Tag Archives: Ask vs. Guess Culture

It is time to celebrate the mostly-monthly ritual of rounding up the snippets that people typed into search engines to find this place and answering them like questions.

Please enjoy this jazzy bittersweet tune about lost love and memory (When April Comes Again, sung by Mel Tormé).


1 “How to get over a long distance crush.”

The good news is you won’t run into them everywhere you go.

The bad news is that many of us carry a little device in our pocket that lets us see what our crush is up to at any moment of any day, and sometimes there are settings on that device and its various applications that give us a little ping when our crush has posted a new photo of themselves looking cute while they live life without us (or some other fascinating snippet of information). We are also able to respond immediately to any communication.

It’s time to stop monitoring them and haunting their feeds. Starve the crush by muting/unfollowing/filtering/turning off notifications. Then throw yourself into something local to where you live, with new faces or old friends, something that absorbs you, perhaps something where your convenient crush-monitoring device is best turned off and tucked in a pocket or a drawer. Unfollowing/disengaging is how you help time and absence do their work.

2 “What someone really means when they say they aren’t taking sides?”

They definitely aren’t taking your side.

They want to keep hanging out with everyone involved in the conflict.

They would prefer not to be a sounding board for your grievances with whoever is on the other side.

3 “Is it rude to invite someone to someone else’s party.”

If you know for sure the host is a “The more the merrier!” person or the invitation says “Bring anyone you like!” and it’s not a formal, invitation-only, sit-down fancy affair, then: Probably not rude! Just indicate when you RSVP – “Yes, I’ll be there, and I’m bringing [Name] FYI, so, 2 adults.” 

However if you’re wondering if it’s rude you probably don’t know the above things for sure, so, checking in with the host first can be a good idea. “I’d love to come to that, is it okay if I bring [Name]?” I’m reminded of the time I invited a few friends who overlapped with a message board community over for my birthday and one of the people announced it in the community chat. Hellooooooooooo, way more people than I’d cooked for, showing up unexpectedly to my home address for a party where I’d already invited everyone I actually liked! (RUDE)

4: “Ask vs. Guess Culture”

The previous question is a good case study for “Ask” Culture vs. “Guess” Culture , right? Here’s the great Metafilter comment that explained it succinctly. And I made a post about it forever ago, in the context of “What Are Advice Columnists Even For?”, but I rethink my assumptions about it all the time.

For the “is it rude to bring someone to someone else’s party” situation: 

“Ask” Culture = It’s okay to ask, it’s also okay to say “no,” which means asker must be prepared to take “no” for an answer. Someone who prefers this way of operating is more likely to say “Go ahead and ask the host, it’s not rude!” 

“Guess” Culture = People don’t ask unless they’re pretty sure the answer is already yes, so asking a host if it’s okay to bring someone to an event creates an implied pressure to say yes. Someone who is more comfortable in a “Guess” culture would be more likely to wonder, “What did the invitation say? What are this person’s parties usually like? What are the accepted rules in the social group around parties like this?” 

One is not necessarily better than the other, tight-knit communities who have ways of checking on each other and caring for each other that let everyone save face have their extremely strong points, though I have a lot of thoughts lately about how hierarchies and systems replicate themselves by being “Guess” (where it helps to know a lot of “unwritten” rules and have “cultural fit” to function there and where asking gets riskier the less relative power you have in the situation or b/c you mark yourself as an outsider). I think about this a lot in terms of social class, disability, neurodivergence, expectations around ‘civility’ and ‘norms’ in political power structures, and also when I think about “traditional” families and cultures where elders have authority and sway. If you’re not supposed to defy the elders, where does that leave people when the elders are the problem?

These aren’t necessarily rigid dichotomies or mutually exclusive states. I lean “Ask” as an adult, but I find “Guess” habits and assumptions in myself all the time (“Everyone already knows how to do x….“Jeez, read the room!” ). I find it fascinating when I find resistance in myself to the idea of just asking a question (for example, see the case of Party Smeagol). However you were raised and whatever you prefer, it’s good to know about other modes of operation, since you might need to adapt to the other in certain situations.

5 “When people ask me how my weekend was I prefer not to answer.”

This situation is what the words “Fine, and yours?” was invented for.

It is the quickest, most boring, expected way to complete the social circuit and get off the topic of your weekend without making it weird.

“But what if my weekend was NOT fine, Jennifer?” Idk, you just said you didn’t want to talk about it. ‘Fine’ = “Nothing to report, ask me no further questions.” If that super does not work for you, try “Nothing interesting to report. And yours?” 

If I casually ask how your weekend was, and you refuse to answer the question at all, or get all Why would you ask me that?” or “I don’t want to talk about it,” I’m gonna wonder about you and your weekend a whole lot more than if you’d just said “Fine.” Were you doing crimes? Are you secretly a sexy international spy?

6. “Roommate lives in basement suite and when I have company comes up uninvited.”

First I’d want to know “basement suite” as in separate apartment or as in basement room in the same house (y’all share a kitchen & other common spaces). The first is more of a neighbor problem, the second is more of a roommate problem.

As a bedrock principle, if I’m home in my house, and a party is happening in my house, I also get to be there, right? That’s probably the default setting? But if my upstairs neighbor is having people over, I do not assume that I am invited to that unless she knocks on my door or leaves me a note to say “Come up for a drink!”

But it’s negotiable, even when it’s a roommate situation. Part of living in shared housing is finding a way to give other people the illusion of space and privacy even when there is no actual space or privacy. There’s a lot of room between “We do everything together!” and “I’m gonna have 3 work friends over for a four-player game, can I claim the living room for myself that night?” You just have to talk about it and actually spell it out, preferably from the beginning. “What do you want to do about having people over – especially if there are times when you want it to be just you and your friends? Can you give me a heads’ up if that happens so I can make other plans or know to give y’all some space?” 

It’s harder to interrupt an established pattern, and probably the person’s just hearing people upstairs and thinking, “Cool, I wonder who’s here?” You can still ask, though. Do it with plenty of notice before the next event. “Can we work something out about having people over? I definitely want you to join us sometimes, so can I text you and invite you specifically when that is? But other times, when I just want to have a few specific people over, is it ok to just give you some notice so you don’t plan on using that space? And then you can do the same?” 

It will be awkward because who wouldn’t hear that and wonder if they’ve ever been actually welcome to anything, ever? The best way to reassure the person is probably to give them lots of notice when you are doing stuff where you want them to hang back, and to actually, enthusiastically invite them sometimes.

7. “I’m not a relationship type of person.”

If this describes you, no worries! You’re far from alone! Find each other! Kiss, or, equally likely, don’t! There are lots of labels and spaces where this will make total sense and you will be welcomed without question.

However, the context that *I* usually encountered that phrase in the wild was from people who would then start doing stuff like showing up at my place and/or calling every single day, wanting to spend tons of time together doing relationship-y activities, expecting a ton of time, kissing stuff, attention, listening to and supporting their hopes and dreams, accompanying them to family gatherings and life events, and acting in a way that is indistinguishable from “being in a relationship”…because we had a relationship, it was  just one where they also wanted to keep all their options open and remind me constantly not to ever need or expect anything from them.

Which is why I would suggest clarifying for yourself: Are you “not a relationship-type-of-person,” or do you not want a relationship with a specific person under these circumstances? Then you can be the right kind of honest.

8. “Should I be jealous my husband watches Game of Thrones.”

I mean, he’s watching it instead of what? You? Killing Eve? I love Killing Eve, but that’s what the DVR is for.

If you can hang out for three more weeks and this one’s gonna resolve itself. Or the jealousy will still be there, in which case, it wasn’t the show, which recently has been about 90% grimy, exhausted people laden down with Ikea fur rugs hanging out in shadowy corridors having feelings at each other and stabbing screaming zombies in almost total darkness (& I say this as an enjoyer). There are possibly easier ways to enjoy Adult Content.

Got GoT opinions/theories/spoilers/a burning need to communicate how deeply disinterested you are that you’re dying to share in the comments? Kindly zip it or better yet, come find me on Twitter.

“I never understood the fuss about…” BALEETED.


Three more weeks.

Yes, I realize the querent’s husband might not be all the way caught up on the show, thank you.


9. “How to know if a socially awkward girl likes me?”

Ask her: “Are you flirting? I think you might be flirting but I can’t always tell.”

“Is this a friend-date or a date-date?” 

Or if you like her, tell her. “I like you a lot. Want to go on a date sometime?” 

She is the only person in the world who knows the information you seek.

10. “Would you make fun of or appreciate an apology letter 20 years later?”

It really depends on what the person is apologizing for. I’d like to think I wouldn’t ever make fun, but then there’s the time a few years ago that someone apologized to me deeply and at length for “breaking my heart” back in high school and I was like, “You did?” High school ended in 1992. My heart is fine.

Some people really do appreciate stuff like this. It heals a wound to know that the person who hurt them feels remorse, that they changed. Others really, really don’t. After 20 years, they’ve moved on, and now they have to think about it again and possibly deal with the feelings of the person who harmed them?

I think for best results the “better late than never?” apology crowd should be really honest with themselves: Am I doing it for the other person or am I doing this for me? Can you be brief, clear, take responsibility for what you did and said, and then leave it in the other person’s hands without expecting a response?

A letter is good because you drop it in the mail and let it go. Consider also that a letter is potentially very creepy because the recipient is now wondering how you found out where they live and if you’re gonna show up there. Find the least intrusive way you can to reach them.

11. “Reaching out to an old ex on her birthday.” 

Smooth. I notice you didn’t use the word “current friend.” As in #10, above, just be honest with yourself about why you’re doing this and what you’re hoping for, ok? And know that the the ex just deleting whatever it is is 100% a possibility, and be cool with that possibility.

12. “Decline last minute work.”

Script: “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ve already booked that time slot. Is your schedule flexible at all? I could take on something after [date]. Otherwise, good luck finding someone.”

Bonus: If it’s a client or employer you really, really like, and you know people who might be able to help who are looking for work, connect them!

To the client: “Would it be okay if I shared this with a few people who do similar work in my network?”

To the colleague: “Client X just asked me to take on a project, and I’m booked. Would you like me to put you in touch?” 

Check before sharing people’s contact details. It’s just good practice.

13. “Why in a relationship would one partner line up friends to insult the other partner?”

Signs point to the partner who recruits friends to insult someone they claim to love being both really mean and having mean friends. Sorry, you might be surrounded by assholes!

14. “Helping your ex through your break-up.”

My first thought when I read stuff like this: BUT YOU BROKE UP. IT’S NOT YOUR JOB.

I can think of a few legit good ways to help an ex with a breakup, assuming this is a “Farewell good person who was, alas, not right for me” breakup and not a “Never contact me again you controlling shitlord” breakup, are you ready?

  • Have good boundaries for yourself. If you need space and time to get over the relationship, be honest about that and don’t set yourself up to be your ex’s Chief Consoler. If you know you don’t want to ever get back together, don’t dangle that option. Don’t dump someone and then lean on them as your favorite listening ear. Ex-sex can be a fine, healing, understandable human activity, but there are times when you know it’s a bad idea and is going to make the other person have an even harder time detaching. You ceased already, so desist!
  • Be a little thoughtful about how you use social media. Don’t air this person’s private heartbreak everywhere, wait a hot second before you go all #FinallyFree #AtLast #TrueLove with your brand new beau, it’s cool to stay friends with people you met as a couple but maybe give your ex priority in their oldest friends at least until the dust settles, give them a heads’ up if you’re going to be at the same event.
  • Be really fair and kind about money and property. Return their stuff to them promptly and without drama, don’t make them ask or hunt or wait for it. Did someone relocate to be with you, or could someone use a grace period of NOT having to pay half the rent on a place they’re getting booted out of while also coming up with the money for a new place, can you afford to ease the transition for this person a little without stinting yourself? Then do it. If you still have to share living space for a while, be respectful about bringing new dates around.
  • Don’t write to their advice column under a fake name and ask for advice on wooing your new crush.

These tips are from my own experience and aren’t absolutes, you’re not necessarily doing it wrong if you have a different style, helping out financially isn’t always possible (and isn’t an obligation), and all bets are off if the other person was a jerk! But those are some ways to possibly be nice, and none of them involve nursing someone through their breakup with you! You broke up! You get to stop working on this person’s problems and life!

Thanks for joining us for this fun feature. If you would like Daniel & Henrietta content, they are SPACED OUT on catnip right now.

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?