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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?