women HAVE to be taught that this is an exceptional situation where only a hard no will suffice.
    Me: If it’s important and exceptional, why not say the onus is on the person who is initiating sex to get clear consent, instead of just an absence of a direct no?
    Man: Because people don’t work like that! It would be totally unsexy! If everyone had to get clear consent before they had sex, nobody would ever have sex! You’ve got to be realistic about how people actually communicate!

    You come across this a lot with people who are invested in rape culture: they exploit the difference between a Guess culture (“I will not ask you directly whether you want to have sex”) and an Ask culture (“I will only recognise a direct no rather than an indirect refusal”) to claim that they hear a yes.

    1. It’s an interesting discusion. I’ve had the same with my friends. Luckyly, there was a youtube video with a man complaining about a rude let down by a girl in a disco or bar. It seems that he asked to make out and she said “Not with you, bug” (It’s a literal translation. You could also said, monster/ugly or something on that line).

      Point is, I told them that “No” or any excuse it’s a polite way to said no and that they don’t really want women to be “more clear”, because more clear its “not with you, ugly”. What they want it for the woman to change her answer and said “yes” even if they don’t feel like it.

      And the video helps, because it shows clearly that the man it’s angry with that clear “No”. And everyone knows that there are some men that don’t accept a “no, thanks” or even a plain “no”. That are the ones that expect you to “change” your mind and that would get angry if you estated clearly “not with you, ugly”.

      In fact, it’s unreasonable to expect that we do that and accept to be called bitches just because THEY need “clarifying” (and by that I mean being rude so they don’t have a excuse to said that the woman wasn’t clear enough).

      Some would undertand what you are saying. Because in thuth they don’t want to be told “not with you, ugly” and rather hear a soft rejection (I know I would). The others are a “lost cause” because, you know, are the ones that only accept a “yes”.

      So if it helps, look for a video similar to that and was viral, (I’m sure there’s one because there’s always “dramakings” who like to complain about how evil women are for not sleeping with them.) Then said “that’s what a Clear no” sounds like. Do you really want women to do that or you rather take an excuse or “no” for an answer the first time you ask instead? I bet most would reconsider…. XD

  29. There is actually already another phrasing of this difference: high-context vs. low-context culture styles. It’s been an idea in anthropology for a while: see for example http://www.marin.edu/buscom/index_files/Page605.htm:

    “A low context culture is one in which things are fully (though concisely) spelled out. Things are made explicit, and there is considerable dependence on what is actually said or written. A high context culture is one in which the communicators assume a great deal of commonality of knowledge and views, so that less is spelled out explicitly and much more is implicit or communicated in indirect ways. In a low context culture, more responsibility is placed on the listener to keep up their knowledge base and remain plugged into informal networks.”

    I think, like the “Offer” phrasing, it’s superior because it doesn’t subtly imply that people with low-context styles are better (and that, say, the entire country of Japan is Doing It Wrong.) People living in high-context societies aren’t failing to communicate, they are just speaking a different language.

    There is a famous-in-linguistics-circles discussion of communication styles in one such high-context community, the Ozarks. It involves cows. http://ozarque.livejournal.com/176349.html

    1. Thanks, this is a necessary addition! I love Ozarque’s discussion of her time as a new bride in France in the 60s – FULL of this stuff.

  30. The Ask vs. Guess/Offer framing is super clarifying in terms of a tough roommate situation last year. One thing that happened was that I got overwhelmed by how much she was asking of me.

    But she was also misusing Ask culture. She once told me she thought it was always ok to ask, so she didn’t get why I was upset at her for asking. Thing is, I *hadn’t* been upset the first time she made a particular request (to tailor her clothes for free), but I had been clear it was something I don’t do upon request. By the third time she asked that I was pretty darn snappy at her.

    1. Right. That’s not “it’s okay to ask,” it’s badgering and leads to “what part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”

      I am amused that my house cat acts on “it never hurts to ask” because the most that will happen if he meows to ask for extra cream, or taps my leg to request a lap when I don’t want to lift him, is that I won’t do it. But that’s (a) interspecies communication and (b) things that I am sometimes happy to give him.

      1. hahaha. my childhood dog was also 100% Ask. She was so good at it too — ears cocked at the prettiest angle, eyes big and intense, whining that tugged at the heartstrings, following people around, the works. But hey, she was a rescue, and she made that face at my mom when we visited the shelter, and it got her a home.

  31. It’s a really insightfull article. I never tought of it in this terms. I think it helps me understand many things. I would be helpfull at the office.

    The strange thing is, I never paid many attention to the “cool guys”. I knew who they supposed to be (didn’t really think they were cool) and some of the thigs they did, but wasn’t more interested in them than I was in other people.

    There were two separate groups, one more friendly that the other. I stick with the ones that didn’t make me chose between them and my friends. Except for that and being more boy obsessed, I don’t think they were that different to the group I was with. I was one of the “nerds” (a subgroup in the bigger one) and some people looked down on me, I just didn’t really care because I had better things to do with my time than worry about what others think.

    Anyway, all the popularity thing always seem weird to me. Who cares? I think it’s not that important. Better have fun with few friends than feeling out of place with many people who you barely know…

  32. Women are definitely socialized to Offer and Guess more. This is what leads to Lesbian Sheep Syndrome: women aren’t supposed to Ask or Tell that they’re interested in someone, so queer women get stuck waiting for each other to say something. It’s no surprise that butch women often end up taking on Ask mannerisms. There are no femme Ask role models in mainstream U.S. culture; if you’re a queer woman and you get tired enough of lesbian sheeping to pick up a habit of Asking, the only obvious way to do that is to become more masculine.

    (TW for next paragraph: rape and rape culture)

    Rape culture is a perverse blend of the worst parts of Guess and Tell. If women can’t directly Ask for or Offer sex without being labeled skanks or whores, “She was asking for it, dressed like that!” has actual meaning. Women are taught to engage in Guess culture around sex, indicating interest by subtle cues like style of dress or tone of voice or a particular posture; romance novels (especially older ones) and romantic comedies are full of women saying “Well, I made my interest clear! Why didn’t you take me up on it?”. Men are taught to Tell women about their own sexual desires, because women like “demonstrations of strength” and also Asking is wishy-washy and un-manly and will probably be met with some sort of evasion; the most obvious example of this is catcalling, but it carries all the way through to sexual assault and rape.

    I think this is why “just give a firm no!” anti-rape efforts are so flawed. Rapists aren’t Asking for sex. They’re Telling. A firm no works fine in Ask culture, but in Tell culture it’s irrelevant.

    If the spectrum is Guess – Offer – Ask – Tell, then no wonder it’s so hard for men and women socialized this way to interact with each other around sex and relationships.

    1. I am femme and straight, and directly Ask if I am interested in someone e.g. “I find you attractive and enjoy your company – would you like to go on a date sometime?”. And when it gets to the sex part, I happily ask about that too. Men are sometimes a little surprised, but I’ve yet to come across one I was interested in who minded this approach. I tend to go for liberal / feminist men which maybe helps here.

      When I was younger my personal life was full of Guessing and hints and crossed wires and missed opportunities and hurt feelings. I’ve been much happier, and my relationships much more successful, since I learnt to be more direct. I have been judged for it sometimes, but not by anyone whose opinion I valued, and the upsides more than make up for it.

      I am more of a Guesser in some other areas of life, but in areas where the consequences of a misunderstanding can be serious, I prefer the less ambiguous Ask approach.

  33. Oo, this thread is so interesting. I’d say our culture is a mish-mash of mostly offer/guess. I like the flexibility of being in a young/growing culture but sometimes it’s frustrating as we have no real rules we can follow. Like when I was visiting my family in Austria and on new years eve all the kids (teenagers) came and said goodbye to the guests and shook our hands. Everyone shakes hands, everything is a little more ritualised, and you know what to expect!

    I think I am a natural Ask-er but am also horribly oversensitive to other people’s feelings. This means I can tie myself in knots trying to figure out the communication style of the other person, and I have had far too much experience with terribly passive-aggressive people so that doesn’t help. So while what I want to do is be direct and get directness back, it is hard for me to try and I still fall into guess/offer behaviours as a shield far too often.

    I basically try and utelise a soft Ask approach so as to encourage openness but make it clear to people who don’t know me as well that I’m OK with directness and I won’t force them to be more blunt than they can be. If that makes any sense.

  34. This hits home for me a lot. I was raised with a “Guesser” mother and an “Asker” father, and generally veered toward mom’s perspective growing up. The net result is that, as an adult, I often half-joke that the “right” thing to do in any situation is guaranteed to be the one I don’t want to do. If I’m invited to an event and I don’t want to go, the thing I “should” do is definitely to go. If I really *do* want to go, I end up fretting that I was probably asked as a formality and they didn’t really expect me to say yes, so I “should” decline. It’s an exasperating way to live.

    I’m planning a trip right now with a good friend, and the last time we travelled together, I was absolutely miserable from dealing with his “Ask” personality and feeling the whole time like he wasn’t being considerate of my needs. I’m resolved to being more “pushy” (in “Guesser” parlance) this time around, but it still makes every discussion of trip plans feel like walking on a minefield – trying to avoid the pitfalls of last trip without coming across as having a chip on my shoulder or needing to micromanage every detail(especially since I don’t think he ever even realized how irritated I was the last time around, I guess because an Asker would assume that I’d have been more assertive about my needs if there was an actual issue).

  35. It’s an interesting contrast, but the more comments I read, the more I’m sure that it’s definitely not a strict dichotomy. For example, I’m definitely more towards the Direct/Ask end of the spectrum, but, like most people in any culture, I usually choose to phrase (at least my first) “no” indirectly. I also automatically understand “Is anyone going to the Janelle Monae concert? I’m thinking of going but I don’t have transport” as a request for transport even though it isn’t phrased in the more Direct/Ask form of “Is there anyone who is going to the concert who would be willing to take me?”

    On the other hand, when my boyfriend’s mother said “Hm, I think I might go to the shop to buy cookie ingredients,” I cluelessly responded with “Hm, I think I’ll go to bed” and didn’t even realise I’d missed anything until hearing my boyfriend’s version of his mother’s understanding of that conversation (“I offered to make cookies but she was like ‘um, no’ and it was kind of awkward.”)

    Also, LOTS of people code-switch. I had no luck at all with dating until I started to master indirect statements like using “I’m really enjoying this conversation” to gauge the other person’s interest by the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) in their response, or saying (if they seem enthusiastic) “We should meet up sometime” and then allowing them to take refuge in the vagueness of “sometime” if they’re not really keen. So I started mostly in Ask/Direct and have gradually learned some Guess/Offer/Indirect because there are some situations where at least a little of that will always be needed.

    Relatedly, refusing an initially indirect romantic offer can sometimes require scaling through possible levels of directness, and I’ve got quite good at that, too. Basically, if you ask indirectly, I initially assume that you want a polite — where polite means “equally indirect” — response, but the more clueless you are to indirect responses, the more directness I feel justified in using. This is a nice solution to the woman-blaming dichotomy of “Ugh, she was so mean, shutting me down like that!”/”But how was I supposed to know she didn’t like it if she didn’t say so?” where somehow the correct culture in which to say “no” ALWAYS seems to be the one she didn’t use.

  36. you are all proper amazing, and so is this conversation – thank you SO MUCH; I am really looking forward to using the Offer/Tell//high-vs-low-context frameworks in the work I do in my counselling sessions [as client!].

  37. Thank you so much for this conversation, it’s made me shift the kaleidoscope of my thinking in useful ways (and restored my faith in reading the comments!)

    I am a (weird?) mix of Ask and Offer cultures, I think.

    I dislike being asked by strangers because of the high proportion of times when no has not been accepted with good grace. Even if this particular stranger would accept it fine, I feel they should be taking into account that I can’t know in advance that they won’t turn into scary angry rejected guy, because a lot of people do. Therefore their asking imposes at least some burden on me. Saying no comes at a cost of anxiety and strategizing.

    However I do not mind at all — indeed, actively enjoy — being asked by friends and acquaintances once I know they will not flip out on me. It makes me feel useful and valued and trusted that they want to ask me for help/company/whatever.

    It also relieves me of the responsibility of having to figure out what to Offer. I like Offering and try to do it often… and I feel it’s important to offer and not just wait to be asked — but I know it is one of the places where I am most prone to golden rule fail — I offer what I’d want in that situation, which may be totally different from what you want. (Particularly across extrovert/introvert boundaries).

    It helps if people will take any Offer as an indication that Asking for a roughly equivalent sized favor is now welcome, so they don’t get stuck accepting the wrong kind of help to be polite, and not getting what would actually be useful.

    However even that doesn’t work if I’m not offering because I fear the offer itself is presumptuous (such as assuming that you WANT company or sex or affection from me), or if what I’m offering is space/privacy/time, which is interpreted by the other person as disinterest. So in that sense, I’m Ask.

    I’m also Ask in that I really dislike a multiple refusal model of offer response — in part because of its intersection with consent issues. I get that there are functional cultures where everyone understands the expectations, and that’s cool, but in the mishmosh of cultural influences where I live, I can’t tell the difference between someone who just thinks three times is the right number of times to ask and someone who is pressuring me/not taking no for an answer.

    But I’m Offer in that I have encountered a lot of the Expecting To Be Asked referenced upthread, and it bothers me. It seems that a lot of people who are comfortable with asking feel they shouldn’t ever have to offer, or to remember what they were asked before, or to pay attention to social or context cues or non-verbal communication, because 100 percent of the responsibility is on the person who should be asking for what they want/need.

    Maybe that works fine between two people who are both equally comfortable with it, I don’t know. I know that I don’t feel it works fine for me. I think nonverbal communication is powerful, and while it should never be privileged over explicit verbal communication when they appear to be in conflict, I don’t want it ignored either.

    I also find that always having to ask and never being offered, when I am offering as well as asking, creates a sense in me that I am disproportionately responsible for identifying both my needs and theirs and getting them met. This is especially true because I feel that my offering is not only valued but to an extent expected/required.

    This is definitely a gender thing, (or the subset of gender-as-it-interacts-with-modern=middle-class-white-American assumptions) ; I know a lot of very Asky guys who, despite serious feminism on their part in general, are very disconcerted when they encounter the rare woman who is equally non-Offer-y. Often the interaction founders, because it turns out they were unconsciously relying on Offerer behavior even though they weren’t reciprocating it and felt they shouldn’t be expected to.

    Another way in which I am Offer (and another gender thing) is that I feel a cost to saying no — in going against the internalized expectations of my upbringing to be helpful/accommodating/not selfish, in worrying about disappointing the other person, hurting their feelings, and their possible anger or judgment and the judgment of third parties, and of course in dealing with that actual anger/judgment/pain if it happens.

    I’m not saying the cost isn’t often worth it, necessary, appropriate, or a growth opportunity. It is. But the cost is there, nonetheless. I want people to take into account, when they say “it can’t hurt to ask,” that it actually can hurt the person they’re asking, and to take steps to reduce the potential stress (such as by making it clear that no will be accepted with good grace).

    Often I find that the reaction is more like “well it shouldn’t bother you, shrug off these expectations of yourself to meet others’ needs and join Ask culture!” but those expectations are bound up in my ethical compass of right behavior in the world; I can and have adjusted them somewhat, with a lot of work in therapy, but I don’t want to shrug them off completely and I doubt I could if I did.

    Also, given the studies of how intensely people feel rejection, I think we need to be realistic about the fact that it can hurt to ask for the asker too. So a culture that requires everyone to be resilient about rejection to get their needs met is perhaps not ideal. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have to take no for an answer, of course. Or that we shouldn’t teach that it’s survivable and maybe not as big a deal as we fear. Just that setting things up so that a try/risk rebuff/repeat cycle is only necessary when unavoidable might be preferable.

    In the garden example above, setting up a tool lending library and a community gardening course would create a framework where offerers can offer and askers ask with little fear of direct rejection or hurt feelings on either side.

    1. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I don’t know that being resilient to rejection is a requirement specifically of Ask culture. If I’m understanding Offer culture correctly, one still has to deal with rejection if one’s cues are not picked up – it’s indirect rejection instead of direct rejection, but the thing one was hoping for is still not forthcoming, and I would guess that someone who worked primarily in Offer culture would still have to work up the courage to put out cues again in a different situation if their cues weren’t picked up and they found that uncomfortable?

  38. One point that was made much earlier and then not picked up is that offer cultures are expected to know other peoples requirements. My partner is fascinated by other people and spends a lot of her time talking to them about their and her lives. This makes her a natural member of an offer community – she and they know what to offer.

    I am uncomfortable with the levels of disclosure that this requires and (until now) have not therefore seen the point in doing it. The resulting absence of information in either direction means that I am actually completely unable to function in an offer culture because I have no idea of what to offer other people and they have no idea of what to offer me. The only way I have ever interacted with other people is via ask.

    1. This is one of the reasons I lean towards Ask, especially in a less cohesive culture. I totally agree that it’s nice for people to care about each other and be willing to help each other. I also sort of feel like I have the most information on my needs and boundaries, you have the most information on your needs and boundaries, etc – so it makes sense for one to be the steward of the information on oneself, so to speak.

    1. I saw that too. It was also the manager being a jerk, which is less a cultural thing than a jerk-thing.

      I think it’s useful to look at “culture” during conflicts to figure out what might be going on, but one possibility is always the person would be a jerk in any culture.

      1. That is true about the manager being a jerk. But it’s interesting to read all the heavy anvil GUESS GUESS GUESS WE’RE NOT GONNA SAY IT OUT LOUD BUT YOU SHOULD KNOW YOU SHOULD DAMN WELL CHANGE YOUR OFFICE AND WRITE THAT LETTER messaging that is going on in this thing.

        And people wonder why I don’t exactly believe the words that are coming out of every person’s mouth. Guess Culture means you have to read between the lines…though I do think it sounds like they were being pretty obvious, for guessers. Which doesn’t make this right, of course.

    2. That’s really horrible about the jury duty! The jury system can’t work if every business runs with that mentality. Definitely a jerk manager!

      1. Also, the judge would probably hold a grudge against the LW for writing that letter. But in this case, she probably would have been better off writing it and not getting crap for it at work.

      2. Yeah, it’s fucking illegal to penalize someone for jury duty, for obvious reasons. If she had that in writing, she could have gotten them in a *lot* of trouble.

  39. This is a great post, Captain. (I’m not sure what your preferred form of address is around here…Captain? CA? JenniferP?). I wish I had something very important to contribute, but I can only muster one tiny complaint. Before I go there, I want to say that your website is one of my favorite things, and I’d only bother about this with someone I think is generally awesome.

    “What do we covet, Clarice?” “We covet what we see.”

    That is maybe not something to casually quote on a website that wants to create an inclusive atmosphere. I could go into detail, but I’d feel self-indulgent and entitled doing so. Suffice it to say that I’m about to enjoy shopping for makeup a bit less than I would have 5 minutes ago.

    It’s a great movie overall, and I don’t hold it against anyone (especially a filmmaker) who likes it, but its feminism is definitely not intersectional.

    Thank you for linking to your short film, by the way. I went looking for it once, but wasn’t able to find anything but promotional material.

  40. I’m really enjoying this discussion! I think the Ask/Offer distinction is a really interesting and useful one. I also think that very few people are pure Ask or pure Offer, its always some mixture of the two with a tilt in one direction or the other. Also I think the mix is usually relationship dependent as well. Ie, the better I know someone the more I expect there to be a bit of an offer situation between us. For example, if I’m sitting at a bus station with a bunch of total strangers and get up to get a drink from a machine, no way am I going to ask if anyone wants anything. But if I’m sitting in my home with a bunch of friends and get up to go to the kitchen…. Yeah, I’m going to ask if anyone wants something from the fridge, since I’m going.

  41. Makes a lot of sense. May explain a few of the ‘rude, passive-aggressive’ people in my life :).

    More generally, it’s a reminder of how basic differences in culture or family can be.

    I was recently in a situation with an acquaintance, someone I’d known for a number of years. I had spent so many of those years trying to stay patient with her very very frequent rudeness and lack of respect (being extremely patronising, ordering me around, giving me unasked for advice, and ‘gentle’ little put-downs), and trying not be be too hurt by her frequent lack of basic respect. I would try to not let it get to me, and remind me that this woman just didn’t have very good social skills, that was a weakness for her, and she was probably doing her best.

    Then we had a weird conversation, in which I started to realize that SHE felt she had spent years trying to be patient with what she saw to be MY lack of social skills, and trying to ‘educate’ me, and that she seemed to feel herself to be particularly qualified to do so as she seemed to feel that she was particularly socially adept.

    Very weird and disorienting, (and extremely unpleasant).

  42. This concept has literally changed my life. I’m not even exaggerating. I’m completely at home in Ask culture, and all this time I’d been offended that people kept assuming I was lying to them, that they didn’t respect me enough to trust me or think I’d respect them, and engage as an equal. I thought that they hated me, or were afraid of me, or both, and what why what did I do wrong how can I make them not

    And all this time they were just operating on Offer/Guess Culture, and were being courteous to me, not rude. That was their way of trying to make me feel comfortable and indicating closeness, not a declaration of hostilities. They really truly didn’t know that I mean exactly what I say, no more no less, and my attempts to make that clear would have been seen as rude.

    Oh my god. I mean, some people are still genuinely pricks, but this explains a lot.

    However, my parents are very, very Guess, so, er, life is weird, people are weird, idk.

  43. Suddenly I’m reminded of a piece of advice I’ve seen going around for the last few years, directed at people who want to be of assistance to folks with serious illnesses. It goes like this: Don’t say “What can I do to help?” or “Let me know if you need anything.” Instead, think of a particular thing that you’re able and willing to do, and offer to do that thing — “If you give me your shopping list, I can pick up your groceries for the week.” The idea is that the ill person doesn’t have to worry about how much is too much when making a request.

    The advice assumes offer culture. That suggests that the strategy might not be as necessary in ask culture, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody post a comment in response like, “My ill friend never had a problem making requests when I made a nonspecific offer of help.”

    1. That’s an interesting example. I’m way way way on the Ask side of the spectrum, and usually if I tell my community I’m in need of support, I have very specific ideas in mind of the sort of help I want and who I want it from. I would have to be incredibly overwhelmed to reach the point of not being able to direct and control the situation to that extent (and control matters even more to me when I’m struggling with something), and in that case I’d delegate to someone who knows me well and has a good sense of what I need and which people can reasonably be asked for various things.

      If my community knows I’m short of money, time, or spoons, and I also mention to someone that the fridge is empty, I’d be fine with that person taking that as a cue to offer to shop for me, but I’d be really uncomfortable with that specific offer coming out of nowhere.

      This leads me to suspect that Askers are way more comfortable with things like gift registries and “here’s what I would like for my birthday” lists than Offerers are. (I feel particularly strongly about gifts. I don’t give them or want to get them without explicit consent, unless I have blanket permission to surprise someone.)

      In general, as an Asker, I feel that the person with the need should direct the interaction: they ask for what they need, and the other person provides it or doesn’t. With Offerers, it feels to me like the control is much more on the side of the person who can provide something, since that person gets to choose whether to make or withhold an offer, and the person with a need can only accept or decline. This dynamic is extremely uncomfortable for me. If I have a need but I can’t ask someone to help, and all I can do is hint and hope they pick up the hint, that’s frankly terrifying.

      1. First: Wow, this is really eye opening, because again I agree logically with much of what you say but I despise being asked to make gift lists in any but the most general terms because, again, the message I get from them emotionally is “people want the credit of giving me gifts but they don’t want to do the emotional work of getting to know me; instead they want ME to do the work of not only knowing my own needs but also what they can afford and is accessible to them where they are.” I mean, it does mean I can ask Glenn Beck-loving in-laws for awesome rainbow accessories or whatever, but at that point the relationship is pretty broken anyhow.

        One the matter of the helping advice specifically: I think that, just as for as Ask culture to work it has to be understood that the asker will take no for an answer, for this to work it has to be understood that not only will the offerer take no for an answer, ze’ll be willing to take some degree of redirect, like “well no, I’d never ask you to do all the shopping for me, but a ride to such-and-such market would be lovely if you’re going in that direction” or “what would be great is if you could pick up the laundry detergent and cat litter so I only have to carry light stuff home?” Ideally, the Offer isn’t the final gambit, it opens a window where the Ask is less fraught.

        1. Another way to think about lists is that people, yes, want to give you a gift. Not the “credit” of giving you a gift, but to actually do something nice & get you a gift, and have it be something you want and brings you joy. Not something that you don’t want, which brings joy to neither the giver nor the receiver. Being able to give a “perfect” gift is not a referendum on the closeness of a relationship.

          (I clarify this for anyone reading (such as 25-years-ago-me) who is terrified to tears that if they don’t find the “perfect” gift, then it “proves” that they “don’t love” the person in question. It is NOT a referendum on the relationship, on your ability to love and care for someone, or on your worth as a person.<3)

          1. I think this is another example of how each culture is a bit overly scared of bad motives in the other. For instance, I watch birds. Inevitably, every year, people who don’t know me very well (in-laws-ish people, new friends, co-workers) buy me little doodads and coffee mugs with birds on them. This delights me, because although I do not need more coffee mugs, I do like the feeling that they were able to remember one big thing about me (Carrie likes birds!) I would never dream of being mad at someone because the bird tchotchke they bought was ‘wrong’ somehow and proved they didn’t love me. Or if they bought me a cat mug instead or something.

            On the other hand, being asked to provide the catalog number and a link to the website where someone can order my gift… like I said, it is fraught with ‘how much dare I ask for’ and also, it feels like treating the gift-giver as a money dispenser, for me. I imagine that they’re judging me for being greedy and refusing to think about who I am. So I am equally guilty of this projection.

          2. I can see both sides of this equation. On the one hand, I like to give people gifts of things they might not buy for themselves, either for want of money or because they just didn’t know of its existence. And I really like opening a gift and going, “That is so awesome! Thank you for surprising me!”
            On the other, I’ve had some very awkward situations where someone gave me something (say at Christmas) and I didn’t get them anything, or vice versa; or where I got them something and it turned out they already had it or they were allergic to it or something. The catch-22 really is that the better I know someone, the likelier I am to be able to just pick a gift for them off the top of my head, but the less I know someone, the less comfortable I feel saying, “What would you like for Christmas?”, or still worse, “Are we getting each other Christmas gifts?”

        2. We do gift lists in my family for xmas every year, and I think for us it’s not about ‘I don’t care about you so just tell me what to get’, it’s more like ‘please give me suggestions for some things you might like to receive.’ The gift giver is given many suggestions so the gifts are still a surprise, and there are usually suggestions of a variety of price ranges, and the list maker is not upset if they receive something not on their list. Even if a gift giver buys exactly something that was specified by the list maker, their effort is still very much appreciated because they went somewhere to buy/order/receive it, wrapped it thoughtfully, wrote a cute note on the tag and spent their own money on it. I’m really thankful that my family members want to spend money and time on me at xmas, is I guess more what it’s about for us. I’m not saying my way of thinking is right and yours is wrong, just offering the perspective of a gift list maker.

  44. I think I’m somewhat of a hybrid–I tend to *hope* that people will pick up on it if I need/want something from them, but I know that I can’t expect them to read my mind, and I don’t think they’re rude if they fail to do so. If they don’t clue in, I will get direct with them, with no hard feelings. (I also only ask for something if I really, truly need it–which I suspect is tied up in something else altogether.) The better I know someone, the Askier I am.

    I don’t mind when my friends are Asky to me, and I will take a direct request as an invitation for a direct response. I also try to pay close attention to Guessy vibes from my friends, but I will be straightforward about volunteering to respond to their hint. Though, I do try to make it sound like my idea so they don’t feel like a “burden”. E.g., I was included in a mass text from a friend who said she would be moving soon. I texted her back with, “How exciting! Would you like help packing? I’d be happy to pitch in.”

    I think with this, as with any other personality/cultural divides (Ask/Offer, Introvert/Extrovert, Stoics/Feelers, etc.), the point is not so much to profile each other as it is to have a point of reference to navigate why things got weird all of a sudden. It’s to foster greater understanding and empathy, figuring out how to meet the other person on their turf.

    Way, wayyy upthread, someone mentioned that Ask culture may be unfairly slanted towards people who are more assertive. I think that’s a good point, and it seems to me that the assertive Askers can even the playing field quite a lot. If asking for a favor, it may be good to mention to the Askee that it’s totally cool to say no. If the Asker is volunteering a service, it may be good to qualify with things like “I’m happy to” and “if you want”. In either case, the more assertive Asker is opening the door for a less assertive person to be as (non-)blunt as they’re comfortable with, with the assurance that they will be heard and taken seriously.

    Example- Asker: “Hey, I’m going to be in town soon. Would it be all right if I crash in your guest bedroom? If not, no worries, I’m just asking around.”
    Askee: “Er, well, funny you should bring that up, because I just set up my sewing stuff in there…” Or, taking advantage of the invitation to be direct, “Actually, you know what, sorry, but that won’t work out.”
    Asker: “That’s cool, I’ll find someplace else then. Thanks for getting back to me.”

    The Askee may still be tweaked by a direct ask, but at least they are verbally absolved of the pressure to treat it like a no-escape imposition.

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