181 - Askers and Guessers

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By Erick Cloward. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.
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“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Last week I talked about asking for help. This week I want to delve into asking a bit further.

Guess Culture
I grew up in a Guess Culture. And what is a Guess Culture? A Guess Culture is one where the social rules are so ubiquitous that everyone knows them, or is expected to know them. It usually happens when most people around you hold the same beliefs about how things should be. When a culture is very homogeneous, for example, a religious majority, it’s easy to just assume that everyone knows the social rules. Outsiders who are new to a city, or even country, often find themselves flummoxed as they try to navigate all these unwritten rules that everyone else seems to know.

Ask Culture
On the other side, there is Ask Culture. This is where asking is encouraged, and guessing is considered rude. It happens in families or communities that encourage asking. For example, many of the sex positive communities have clear lines around asking and consent. It also happens in places where there are diverse kinds of groups and in order to navigate all their differences they have to ask.

I want to talk about each of these, and why becoming an asker can help improve our culture dramatically.
I came across the idea of Ask Culture and Guess Culture after reading an old a blog post from metafilter.com. In it, the original poster talked about how a friend of his wife was coming to New York and asked if it was possible to stay with them for part of the time. It was a very straightforward ask with no assumptions made that they had to host her and she even said, “Let me know if this might be a possibility…”. He thought the ask was exceptionally rude. The comments that followed were very interesting as plenty of people thought it was exceptionally rude, whereas many others thought it was respectful, and urged the poster to simply say "No". Finally, a user called tangerine mentioned how this was a clash between Ask Culture and Guess Culture. I’ll read a part of it now, and I’ll leave some links in the show notes to this and some other articles that I found rather enlightening:

“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.”

After reading this, it amazed me at how many things just clicked. I grew up in a Guess Culture where everyone around me was Mormon or understood how Mormon culture permeated every aspect of life in Utah. When I would meet people who had just arrived and were not familiar with the church, I would often end up explaining how things worked. I would often get responses such as “Really?!” or “Are you serious?!” when explaining some of the unwritten rules of the road.
There are traits for each type:

Guessers
  1. Are used to just "knowing" what the “right thing” to do is because that’s what everyone else around them does
  2. Consider asking a direct question as creating conflict and they are usually conflict averse
  3. Want you to guess as well
  4. Find it difficult to directly tell you the truth.
  5. Feel you are challenging them if you ask them direct questions
  6. Feel resentful when you ask, because you’re supposed to “know” what is rude.

Askers
  1. Ask because they don’t know
  2. They don’t want to make assumptions.
  3. Are okay with “No” as an answer.
  4. They want the truth and find it confusing that asking considered offensive.
  5. Have a higher level of communication because they want things to be clear.

I have found that living as a Guesser causes a lot of stress. Leaving things ambiguous and trying to guess what someone else might want leads to uncomfortable situations. Whereas I thought I was doing something nice, the other person found it rude that I didn’t ask before I acted. If I had taken the time to ask, I would have gotten buy in from the other person, and we both would have been happy.

As I delve into this, remember the point of becoming an Asker is to improve communication with people around you. And for some, especially for those that live in a Guess Culture, this is going to seem like you are learning to be rude. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It may be especially challenging if the people closest to you are Guessers.

Honesty
When we work on becoming Askers, the most important thing is to be honest. We’re honest about our intentions. We’re clear about our ask. We ask because we really want to know. Learning to be as honest as possible is hard. In many cultures, and especially Mormon culture, we’re trained not to rock the boat. We’re trained to “be nice” which is code for don’t say things that might make others feel uncomfortable. A big problem with this thinking is that it means we have to figure out what might make others feel uncomfortable, but we won’t know what that might be unless we ask. It’s really stressful!

Most people never see everything eye to eye, so we should be cautious of those that agree with us too easily. There’s a high probability that they are not being completely honest and may just be telling you what they think you want to hear. The more comfortable we are with telling the truth and hearing the truth the better we can deal with life and trust those around us.

When we work on becoming an Asker, we’re also expecting others to be honest. When we make an ask, we want the truth. We want the other person to let us know if it is something that they don’t want to do.

For example, say that you’re out on a first date, and you ask your date if they’d like to go to your favorite Italian restaurant. Now maybe your date doesn’t like Italian food or is gluten intolerant. Would you be offended if they asked to go somewhere else? Personally, I would be more upset if they didn’t because I want the date to be enjoyable for both of us.

Boundaries
I’ve often talked about boundaries on this show and I think they are helpful as we learn to be Askers. When we’re trying to be more honest, it does not mean that we have to tell everyone everything. It means that we need to be honest about what we’re feeling and thinking. This is where defining and respecting boundaries comes in. For example, if someone asks you about something you don’t really want to discuss, you don’t have to tell them. Informing them with something like, “I’m not comfortable talking about that topic” is a straightforward way of setting your boundaries. If you notice that someone is uncomfortable with something you’re asking about, you can ask them if it’s something that they don’t want to discuss, and we can respect that.

Becoming an Asker can also help a lot in professional situations. For example, say that you’re in the middle of a project at work and your boss comes to you with a new project to work on. If you’re a Guesser, you might just say yes and try to figure out how to fit it in with the rest of your work, knowing that it will put you behind. If you are an Asker, you ask which project is the priority, and how much time you should allocate to each. If your boss is a Guesser, this may be a bit of a challenge, but this kind of clear communication can help you reduce stress and conflict because you are bringing up your concerns and asking for clarification.

Be Okay With “No”
When a Guesser is in a situation where they have to say “No”, it makes them uncomfortable. They feel like the other persons should never have “put them” in that situation, or they should have asked in some very specific way that an Asker could not have known. This is frustrating for an Asker because they don’t see asking as being rude. They are trying to be clear, to understand, or to get consent.

Responsibility
Being an Asker also means that you take responsibility for what you say. It means that if others are uncomfortable with what you ask for, as long as you follow your core principles of honesty, open mindedness, and compassion, you do not need to apologize or feel bad about telling the truth. Remember, if someone else is offended because you asked a question, it is their thinking that caused their emotions. You did not “make them” feel anything.

Create an Ask Culture
Creating an environment in your home or work of an Ask Culture can reap significant benefits. It can strengthen the communication with those that you spend most of your time with. It can lead to discussions that are difficult and rewarding. For example, if kids have an environment where they feel like they can ask their parents about anything, it can lead to a higher level of trust. It means that when they're struggling, they will ask you for help, rather than shutting you out. If employees feel like anything is open for being questioned, you can have the frank kinds of discussions that are needed to improve the workplace and the company itself. We should reward people for being honest, not “punish” them for saying something that we don’t like.

Conclusion
Becoming an Asker after living so long as a Guesser has been a challenge for me. It is uncomfortable because I was trained for so long to say the “right thing” or have the “right answer”. Sometimes being honest about what I want feels confrontational. It also feels vulnerable because I might get a “No”, which feels like being rejected. But being an Asker is about doing our best to be honest and expect honesty from others.
And “No” is a completely acceptable response.
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