Are You Ask Culture or Guess Culture? This Communication Skill Is Life-Changing

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In this post, Emma talks about a communication skill that’s life-changing.

Are you an Asker or a Guesser? I saw this story on Facebook that perfectly illustrates this crucial communication style that no one is talking about.

But if you did know about it, it could be life-changing so knowing the difference could save your relationships. So, let’s start with the story below.

Ask Culture vs Guess Culture

The husband says: We live in a small two-bedroom apartment in New York City. People like to visit here and they don’t generally want to pay for a hotel. We understand this however, we also don’t want people staying with us who we don’t know or we don’t like.

My wife received the following email.

“Is there a chance that I could stay with you and Jeff for a portion of that time? I’d be using the subway the whole time and I’d be gone from 10 to 10 probably every day. So, I’d be out of your way most of the time. Let me know if this might be a possibility. Your choice on the dates. Thanks for your help. I hope this works out so we can see each other.”

Okay. First, I don’t even know this woman. I’ve never even spoken with her. My wife doesn’t really like her but she’s one of those people who just won’t go away.

To complicate things further, my wife is one of those people who doesn’t really like to say no or turn away people from her past.

So, I’m sure this woman will be following us wherever we go. Further, it really annoys me when people just invite themselves over or present the possibility of you accommodating them.

This is something I strive never to do. If anything, I might test the waters by mentioning I’ll be in town and see if an offer comes my way but suggesting that you should allow me to stay in your apartment with you and your significant other, whom I have not met, seems borderline if not downright rude, presumptuous, definitely.

Now, I doubt this will be the last time this happens so we need a final solution. So far, I have two. Number one, our apartment has a weird key true. And we haven’t been able to get it duplicated, somewhat true. We need our keys, true. Sorry.

Number two, keep it vague. Sorry, that isn’t going to work for us. Seems like a pretty good solution, but: 

  1. it’s still pretty awkward to say to someone especially since I wouldn’t put it beyond this woman to inquire further. Why, though? Why can’t I stay?
  2. It’ll be hard to get my wife to say this to her.

Have you had a similar experience? What would you do in this sort of situation?

Is getting cornered into an unfortunate situation like this just a fact of life that I’m refusing to accept?

Okay, so this man asks his question to the internet, and among all the answers this person got, they could basically be summarized into two categories.

This is a perfect example of Ask culture versus Guess culture.

What's the Difference Between Ask Culture And Guess Culture

So, the first group said, “Why can’t you just say no. Just say no. Just tell her no. You can even use the gentle Miss Manners approach, no! I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”  

And if she asks you why? Because it simply isn’t possible. Another responder said, “This woman isn’t even demanding to stay or assuming she can stay. She’s asking. You need to say no.”

Someone else said, “She’s not being rude at the moment. She’s just asking.”

Someone else said, “I don’t think it’s necessarily rude that she asked but it also isn’t rude if you say no.”

And another person said, “You are allowed to say no without offering an explanation, you know.”   

So. all of these answers are Ask culture. In some families you grow up with the message, it can’t hurt to ask but you might get no for an answer. That’s okay.

Now, the messaging to this couple from the Ask culture folks was just direct. If she gets offended that’s her issue. Don’t worry about it.

In Ask culture, you’re more likely to be clear and straightforward but you’re also more likely to be perceived as presumptuous or rude.

The woman asking to stay seems to be from Ask culture and the husband and wife both seem to be from Guess culture.

So, here’s what the other half of the commenters were saying.

“Just say that it isn’t a good time right now and that you’re sorry.”  Or offer some kind of excuse like why not say something like our apartment is not set up to have guests or tell her you’ll be out of town. Or say sorry, it’s not possible. And if she asks why, say “I can’t go into it. It’s too embarrassing. It’s one of those random life in New York City things.”  

Someone else said, “Does she have your phone number? Has your wife corresponded by email with her recently? Because it would be unfortunate if the only way she had to contact you was an email address that your wife no longer uses. Hint …. Hint, right?”

Their message was like, just ghost her. Just ignore her. Right? Just cut her off and try not to think about it.

And someone else said this, “You’re not the one who’s being rude. She is.”

Boom! Right there!

She’s the one who’s being rude for asking. This is Guess culture.

So, this group of Guess culture their advice was to use a subtle indirect way to tell her no without hurting her feelings.

They essentially said that it was rude of this woman to ask so directly and it would be rude of you to answer her directly.

So, find some roundabout way to gently hint to her that it won’t work out and just keep praying that she disappears so that you don’t have to be rude.

Now, in Guess culture, you try to put out feelers because you don’t want to make someone uncomfortable by asking directly.

You may hint at a request or subtly suggest something and then only ask directly if you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes.

In Guess culture, you rely on shared cultural norms. So, for example in Greece, it’s rude to leave food on your plate. It signals that you didn’t like it. But in China, it’s rude to clear your plate because it sends the message that there wasn’t enough food offered.

So, the subtleties of culture allow for people to show respect and consideration for each other. But this can lead to confusion for outsiders or people who aren’t sure what the cultural norms are.

Now, Askers may hate this but the reality is a huge amount of communication is non-verbal and a huge amount of understanding is cultural, like that is the reality of life.

So for example, one time when I was in Argentina, I made the mistake of telling someone, “Wow what a beautiful necklace you’re wearing.”   

And they interpreted this as me directly asking for them to give me their necklace, right? This is an example of Guess culture.

Now. my mom is mostly Guess culture. In my family, if someone asks for something like, “Do you have Nutella?” My mom interprets this as an expectation, as an order as if that person were saying, “You should run to the store and get some for me. This is a request I’m making.”

My husband is 98% Ask culture. He wants to be asked directly to do something. He doesn’t want me to hope or expect that he just notices. So, for example, if I’m making dinner (which is really like burning dinner) and I’m also helping my seven-year-old with her homework and the two- and the four-year-old are crying and fighting over toys. And he’s kind of sitting at the table. Me, coming from Guess culture, I assume that he notices I need some help. I assume that he can read into my needs that he takes care of the little ones and it sure is nice if he can guess that I need this help.

Now, when someone can look at a situation and infer or hypothesize or guess what might be needed, they can save others a lot of effort. But I’ve learned not to assume that he noticed my needs and ignored them which is what my family culture might assume and instead, I’ve learned that he would just much rather be asked.

So, I’ve learned to speak his language and say something like, “Hey hon, will you help the girl share and then set the table so we can eat as soon as possible.”

And I think it helps me to be more vocal and clear with him. But to my family it looks like I’m being too bossy or assertive with him. 

Which Culture Is Better?

Okay, so which culture is better? Some people would say that Ask culture is the only correct way to do it, the only logical way to do it.  

Now, I disagree. I don’t think that there is one way that’s right and the other way is wrong. I think it’s more about learning how to speak both cultures.

So, let’s just talk about the pros of being from Guess culture for a minute. Guessers are more likely to observe, to intuit, to tread carefully. I would say they’re more sensitive which I don’t think is a good or bad trait. It’s just a trait and Guessers tend to take into consideration others needs.

Now, the downsides of Guess culture are pretty clear. Guessers are not very assertive. Sometimes they’re passive-aggressive. They avoid discomfort at the cost of clarity and this can lead to misunderstandings.

Let’s talk about the pros of Ask culture. Askers are more likely to be clear and direct. You probably know with certainty what the other person wants but that doesn’t mean that there are less miscommunications.

So, for example, if a boss is an Asker and an employee is a Guesser, the boss asks, “Can you take on this extra assignment?”

He assumes that she will either say yes if she can or no if she can’t but she hears, “I expect you to take on this assignment if you want to retain your status here.”

So, she may feel obligated and say yes whether she has the time or not. Askers can also come across as rude, aggressive, or insulting.

Direct questions can feel uncomfortable for many people. They may feel blunt, insensitive, rude, or direct; and they inherently put people on the spot.

But asking exchanges discomfort for certainty. So, it really has its benefits too. 

The Problem: Crossing Cultures

The problem comes up when you cross cultures. When an Asker makes a lot of requests from a Guesser or when a Guesser needs a raise from an Asker.

In his column for the Guardian, Oliver Brickman says, “An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no.”  

Let me give you another example. Sarah runs a successful boutique hotel business but during the pandemic, they were struggling to make ends meet.

Someone asked for a discount right in the middle of the worst of it. He said,  “Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask?”

Right? He’s a classic Asker and she said, “Yes, it does hurt. It implies that our services aren’t valuable. It takes up my time and energy to explain why no is the answer and it causes emotional angst.”

I can see how a typical asker would just say, “That’s ridiculous they shouldn’t feel that way they shouldn’t take it so personally.”  But it’s not like there’s only one right way to be in the world.

Even the most diehard Askers must acknowledge that there are some questions that are inappropriate to ask. So, for example, asking an employee, “Would you like to have sex? ” Or asking a neighbor, “So, how much debt do you have on your credit cards?” Right?

Americans may feel confused in a Guess dominant culture like Japan and they might feel confronted aggressively in a die-hard Ask culture like Russia.

And would you agree with me that on average women are more likely to be guessers and men are more likely to be askers?

I mean these are just differences. It’s not like one is good or bad. It’s just nice to have language to explain them and understand them and identify these different approaches to communication.

There’s a spectrum of different types along this and it’s not a dichotomy. You’re not either one or the other. Most people are more likely to ask directly with close friends and strangers but they’re more likely to be guessy with indistinct relationships like dates bosses co-workers and acquaintances.

The Life-Changing Communication Skill

Okay, so now you know about these two different communication styles, what do you do?

I would say learn to speak in both languages, just become more aware of others and your own style and just increase your self-awareness.

And then be intentional about your use. Am I choosing to hint or to guess because I don’t want to be rude?  

Am I putting others in an uncomfortable situation by being so direct? So, if you’re a boss and you’re an asker, maybe take some time to think about your employees and their communication styles. Are there some who aren’t as direct with you as you’d like?

Instead of trying to change other people, consider how you might better speak their language.

So, instead of saying, Judy can you take this assignment,  try,  Judy, I know you’re really busy. What would you think about taking on this extra assignment?

Or if you’re a boss as a Guesser and one of your employees is an Asker, you might consider how you could be more direct and straightforward with them in an employee evaluation. Instead of hinting or trying to protect their feelings, you just say directly what you need from them.

If you’re a Guesser, learn how to work with an Asker. Don’t take offense, gird up your loins, and be more assertive.

If you’re an Asker, try to slow down. Be more observant and gentle when working with a Guesser.  

So, in general, I recommend choosing to be assertive and gentle not avoidant or rigid. Try to be sensitive but also clear.

It’s a pretty fine line to walk but at the very least just knowing about these two communication skills can help you see ways to improve your relationships.

Bonus: A Self Esteem Course To Restore Your Sense Of Confidence

I really don’t like most of the pop psychology out there about self-esteem. All the exercises that have you look in the mirror and say nice things to yourself. They just really don’t work for me.

But at the same time, when you have low self-esteem, you feel like you’re never good enough and your thoughts lie to you and they tell you that you’re a horrible person and that can really contribute to poor mental health and depression.

 So, if talking into a mirror isn’t enough what do you do? I’ve collaborated with Dr. Carly Lebaron and she made this amazing course on overcoming low self-esteem.

In her course, you’ll learn seven practical strategies to restore your sense of confidence and let go of your negative labels and feel worthy of love and belonging.

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