I grew up in an environment that forced me to learn to read other people’s moods; it was also best to be aware of the situation that was causing said moods, too. I developed a strong intuition for how to get what I needed or wanted, but it was rarely because I was good at asking direct questions. Instead, I followed the lead of family members and would simply make statements that I hoped (or suspected) would get a response in my favor.
For example, in front of teammates, I would say I don’t have a ride home after practice today and hope someone would offer to drive me home. Or I would float suggestions that were almost questions but took all effort off of the other person to oblige. I don’t have a ride home after practice today. If it’s not too much trouble or if anyone is heading my way, I’d love a lift. I was raised in a Guess Culture and was a Guesser for a long time too. I am now an Asker and am raising my kids in an Ask Culture.
The terms link back to an Ask.MetaFilter post by Andrea Donderi in response to a person wondering how to deal with a friend who asked them to stay at their house while visiting. “She has attempted to invite herself to stay with us again,” the person wrote, clearly exasperated. Donderi explained that this irritation came from the friend being an Asker and the exasperated recipient of the ask being a Guesser.
Askers believe that it’s okay to ask for anything but (usually) understand that the answer could be no. Yes, there can be feelings of rejection, disappointment, etc., but the Asker anticipates those possibilities. Askers are (usually) also able and willing to say no when someone asks them a question. This could be for a number of reasons that range from not wanting to do something or being too busy to setting boundaries to avoid toxic situations. For Askers, the “no” is easier to hear and say.
To a Guesser, Askers may seem rude or invasive because Guessers would never put someone in the position of having to say no. Why would you make someone feel bad if they couldn’t do the thing you needed or wanted?! Instead, Guessers rely on subtlety and context clues to get what they want by waiting for someone to offer what they are looking for rather than just asking. To an Asker, Guessers may seem passive aggressive or incomprehensible.
Here’s what an exchange may look like between the two styles:
Two Askers: “Hey, can you get me a soda since you’re in the kitchen?” “No. I’m a little busy right now.” The first asker would likely understand and get up and get their own soda.
Asker to a Guesser: “Hey, can you get me a soda since you’re in the kitchen?” “Ugh, can’t you see I’m trying to read this email?” “Why do you have to be so pissy? Just say you can’t.”
The Guesser may see the Asker as lazy or selfish for not getting their own soda. Meanwhile, the Asker is annoyed that the Guesser gets so worked up over a simple ask. Sometimes the Guesser will stop what they are doing though, get the soda, and deliver it with resentment.
Guesser to an Asker: “Are you in the kitchen?” “Yes.” “Are you busy?” “Sort of.” If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind getting me a soda when you’re done doing whatever ever it is you’re doing in the kitchen?” “Sure.”
The Guesser actually wants the soda right now but thinks it would be rude to get it themselves now because they already asked and got a positive response, just not in the timeframe they wanted. Is it offensive to not take the offer even though it means waiting an indeterminate amount of time? Or the Guesser may be wondering why the Asker didn’t offer a soda to them when they got one for themselves, and feels ignored or not taken care of.
The Asker may wonder if the Guesser is upset that the Asker didn’t drop what they were doing to get the soda. Is the Guesser hurt? Why didn’t they just get it themselves?
Or, without asking, the Guesser will go to the kitchen to get a soda and announce that they are getting a soda. They anticipate someone confirming aloud that a soda sounds nice and will understand that the person would also like one. Or they will ask if anyone else wants a soda because that is what thoughtful people do.
Not that Askers are without emotion, but the stakes are lower for them. Guess culture has more coded subtext that results in offense or anxiety because there are expectations involved in being asked to do something. A Guesser may consider Askers to be rude because they have put the Guesser in an awkward situation of having to come up with excuses to not fulfill the request or being forced to set a boundary with a simple no. Nos are not simple for Guessers because they have been raised to only vocalize what will likely get them a Yes.
Neither is wrong, per se, but I have learned that being an Asker has reduced my anxiety and allowed me to be a more direct communicator. I have literally taken the guessing out of situations by asking for what I want. I have the benefit of understanding Guessers, though, so I also reassure the person that they can say no and they don’t need to feel bad about it. And when I sense someone hinting around at something they want, I encourage them to ask.
I do this with my kids often. They will make vague statements like, I’m hungry or I’m thirsty when they see me in the kitchen. I will respond by asking them if they have a question. Sometimes they will ask for food or water, and sometimes I’m able to help. Other times I’m busy and they need to decide to get it themselves or wait. I tell them I’m fine with either.
I want my kids to be Askers. This means they need to get comfortable with being told no and learning not to take the word as a personal wound. Otherwise, they are likely to agonize over requests they want to make or hold resentment for the Askers in their lives who continue to pester them with what they believe are “thoughtless” requests.
But being an effective communicator is more than just being able to speak clearly and with confidence. Knowing your communication style and how you respond to others is invaluable, and it’s just as useful to understand the communication styles of others — including the layers behind what they’re saying. How we communicate is based on factors not limited to biases, trauma, lived experiences, and the culture in which we were raised or live. For many folks, once they learn the difference between Ask Culture and Guess Culture communication styles, the clouds part and conversations tend to go improve.