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Asking and Guessing

May 10th, 2010 · 9 Comments

Amber Taylor links to a column on “ask cultures” and “guess cultures,” playing with a notion that seems to have debuted in a 2007 comment on Metafilter:

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.

I’m fairly solidly in the Guesser camp on the whole—though I can’t hold a candle to my late maternal grandmother, a paragon of New England reserve.  As was explained to me before one of her visits as a young child, I should not expect her to be so unspeakably gauche as to ask that I “please pass the potatoes” (say) during dinner. One might as well just leap on the table and plunge one’s head directly into the bowl. No, if the potatoes were down at my end of the table, she would say something along the lines of: “Oh, do have some potatoes” or “Have you tried the potatoes?”—it being understood that the civilized response was “Oh, no, you have some.” As I say, I don’t take it quite that far, but I do think I internalized the association between civility and indirectness.

This reminds me that I recently watched a good TED talk by Steven Pinker on our quirks of indirect requests—elaborated at greater length here. (Slavoj Zizek also has some clever riffs on this, which I’m too lazy to hunt down at present.) The thing to remember, of course, is that whether one is more of an asker or a guesser generally, there’s probably still greater variation in how the same person behaves in different contexts.  The polite indirection of “Guess Culture” is, as Pinker suggests, often a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity, which we generally want to do in social relationships where there’s an intermediate level of intimacy—whereas relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks.  So, for instance, a purely commercial transaction with a bartender will be ask-centered: “I’d like a Magic Hat, please.” And if I’m at the home of a good friend I visit frequently, the same: “Hey, mind if I grab a beer from the fridge?”  If I’m visiting an acquaintance for the first time, on the other hand, I’ll probably wait for them to offer.

We do this, I think, precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous: We’re indirect because we’re negotiating just where on the gradient we fall. So, to use the example from the original Metafilter thread, a close friend could certainly ask to be put up for a few days on a visit to town, in part because there’s no worry that if (for whatever reason) I have to turn them down, it somehow reflects on or defines our relationship.  (It would be bizarre for a stranger to make the same request, but not really awkward—and maybe not even so bizarre anymore, since there are sites like CouchSurfing which work to arrange such things in a businesslike Ask Culture fashion.)  Ambiguity in the intermediate stage is useful precisely because it takes two to tango, and the precise contours of the relationship need to be defined by small mutual adjustments. To ask too directly at that stage can seem rude because it effectively demands a binary verdict on a work in progress.

One interesting question is why we see not just individual but regional tendencies toward one culture or another. Etiquette is often associated with words suggestive of urban life—”civilized” or “urbane” or “bourgeois”—and it makes sense people would have more need for these norms just when they moved from small communities where neighbors were often also relatives to larger communities with more of those intermediate sorts of relationships. Of course, as you get to really massive modern cities, you might expect a flip back toward Ask Culture as interactions get more neatly sorted into the anonymous arms-length type and the genuinely intimate type. The Internet, on the other hand, might  resurrect the need for indirection as people become able to sustain many more “weak ties” social relationships through sites like Facebook. I’d love to see someone try to develop some kind of Ask/Guess scale, and see if there’s some kind of correlation with either population density or network connectivity.

Addendum: You know, I poked fun at the old New England table manners, but probably there’s something to be said for raising kids in a way that drives home the idea that you really ought to be attentive to what others might want or need, without necessarily having to be asked directly, and not necessarily be so concerned about pressing your own demands too forcefully.  We can, after all, be rather selfish little creatures by instinct.

Tags: Language and Literature · Sociology



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anthony Sorace // May 10, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    There’re some fascinating artifacts of this around drinks at dinner in Japanese culinary culture. You do not fill your own glass; instead, look for another glass to fill, as a signal for the recipient to then check to see if you need a refill. To ensure that someone who wants more to drink has the opportunity to politely signal so, you’re expected to always drink enough of your glass that others could plausibly top it up.

    The end result of this is a constant topping-up and sipping down, making it almost impossible to track how much you’ve had to drink in a given meal.

  • 2 Very Polite // May 11, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I’m not sure being indirect and stilted is required or preferable in raising children to be empathetic.

  • 3 Emma Zahn // May 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    ADD makes living in a guess culture really, really hard.

  • 4 Brian Moore // May 12, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Normally I find these pop sociology things sorta lame, but this is pretty good.

    Emma makes a good point — one that could be expanded into the autism spectrum. Because to some extent, every culture has immense “guess” characteristics, even very direct ones (the article mentions Russia) — those things that are unspoken understandings between people. And for people who are extremely bad at grasping those things, it is really, really hard.

  • 5 Derek Scruggs // May 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Hm. This sounds too binary. China is a but of a guess culture in that they offer bribes and gifts, take their times making decisions etc. OTOH it’s an ask culture way beyond the US in the sense that the guy cutting your hair has no problem asking you how much your annual income is.

  • 6 Alan // May 15, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    I prefer the variant of wine glass filling where you fill your own, and then top off the rest. Much more efficient. I don’t want anyone who’d like more wine to go wanting, I wish they’d go and take it!

  • 7 Rob Cudd // May 24, 2010 at 5:05 am

    After much stewing the only conclusion I can arrive at is that Askers almost never become Guessers and Guessers, with time, can learn to Ask. Jonathan Chait, a dyed-in-the-wool Asker, figures we’d all be better off just Asking without abandon (an Asker would). However, fellow Guessers know that a sometimes frustrating life spent Guessing can yield a social spidey-sense that Askers can only limply grasp the benefits of owning.

  • 8 エドハーディー // Jan 20, 2012 at 3:35 am

    the need for information. Those who rely entirely on Fox News, talk radio and serial e-mail belong to an identity cult. These people call themselves “conservative” but rationalize and defend GOP administrations that regularly contradict the principles of fisc

  • 9 Catalin Parascan // Jan 11, 2013 at 9:45 am

    […] Asking and Guessing, Julian Sanchez, Julian Sanchez […]