Ask or Guess Culture: Which Is Better?

A signboard saying 'ASK' with castiron metal curls and a street lamp hanging from it.

In our society, you have two kinds of people: Askers and Guessers. Maybe you’ve heard of the famous Metafilter reply by Andrea Donderi that introduced the internet to the concept of Ask Culture and Guess Culture. But in the endless debate of Ask or Guess Culture, the question is: which one is better?

First, let’s get a quick recap of what Ask and Guess Culture entail.

Ask Culture and Guess Culture

Ask Culture

If you’re an Asker, your mindset in life is simple: if you want something, you ask for it. But when you ask for something, you’re fully aware that you might receive a no. And you’re prepared to accept that no without problems.

You give the other person the freedom to respond honestly, and you don’t give them a hard time if they say no. In the same vein, you also feel free to say no when someone asks something of you.

It’s really only as simple as that. In short, you dare to ask without expecting anything from the other person. Except of course their honesty.

Guess Culture

Guess Culture is a little more complicated. Because a Guesser only asks for something if you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Before you ask a question, you evaluate if your request is reasonable or not.

As a Guesser you might interpret a big request as rude, presumptuous, or offensive. And you might feel pressured too, because you think it would be rude to say no. You might feel like it’s expected of you to say yes. Otherwise people can find you unfriendly, selfish or standoffish.

Guess Culture is reliant on a very complicated shared construct. In other words, Guess Culture only functions because of a socially accepted set of norms, dictating what is reasonable and what not.

When you’re contemplating whether or not you’re going to ask your question, you have to first be very sensitive to the other person. Do you think they’ll agree? Would your request be reasonable to them?

One tactic that Guessers often use is playing the game in such a way that you’ll get an offer from the other person, instead of having to ask for it.

Ask and Guess Culture don’t mix

When an Asker and a Guesser run into each other, things can get awkward. And that isn’t even to blame on either one of them.

Because Askers work really easily with other Askers, and Guessers gel well with other Guessers. But put the two of them together, and you have a problem.

The Asker might ask something of the Guesser, knowing full well they could get a no. And if they were to get a no, they would be fine with it. But the Guesser could feel pressured to say yes, anxious to make sure they don’t come across as rude or unfeeling.

So the Asker expects an honest response, and the Guesser feels pressured to say yes even if they’d rather say no. And if they say yes, there’s a chance they’d hold a grudge against the Asker for putting them on the spot.

Uneven social dynamics

Because the Guesser in this situation feels like the Asker forced their hand, they might subconsciously feel like the Asker owes them something. They might feel like they’ve done the Asker a big favor by saying yes to something they wanted to say no to.

But on the other hand, the Asker isn’t aware of IOU’s. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to presume that it wasn’t such an issue for the Guesser to say yes. After all, in the Asker’s mindset, they should’ve just said no if they wanted to.

So then the social dynamic between the two is skewed. Both have a different understanding of their current situation. The Asker assumes that the Guesser didn’t mind doing whatever they did. And the Guesser feels like the Asker took advantage of them by pressuring them to say yes.

Later in their acquaintance, that might come back to bite either of them. If the Asker asks for something else, the Guesser could really start to find the Asker rude. Sometimes it happens that the Guesser explodes on the Asker. They’d tell the Asker off for demanding so much of them.

But the Asker is then completely blindsided. The Asker might feel indignant that they’re getting the blame. Because, if the Guesser didn’t want to do those things, they should’ve just said no, right? In the Asker’s eyes, it’s the Guesser’s fault for not saying no when they were given the chance.

Annoyance and frustration

These kinds of things can lead to a lot of frustration.

For instance, when a Guesser dances around actually asking for something by dropping hints. While the Guesser expects to get an offer eventually, the Asker holds off on it.

They’re not stupid, they know what the Guesser is trying to do. But they feel like the Guesser should just ask for it. Similarly to how the Guesser felt pressured to say yes in the previous example, the Asker feels pressured into offering something.

In another example, an Asker responds with a no to a request that the Guesser deemed reasonable. That could give rise to all kinds of conclusions and assumptions in the Guesser’s mind. The Guesser might interpret it as if the Asker doesn’t care. Or they could take it personal. In some situations, a Guesser will repeat the request, or try to barter with the other person.

Meanwhile, the Asker gets angry that the Guesser doesn’t just accept their ‘no’. And they might feel like they’re being pressured into saying yes too. It comes across as if the Guesser doesn’t allow the other to say no.

So which is better: Ask or Guess Culture?

Before we can reach a verdict, we’ll need to look at the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Ask Culture’s benefits

If you ask me (pun intended), Ask Culture is the more favorable of the two.

One of the most important benefits is that it increases your chances of getting what you need. If you just dare to ask, you might get a yes more often than if you hold off on asking until you’re fairly certain of a yes.

Another benefit is its attitude towards no’s. By being willing to accept a no, you’ll run into far fewer problems in everyday adult life. Because there are a lot of no’s in everyday adult life.

And just like I said in my earlier blog post on why not wanting children is okay, learning to accept a no is a vital life skill. The harsh reality is that you don’t get what you want more often than not.

In that respect, Ask Culture wins points for teaching people how to cope with getting a no.

What’s more, Ask Culture gives the other person the complete freedom to be honest about what they can and want to do. They only have to say yes if they want to. And if, for whatever reason, they don’t want to, they are at liberty to decline.

Ask Culture opens the door for honest and frank communication. It enables you to voice your needs, or your doubts, and just ask. You don’t have to twirl around the subject before getting to what you were looking for.

Ask Culture’s drawbacks

Even so, Ask Culture has its drawbacks.

It leaves open the possibility for people to become obnoxious by just asking for everything all the time. And even if you’re an Asker too, it could start to rub you the wrong way. Even if you feel at liberty to say no, there’s only so many no’s you can give before starting to feel guilty.

It also makes it easier for people to abuse the system by saying no too often, whenever they don’t really feel like it. There’s a chance that some people might use it as a free pass to never have to help another person because they’re free to say no. In that sense, the lack of cultural pressure can be a definite drawback.

But both of those basically depend on the rotten apples in society. People who don’t feel the need to abuse the system seem only to benefit from Ask Culture with very little to no significant disadvantages.

Guess Culture’s benefits

Despite Ask Culture’s many benefits and limited drawbacks, Guess Culture seems to be the more common of the two. At least here in The Netherlands, and even more so in the US from what I can gather.

This might be owing to the fact that Guess Culture maintains itself in a way. Because it is reliant on a complicated network of shared assumptions and opinions, that same network perpetuates the consensus that Guess Culture is the way to go.

That’s not a conscious decision, of course. On the contrary, I believe it is precisely because we are not conscious of it that we keep social constructs intact that might be harmful or could be tweaked for the better.

I have to be honest here, and say that I have quite some difficulty coming up with solid benefits of Guess Culture. I know that both of my feet are firmly planted in the Ask Culture field, but I try to be as objective as I can nonetheless.

The only real benefits I can find when searching the web, seem to be benefits only to Guessers. In other words: if you’re a Guesser, you benefit more from being a Guesser, and from having other Guessers around you.

Guess Culture’s benefits are only internal

Here’s what I mean. In Guess Culture, you won’t get requests for anything you likely won’t do. So you don’t have the burden of having to say no. But saying no is only a burden because you’re a Guesser.

In Guess Culture, you don’t have to worry about receiving a no. But receiving a no is only a worry if you are unable to cope with a no in a healthy manner.

There’s a shared consensus over which things are rude and which aren’t. So as Guessers you have people around you who are polite and not rude. But that again depends on you being a Guesser and considering those things rude in the first place.

If you feel pressured to say yes when you mean no, of course a big request is rude. But you’d only feel pressured if you’re a Guesser. Because only as a Guesser would you assume that the other person expects you to say yes, and that saying no is rude.

The only benefit I can find that I can somewhat understand is deliberate ambiguity. Guessers often express themselves in ways that aren’t direct requests, but still convey the meaning to the other.

An example: “is that apple pie I see in your fridge?”. That person isn’t truly wondering if it is apple pie or maybe something else. They’re actually inviting you to offer them a slice.

This somewhat leaves the other free to either offer a slice, or to answer the question and step over the request if you don’t feel like offering. You have the freedom of pretending you didn’t catch that the other wanted you to offer a slice.

But if you ask me, that’s just a very convoluted and even slightly dishonest way of getting someone to say yes or no.

Guess Culture’s drawbacks

Guess Culture depends on a lot of people not saying what they actually want or need. There’s so much dishonesty going on when people say yes when they want to say no, because they feel pressured. Or when people decline an offer because they consider it greedy or rude to accept.

On the whole there are a whole lot of situations when people don’t express their true intentions or feelings out of politeness. But is it polite to – quite frankly – lie?

It takes a remarkable amount of social skill and experience to be able to accurately navigate the web of shared assumptions. That also implies that Guess Culture is something you need to learn as you grow up.

We know children to be blunt and straightforward. But as they grow up, we teach them what kinds of things are and aren’t rude to ask. You learn how to veil your questions instead of asking directly. And you learn that it’s rude to say no and that people expect you to say yes when they ask for something.

That entire web of assumptions and values is learned, and therefore also very dependent on specific cultures.

You could easily run into awkward situations when someone isn’t as socially gifted or if someone was brought up with a slightly different set of assumptions.

Or, what’s even more common, since you’re guessing whether or not the other person will say yes, you can also guess wrong. Because you can’t look inside someone else’s head.

And if people say yes against their will, it can lead to tensions later. People might feel guilty for the effects their request had on the other, and feel guilty for even asking.

The verdict

Personally, I really appreciate the honesty that comes with Ask Culture. You don’t have to guess what people’s boundaries are, and you don’t have to fear that someone said yes out of politeness instead of free will. You can safely assume that a yes really is a yes. Guess Culture takes away that authenticity.

On the whole, Ask Culture creates an atmosphere where it’s easier for people to voice their needs and their boundaries. It’s easier for people to ask for what they need, and it’s easier for people to safeguard their boundaries without fear of the other’s judgment.

Though both Ask and Guess Culture rely on a certain set of ‘rules’ to be successful, the rules of Ask Culture are far more straightforward.

The only delicate skill you need for Ask Culture is the way you formulate requests and responses. And that is truly the only skill you have to master.

In truth, phrasing your request in a way that isn’t too forcible or insensitive isn’t that complicated. Of course there are subtle differences between people, but there are enough wordings that work for most people.

But for Guess Culture to succeed, you have to know the particular things that the other person considers unreasonable. And that differs greatly from person to person, and from community to community.

Guess Culture requires you to have your feelers out for every single person. To kind of feel what the other person might or might not agree to. But all you have to remember for Ask Culture is how to phrase your request in a way that isn’t too coercive.

Of course this is all assuming that everyone is either an Asker, or a Guesser. As long as you have both, you’re going to run in to problems.

Conclusion: Ask or Guess Culture?

Though I was raised to be a Guesser, I am personally convinced that Asking is the way to go. It promotes honesty and openness, it protects authenticity, and it gives people the liberty to fulfill their needs and safeguard their boundaries.

Ask Culture is dependent on far fewer assumptions in my eyes. You don’t need to be a skilled social navigator to know what you can and can’t say. The only assumption you really need is trust. Trust that the other person is being honest about what they say. And trust that the other person accepts your no without making a big deal out of it.

The rules are simple. If you only say yes when you want to say yes, you don’t have to do things against your will. You can’t hold what you’ve agreed to against the other, because you shouldn’t have said yes then.

In other words, Ask Culture makes you the sole guardian of your boundaries. And since you’re the only one who knows your boundaries, why shouldn’t you be?

Guessing comes with a lot of uncertainty, and there are penalties for getting it wrong. It leads to a lot of tension, not to mention the social stress of wondering whether you could ask or not. And the burden of social pressure to say yes.

Ask Culture more or less strips away all the cultural assumptions and breaks it down to a simple process of asking for what you want, and accepting whatever the response is. And having the freedom to answer truthfully and know that your answer will be respected either way.

To translate a Dutch saying: “no, you have. Yes, you can get.”

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