May 23, 2022

"Understand the difference between 'ask' and 'guess' cultures."

I suggested, in the first of 9 TikTok links I posted last night. The link went to this short video by Mary Robinette Kowal. She's a Hugo, Nebula, Locus award-winning author of SF and fantasy, and her videos are presented as writing tips.

Several of my readers singled out that video as their favorite of the 9 I'd selected, and it may have been my favorite too. I put it first on the list, which doesn't mean I like it best, but does mean I think it may draw you in.

One commenter, tim maguire, said:

Guess culture is obnoxious. Just say what you want and don’t make the other person try to figure it out. “The cereal box is too high” could mean you want help getting the cereal, but more logically it means “we need to reorganize the kitchen.” 
I wonder, though if a variation of that is at work in my own marriage. I’m ask culture, for sure. Speak plainly. Be clear about your needs. But my wife is constantly trying to find the hidden subtext in order to address my real motivations, which is annoying because there is no hidden subtext. Getting a simple answer to a simple question is way harder than it needs to be. Her mother is the same way, so clearly she was raised to do it.
pdug said (and I added the links):

[T]he Atlantic had a article about this in 2010. FWIW, calling it a "culture" seems a bit much its probably more about your interfamily dynamic than a whole regional culture

I like this quote from the Atlantic "Actually, One of Them Is Wrong." The New Republic's Jonathan Chait takes a hard line. "This is actually pretty simple: Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. What's more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us ... Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness."

i also wonder if ask vs guess is just two *gendered* approaches.

That Chait quote triggered me. I quoted "Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness" and wrote:

But what the guesser is providing is an opportunity for you to achieve in the activity of discerning, and when you have discerned, you can do the thing the other person wants and please them in a special way... and please yourself too, because you understood them and you — with your special skill, unlike awkward Jonathan — have discerned what this person wants. That's a whole subtle relationship that Jonathan doesn't even perceive might be wanted.

I mean, put it in the sexual situation. You just ask for each thing that you want? How do you even know what exactly you want and why would you be satisfied with someone who just does the things you said you wanted and thinks that's all there is?

If you've got the gendered format gdug imagines is common, where the wife is expecting you to guess what she wants and she [is] able to intuit what you want but you — let's say "you" means the husband — like to ask for [what] you want and want her to just ask for whatever she wants (and I presume you've already just asked her to do that) — then I think you ought to go "Gift of the Magi" on the relationship.

Each should give the other what they want. The ask-oriented husband should make a point of trying to understand what the wife is showing she wants, which includes wanted to be understood as a person who doesn't directly say but indicate[s]. He should love that about her. The wife should get the message that he wants her to directly ask for things and to accept when he asks directly. She should love him for that too.

But it is not always gendered in that direction. I won't name the men in my life who were/are "guess" culture types. They are not perversely withholding. They are giving, and one of the things they want to give is their perception of what the other person wants and their voluntary doing of a favor (as opposed to responding to a command).

And John Holland wrote:

It feels like our hostess is an Ask-type person. I intuit this from the fact that she asks us directly to tell her our favorite Tik-tok from her carefully-curated list ... and half the commenters bitch instead about their least-favorite.

Kinda like my household. 

I responded: 

Ha ha. I'm mainly saying pick your best to deflect the generic don't-like-anything comments. Why don't people skip posts that don't appeal to them? Why drop in to say "that's bad" or "i'm not interested"? Obviously, I've picked these things out because I liked them and they felt shareable to me. 

It's analogous to the dinner party the Southern etiquette man talks about. You've been invited. If you know you're [going to dislike] everything, don't go. If you want to go, but there are things you don't like, don't say anything about that.

That refers to the 6th of the 9 TikToks: "A Southern etiquette lesson." 

I continued:

I don't know whether I'm an ask or guess person myself, but I've learned over time to try to figure out what the other person is. If you've got a strong "guess" person, do guess culture with them. If you've got a strong "ask" person, be straightforward and ask. I can do either and I prefer to be conscious of what makes the other person feel better.

But that speaks of in-person life. On the blog, sometimes I ask things directly and sometimes I present things where you need to think of what needs a response. I do whichever feels right for the material or suits my mood at the time.

And what felt right to me this morning was to drag all that up out of the comments and splay it out where you can see it plainly. 

ADDED: Let me just name one of the "the men in my life who were/are 'guess' culture types" — my father. I remember struggling to live through the summer with the small bedroom of the new house my parents had moved into after I'd gone away for my first year of college. One day, I said something about having nowhere to put my books. I didn't say "Build me shelves" or "Will you build me shelves?" or even "It would be nice if you would build me some shelves." He built me shelves. That happened half a century ago, and it still brings tears to my eyes to think about it. If we'd just done "ask" culture all along, what would I remember?

44 comments:

Wince said...

The word ask has become a noun in some circumstances.

"Is there an ask here?"

Howard said...

I wonder if ask versus guess is dependent on the relative strength of executive function?

Sebastian said...

I oppose the binary.

Third option: the mock lamentation/celebration: "You/s/he put that cereal waaaay up there!" or "OMG! You/he put out the trash!"

Alexander said...

Most cultures outside of the post-French Revolution West are “guess” cultures, but I reckon that they would laugh at the name “guess” culture. For example, in Ethiopia, they refer to this as “wax and gold,” because they love the idea of hiding something brilliant behind a commonplace facade. They’d say that yes, Chait, it requires discernment. That’s why we educate children on how to discern things. We train them in how to interpret and understand the world around them and to pay attention to people and what they need. This is part of training people in how *think* on their own.

Sebastian said...

"But what the guesser is providing is an opportunity for you to achieve in the activity of discerning, and when you have discerned, you can do the thing the other person wants and please them in a special way"

This form of social tyranny, manipulation for a purpose extraneous to the problem at hand, is what askers oppose.

"Each should give the other what they want."

By the logic of the two cultures, as described, that is not possible.

Jupiter said...

Oh, give it a good, long rest. Put a nice, clean white sock in it. She is so full of shit it's a miracle she can even stand. She wouldn't know a culture if she were tried, sentenced and executed by one. And then eaten for dinner. Utter bilge. I pity her husband.

Can Of Cheese for Hunter said...

Agree . Guess culture IS passive aggressive. She claims it isn't, but she is incorrect.

Don't hint. Hinting is not nice. Be polite and ask. This is not hard.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Early in our marriage my wife and I were driving around seeing the sight in the area we had just moved to. Several time she asked if I wanted to stop and get something to eat. I said no, I'm fine

We can laugh about it now.

We've both gotten better at understanding the other. There is a reasonable middle ground where the asker makes an effort to pay attention to hints, and the guesser asks for things which they urgently need, or that would annoy them if they didn't get.

And there is no need for an ask to be a command. Could you please get the cereal... works just fine.

As for sex, yes, absolutely try to figure out, from what they say, from body language, etc what your partner wants. But if, in the heat of the moment there is something that you want, ask! (Or command, if that's a thing the two of you are into.)

Paddy O said...

"One day, I said something about having nowhere to put my books."

A little McSweeney's moment. Ways in which Althouse commenters would have responded to this statement.

1. Why did you move back home after you left for college. You should have traveled or got a job and your own apartment.

2. I read a book recently.

3. Why would you want to display your books for just the summer?

4. Women have feelings about books, men build shelves.

5. I made $2500 a month without leaving home, click for more.

6. Books from the 1960s were a lot better than books now.

7.As an expert carpenter, I'd love to hear more about the shelves, where they built into the wall?

8...

How an instapundit commenter would respond:

I once built a set of shelves out of teakwood for carrying my massive gun collection on my yacht to get to my private plane in the Caribbean, so I could fly out to the Left coasts and take care of all the evil never-trumpers.


Rollo said...

Men are from Ask Culture.

Women are from Guess Culture.

Jonathan Chait is on the spectrum.

That explains a lot.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

As far as the cereal goes, the proper response is Wow, that must be really frustrating for you. I'm sorry you're having to deal with that. Thank you for sharing with me.

Remember, women don't want you to solve their problems, they just want you to listen and understand what they are dealing with.

Kate said...

I can't guess what this post wants me to take away from it, and most of the time I can't guess what any Althouse post seeks as a response. Even when the post is phrased as an ask, a guess can be implied.

Mostly, though, I reject the entire guess/ask paradigm. People do the best they can to get to the truth. Sometimes shit intervenes.

tim maguire said...

If we'd just done "ask" culture all along, what would I remember?

You’d probably remember that he built you shelves, you’d definitely remember that he was the type of dad who would build you shelves, and you’d remember lots of other things too. You may not have that specific emotional memory of that specific act, but that’s no reason to think your memories are deeper of more special because you took the guess approach instead of simply asking.

reader said...

It seems to me that Southern Etiquette is addressing the ask/guess conundrum. He is telling the askers with menu questions not to ask but instead approach the the issue in a guess fashion. Either avoid the issue by not attending/arriving late or don’t eat. If the guest has an urgent menu question (peanut/fish allergy resulting in hospitalization) then the guest may ask.

Carol said...

My parent was guess, which I later learned eas indirection. Drove me crazy and I became an asker.

Then ended up married to a guesser. Yeah men can totally be that way.

Lem said...

In the Uncommon Knowledge Jordan Peterson interview, JP talks about our desire to feel as though we are attended to listened to, to the point where there nothing we crave more than that. If we can show someone that we’re listening enough to understand the understated… it’s more than guessing. The word guessing doesn’t do justice to what we’re talking about.

Video clip 👉🏽 https://youtu.be/DcA5TotAkhs#t=27m43s

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

Guess culture is obnoxious. Just say what you want and don’t make the other person try to figure it out. “The cereal box is too high” could mean you want help getting the cereal, but more logically it means “we need to reorganize the kitchen.”

That made me laugh. Not to go all rhardin, but apparently "guess culture" is a euphemism for standard female communication.

Bob Boyd said...

Clearly the woman who couldn't reach the cereal box is not the one who put it up there. Her saying the cereal box is too high could be interpreted as accusatory. When you are asking people to guess what you mean, sometimes they're going to guess wrong.

Two-eyed Jack said...

I regard the use of the indicative mood in "Can you get that box of cereal down for me?" as somewhat rude. In my culture we use the subjunctive: "Could you get that box of cereal down for me?" In a workplace, a boss can use the indicative or even the imperative, but not at home.

Eleanor said...

John Gray made a fortune off of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" in the early 90s. He got the "ask/guess" thing absolutely right, but he missed they are not gendered things. I do wonder how many divorces were avoided because of discussions over the book. How many "ask" people get exasperated by spouses who won't "just tell me what you want"? How many "guess" people drive themselves crazy trying to figure the "hidden meanings" when there are none?

Jonathan said...

This is half the theme of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," and the author's recommendation is that women honestly phrase their requests in the format "Would you please [request]" instead of hinting.

I've experienced a lot of hinting behavior from women, especially from southern women, find it highly passive-aggressive, and combat it with polite literalism:

"That trash can is pretty full." "Why yes. Yes, it certainly is."
"Do you want to run to the store and buy me some [x]?" "Not especially, but I will if asked."

Stan Smith said...

I'm going to be toxic and misonogystic and state that guessing is generally a female trait and asking is generally a male trait. Not always, of course, but in my experience those statements are true.

My mother, for example, would always ask "Are you busy right now?" when she really meant "Please do this task for me." The correct answer to that question is "Yes, I'm busy doing what I want to do right now." My wife says "Do you want to (fill in the blank)?" when she really means "Do (fill in the blank)." The answer to that question is "No, if I did want to do it, I'd be doing it." While both queries are framed in the "ask" style, they're really "guess" versions, because the actual question is still indirectly implied.

And it's entirely unfair to expect another person to divine what you actually meant if it's buried in some sort of "hidden" or "discernable" phraseology. We are not mind readers. If you want something done or need help with something, ASK FOR IT.

The females in my acquaintance ALWAYS frame their desires in the form of indirect phrases, and it's annoying. I'm not sure if this is an innate behavior, or if it's something that females do so as not to appear demanding by just plainly stating what they want.

It's no doubt the fault of the patriarchy.

Wa St Blogger said...

So, are you saying that when someone guesses right it creates a lasting positive memory? What about all the frustration that comes when someone fails to guess, or guesses incorrectly? Relying on someone else's skill at reading subtle clues is a recipe for unhappiness. For both sides. For the guess person, they fail to get what they want. for the ask person they fail to understand what is needed. On the other side of the coin, you have the guess person trying to guess what is not there to be guessed, and the ask person having to explain that there was nothing to guess.

mikee said...

As an extrapolation of guess culture, my wife's family expressed anger and disagreement by using the silent treatment against those who offended them. I was only able to get her to continue that passive method for the first decade of our marriage. I miss it still.

pious agnostic said...

Her: "The cereal is too high for me to reach."
Him: "Would you like me to get you a stepping stool?"
Her: "The stepping stool is a bit shaky."
Him: "Should I fix the stepping stool?"
Her: "I wouldn't want to put you out."
Him: "If the stepping stool is shaky, we shouldn't use it."
Her: "It would be nice to get it fixed."
Him: "I'll get on that right after breakfast."
Her: "The cereal is too high for me to reach."

CJinPA said...

He built me shelves. That happened half a century ago, and it still brings tears to my eyes to think about it. If we'd just done "ask" culture all along, what would I remember?

Lovely way to end an interesting post.

tommyesq said...

I'd ask you to guess what type of person I am, but then I might be denying you the opportunity to discern on your own and thereby achieve enlightenment.

Ann Althouse said...

@Paddy O

LOL

Back in those days, we college freshmen lived in the dorm during the school year, then went back home in the summer and worked at a summer job, then went back and lived in the dorm for our sophomore year, and went back home again for another awful summer job living in the middle of nowhere in southern Jersey.

realestateacct said...

from Amazon's description of the award winning book (2019)

"On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her."

This sort of book is the reason I buy all my sci fi from Baen Books and ignore any awards given after 1980.

realestateacct said...

I don't think it's so much female/male as subordinate/dominant. The subordinate does not want to directly ask the dominant to do something.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

pdug: i also wonder if ask vs guess is just two *gendered* approaches.

Well, of course it is. The best explication I've seen of it is from C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. (MacPhee is an Ulsterman who is sort of the resident skeptic of this crew):

"The cardinal difficulty," said MacPhee, "in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men are doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, 'Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you'll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.' The female for this is 'Put that in the other one in there.' And then if you ask them, 'In where?' they say, 'in there, of course.' There is consequently a phatic hiatus."

Bruce Hayden said...

The other name here is Deborah Tannen, a linguist who has written extensible on the difference in language between males and females.

Typical discussion with my late, sainted, mother:
She: It would be nice if you would do X.
Me: Yes, that would be nice.
She: would you have time for it today?
Me: Maybe.
Father: Do It! Now!
Me: Do what? There aren’t any requests on the table right now.
Him: You know what your mother wants. Do it!

She grew up in a heavily female environment, with no boys in her generation in the extended family, and a bunch of aunts. I grew up in just the opposite environment: she was the only female in a family with 6 males. Supposedly, the difference between conversational styles is that the passive aggressive female “guess” style lets women feel good by properly guessing what the other female wants, while the direct male “ask” culture allows males to be heroes when doing what women want. From a guy’s point of view, there is little satisfaction to doing something for a woman when she just alludes and vaguely suggests that it would be nice. There is typically satisfaction doing what she actually asks you to do. And maybe part of it is that if you are counting, then doing something for a woman who vaguely alluded to it, has little satisfaction. Esp since there is no obligation for her to thank the white knight that saved her, if she didn’t actually ask for help.

Wa St Blogger said...

Back in those days, we college freshmen lived in the dorm during the school year, then went back home in the summer and worked at a summer job, then went back and lived in the dorm for our sophomore year, and went back home again for another awful summer job living in the middle of nowhere in southern Jersey.

This not true any more? My kids must be doing wit wrong, then. They come home for the summer to work jobs to pay for school. That is how they were taught.

David53 said...

Wife - Are you hungry?

Actual meaning - I'm hungry and need to eat within an hour. What are you going to cook or what restaurant are you taking me to? Give me 4 choices with one of them being the correct guess.

If I don't supply the correct guess then the ball is in her court.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I mean, put it in the sexual situation. You just ask for each thing that you want?

No, you don't just ask for each thing that you want, you also ask for permission for each thing you think she wants you to do to her.

Otherwise you're a rapist.

Try to keep up.

Joanne Jacobs said...

Years ago, I worked with a Japanese man who'd been in the U.S. for at least 10 years. He thought he was very Americanized. We thought he was very Japanese.

As an example of his Americanization, he told us that he'd hosted his young niece and nephew for a day. When he asked if they were hungry or thirsty, they said, "No, Uncle Hideo." So he didn't get them anything. When they got home, they complained bitterly to their mother that he had starved them.

He'd forgotten that no polite guest would say "yes" to such a question. It would be an insult to the host. He was supposed to insist that they eat and drink.

Rosalyn C. said...

This was a most significant post for me. I learned a lot from it. The truth is I grew up in a family where my emotional needs were ignored, so obviously guesses were completely ignored. Innately I could have been a solid guess person because I'm super sensitive. I have the ability to provide other people's needs before they ever have to hint or ask and sometimes before they are even aware of what they need. However I learned by painful experience not to be hurt when friends didn't do the same back for me and even took my caring for granted or as an invitation to take advantage. So for my emotional health I became a decidedly direct ask person. And please ask nicely and be appreciative when your request is granted and I do the same.

I realize now that this may be disconcerting for some people.

Gerda Sprinchorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tim in vermont said...

I just went through this with my daughter and her friend we were visiting. Two restaurants, “pick one daddy!” One was close by, and the other meant a forty minute drive into Boston after a long drive down and a long graduation ceremony. But I noticed a micro expression on her face when one was mentioned, so we went into Boston and we ate at this great restaurant where one of their friends worked and we were treated like royalty and clearly this was what my daughter wanted and we all had a great time. She just didn’t want to make me drive more.

ken in tx said...

It is my tendency to ask my wife 'yes or no' questions, to which she responds with a mini-essay that never gets around to a yes or a no. She seems to be trying to figure out what answer I want from her. This is the nature of most of our disagreements.

ken in tx said...

When I was in Korea, I learned that if you ask a Korean, "Would you like red or blue?" The Korean would likely answer, "Yes". You have to ask more questions to find out which is preferred.

Greg The Class Traitor said...

But what the guesser is providing is an opportunity for you to achieve in the activity of discerning, and when you have discerned, you can do the thing the other person wants and please them in a special way... and please yourself too, because you understood them and you — with your special skill, unlike awkward Jonathan — have discerned what this person wants. That's a whole subtle relationship that Jonathan doesn't even perceive might be wanted.

No, actually, I can NEVER be happy, fulfilled, or comfortable in that relationship. Because you're almost never going to tell me what I need to know, so the few times you DO try to tell me, I still don't know if that's really what you want, or just another guessing game.

You're setting your partner up for failure. Why?
You want to be surprised? Tell him to surprise you. Say "I don't want to tell you what I want this time, I want you to put effort into figuring out what you think I'd want."
You're not comfortable saying that? Then you shouldn't bully your partner into that situation with your "guess" BS.

I mean, put it in the sexual situation. You just ask for each thing that you want? How do you even know what exactly you want and why would you be satisfied with someone who just does the things you said you wanted and thinks that's all there is?

I want to have sex with you tonight. I'd like to do some exploring, try new things, see if there's something we haven't been doing that would make the sex better."
Is that really that difficult?

If you've got the gendered format gdug imagines is common, where the wife is expecting you to guess what she wants and she [is] able to intuit what you want but you — let's say "you" means the husband — like to ask for [what] you want and want her to just ask for whatever she wants (and I presume you've already just asked her to do that) — then I think you ought to go "Gift of the Magi" on the relationship.

Each should give the other what they want.
I want clear and honest communication. If you want guessing games, then only one of us is ever going to get what we want.

Lurker21 said...

But there are those of us in the middle who can't say to the "ask" people what we want, but also want the "guess" people to come out and say what they want. I couldn't understand why other people in my family didn't understand what I wanted. We'd been living together forever and I thought we ought to know each other and want to know what was going on emotionally with each of us. But when I got out into the world, I was frustrated by people who couldn't come out and say what they wanted.

As a "guess" person from a family dominated by "ask" people, when I first met other "guess" people in the wider world, I found myself being being the "ask" person for the first time and wishing they would come out and say what they wanted. Or maybe I was still a "guess" person who didn't understand the clues and cues I was getting. With experience, though, one can come to pick up on those hidden indications, especially if one cares about someone (but maybe you have to be a "guess" person at heart all along to be able to do that).

Lurker21 said...

But there are those of us in the middle who can't say to the "ask" people what we want, but also want the "guess" people to come out and say what they want. I couldn't understand why other people in my family didn't understand what I wanted. We'd been living together forever and I thought we ought to know each other and want to know what was going on emotionally with each of us. But when I got out into the world, I was frustrated by people who couldn't come out and say what they wanted.

As a "guess" person from a family dominated by "ask" people, when I first met other "guess" people in the wider world, I found myself being being the "ask" person for the first time and wishing they would come out and say what they wanted. Or maybe I was still a "guess" person who didn't understand the clues and cues I was getting. With experience, though, one can come to pick up on those hidden indications, especially if one cares about someone (but maybe you have to be a "guess" person at heart all along to be able to do that).