Monday, May 31, 2010

This is fascinating

And it explains a little bit about human behavior to me.

It comes from a Metafilter posting, which I surfed over to after it was linked on a blog called "Not Martha."

The problem that was raised was: a couple has a New York City apartment. A vague friend-from-the-past of the wife wants to come and stay with them (because hotels are expensive) while she's there for a work-related thing. The problem is, the husband doesn't know her at all, and the wife admits she doesn't like her very much. But the man - the one writing the question - is put off by someone posing such an intrusive question. And a commenter suggested this:

"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."

Other commenters point out that NEITHER CULTURE IS WRONG. They are simply different.

But it makes a lot of sense to me. I grew up in a "guess" family - where you can kind of gauge ahead of time what is a reasonable and an unreasonable request, and you simply don't make unreasonable requests. In part, because you don't want to put the other person in the unpleasant position of having to say "no" to you, in part (for me at least) because rejection is uncomfortable enough that you prefer to avoid it when it seems likely.

It is not really passive-aggressive. It might seem that way to some people but it's really simply not asking for the moon because you know there's no way you will get it. Oh, you might want it, you might long for it, you might try to plan a way where you could slowly get bits and pieces of what you want - or have some alternative way of getting what you want.

But I think the bigger revelation for me is the idea of "ask" culture - for years, I felt frustrated and somewhat manipulated by people asking me for stuff that (it seemed to me) it should be obvious to them I couldn't give: either I didn't have the authority for it, or I didn't have the time, or really, they were making a request of an acquaintance that would be the sort of request that would be considered an imposition to be asked of a near and dear family member.

And I always felt like, when someone asked me for something, they were automatically expecting a "yes." Apparently, that's not true with "ask" culture - they ask IN CASE the answer is yes. Maybe they even expect a no. Or maybe enough "ask" culture people have learned that "guess" culture people are often really quite uncomfortable with saying "no," so they try asking them, figuring it stacks the odds in their favor.

Some of the other commenters (both on metafilter and on Not Martha) remark that being a Guesser is "difficult." Yes, it is. It's difficult in the way being an introvert is difficult: it doesn't quite fit the "norms" of American society, and yet, it seems presumptuous to me to tell someone who works in that mindset that they are "wrong" and "need to change."

 This is apparently a common thought: Jonathan Chait (I have no idea who the man is, but I kind of think he's a bit of an ass for directly declaring that being a "Guesser" is "wrong." Been to Japan, Jonathan?)  Yes, it's more challenging, and sometimes you find yourself frustrated, but I wouldn't call it "wrong." No more than being an extrovert vs. being an introvert is "wrong," or being someone who's more comfortable discussing things face-to-face (as I am) rather than over the phone is "wrong."

I do think the idea of "ask" versus "guess" though gives some valuable insight - first, for me, that it's really not that horribly terrible for me to say "no" to someone's request if I either can't fulfill it - or even if I don't WANT to (and it's not part of my job or something.) But on the other hand, I think it would be helpful for "askers" to realize that some people don't LIKE asking for stuff - they don't like seeming to push themselves forward. And that that is all right too.

Actually, the "ask" vs. "guess" idea makes some of the friction I have been dealing with with a certain colleague make a lot more sense.

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