Ask Culture and Guess Culture

“One of my wife’s distant friends has attempted to invite herself to stay with us, again,” writes the exasperated owner of a prime 2 bedroom apartment in New York City in this Ask MetaFilter question. “She did this last March, and we used the excuse of me starting a new job and needing to do x, y, and z as well as the “out of town” excuse for any remaining dates. This got us off scot-free, but we both knew the time would come again… and it’s here. We need a final solution.”

He goes on to list two different possibilities he can think of for getting this woman to stop asking for free room and board. The first is a little white lie, something about their keys being hard to duplicate. The other is to be vague, to say something like “Sorry, that isn’t going to work for us” and hope she doesn’t ask why.

The first few answers give this poster very direct advice: Just say no. No need to give an explanation, it’s her who’s being rude by asking. Others give him advice that was probably more like what he was expecting: other ways to be vague like claiming that it’s “One of those random `Life in NYC things.’”

Another thread of discussion popped up around whether or not the woman asking for a place to stay was being rude. Some posters couldn’t understand how simply asking to stay in someone’s apartment was rude, while another went as far to say that putting someone in the position “having to be rude and say no” was rude in and of itself.

It is into this context that user tangerine contributes this answer:

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.

Obviously she’s an Ask and you’re a Guess. (I’m a Guess too. Let me tell you, it’s great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises.)

Thing is, Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people — ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you’ll have to embrace Ask behavior. Otherwise you’ll spend your life in a cloud of mild outrage at (pace Moomin fans) the Cluelessness of Everyone.

As you read through the responses to this question, you can easily see who the Guess and the Ask commenters are. It’s an interesting exercise. (#)

After this comment many users, including the original poster himself, began to use these terms in discussing the issue. And why wouldn’t they? Ask Culture and Guess Culture describe two valid yet opposing ways of interacting with the world with very little value judgment given to them. Framing the argument as such was a stroke of utter genius by tangerine, broadening the perspective of many who participated in the discussion and adding to the general lifebuzz.