Askers vs. guessers

One of the smartest comments I ever read on the internet is this one:

This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture.
In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person — and you obviously are — then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.
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.

Check out this short article for links to online discussion of this idea. As one mentions, we’re talking about a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, but I do think that the South is a Guessing culture while the North is an Asking culture.

At an all-day function, I once watched the Asker running the event ask the Guesser in charge of the facility whether it would be OK if they stayed an extra hour, since things were running late. The Guesser said, “Oh, I suppose that would be alright,” not mentioning that she couldn’t leave until the group did, meaning she had to hang around for an unexpected extra hour. But I know for a fact that the request was simply a request for information, and the Asker would have not at all been surprised or put out if the answer had been, “No, sorry, as you know we close at 5 and I can’t stay late tonight.”

One criticism of Guessing culture is that it unreasonable—why shouldn’t I be able to ask someone straight out for a favor, as long as I’m willing to take no for an answer? But I think this misses the fact that even asking a question puts someone under an implicit obligation, namely to answer it. Why should I have to tell you something just because you asked? I assume Askers find it rude when someone simply ignores the question (especially when it comes to unanswered emails or voice mails), but isn’t silence also a legitimate response?


3 thoughts on “Askers vs. guessers

  1. My apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka was extremely traditional. Meaning, it was very much like being a clay monk. Things were almost never “explained.” If you asked why something was done a certain way, you’d get the answer, “Because we have always done it this way.” You learned like all young children do: by watching and intimating. When Shmaoka entered the building, everybody shut up. You only spoke to find out what you should do next. It was the same exact experience I had with Zen Masters in the monastaries in Japan and America. I owe my ability to study with him for 3 continuous years, when everybody else (since the end of the ’70s) I knew of (except for one Chinese student who was there for one year, waiting to get into Harvard), left before their full committed time, to my time spent in Zen monasteries.
    Warren MacKenzie was incredulous when I told him we never talked about pots. He said his and Alix’s conversations during dinner were the high points of their 2 years with him.
    It is a different way of learning. It was the way craft used to be taught, father to son, mother to daughter… It was how most of our ancestors learned how to hunt, gather and farm.

  2. At Shimaoka’s funeral, Kamia Shoichi, who was a Shimaoka Craftsman but became independent said that over 100 foreign students (not all apprentices) studied with Shimaoka over the years, from the ’70s until his death in 2007.

  3. I think this makes and excellent point, and I also think that you’re right about North vs. South, or at least NYC vs. the South outside of the large cities. I was raised in a Guess culture but have learned Ask habits.

    I also strongly suspect that Italy is another Guess culture. I think this is why I sometimes say that, despite the excellent coffee and art, it reminds me more of the South than of NYC.

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