Ask culture vs. guess culture

This came to my attention from BdiJ. The following was an easy cut and paste way for me to provide the basic concept (from The Atlantic):

Let’s say your husband or wife has a friend who will be coming to your city for two weeks on business. This friend writes to you and your spouse, asking if you can put him up while he’s in town. Has this person committed a gross violation of etiquette? Whether you answer yes or no may speak to whether you’re an Asker or a Guesser–the two personality types described in a three-year-old [at the time] Web comment that has lately taken on a second life as a full-on blog meme.

On January 16, 2007, Andrea Donderi responded to an Ask MetaFilter post that dealt with a houseguest-related situation like the one described above. Donderi’s take on the situation is as elegant as it is provocative. Basically, she says, there are two types of people in the world:

“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.”

(End of excerpt from The Atlantic.)

A search on this comes up with quite a few hits but it appears that the 2007 post is what started the conversation. I found looking through the discussions interesting. First, a lot of people (including myself) find the existence of names for these cultures to be extremely helpful. Second, there are some people that have adamant opinions about this. There were quite a few people that think directly asking to stay was rude. There was at least one opinion that guess culture is out-and-out wrong. I will explore this through two lenses: gift giving and dating. Both of these illustrate that guess culture permeates our society – even amongst ask culture people.

There are at least two phrases that are a direct result of guess culture: “regifting” and “It’s the thought that counts.” BdiJ and I have a no-surprises rule. It is, perhaps, most applicable to the “gift” of a surprise party. We both consider openness and honesty to be extremely important. Throwing a surprise party inherently requires lying – even if it’s lying by omission. And, personally, I think it is rude to assume I will drop everything to participate in your surprise activity. But this rule also applies to gift giving in general. I’m constantly trying to keep the amount of stuff I have to a minimum. Getting presents that I don’t want doesn’t help. That doesn’t mean I don’t want any presents. But I want to be asked about a present before it’s bought. Acceptance can be on an individual basis or on an ongoing basis. I collect marbles. If BdiJ is somewhere and sees a marble I might like, she calls me to ask. On the other hand, she knows I always like to get (unscented) flowers. Wouldn’t it be nice if you only got things you wanted? Isn’t the need for the term “regifting” rather absurd? Isn’t it even more absurd that it is traditionally embarrassing to be caught regifting? How much thought has really gone into a gift if the person doesn’t actually want it? Unless you really know that someone would like a particular gift, wouldn’t it be more thoughtful to ask them first?

Something that immediately came to my mind when reading about these cultures is a phrase that I originally read in The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy in reference to asking about sexual activities: “It is always okay to ask, if it is always okay to say no.” This is an explicit description of ask culture. To me, this seems like a very good philosophy. It encourages communication and honesty. It also normalizes rejection; it says up-front that there is a possibility someone will say no and that it is okay for this to happen. So let’s look at how ask philosophy is so not part of societal norms – especially for women.

There is a distinctly sexist attitude that it is not okay for women to ask men out or to ask a man to marry them. (Fortunately this is changing, albeit not fast enough.) This social taboo is so strong it led to the concept of Sadie Hawkins Day which is the idea that a special day (or social event) has to be declared in order for it to be okay for a woman to ask a man out. Yuck!

More importantly, there are strong historical and religious traditions that it is not okay for a woman to say no. Saudi Arabia is known for its guardian laws regarding women. In the extreme case – and still practiced in much of that country – a women cannot even leave the house unless they are accompanied by a male relative. But it doesn’t stop there. Even if it isn’t universally enforced, according to Islamic law refusing to have sex with your husband is reason for divorce. This can include being thrown onto the street penniless. (I became aware of this through the well-documented book Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq.) There are similar guardian laws in the Old Testament. Women in the Old Testament are treated like slaves having to be under the control of a man. An extreme case of this is Deuteronomy 22:28-29 where a woman is supposed to marry her rapist. (Biblical apologists often argue that this passage doesn’t actually say this. My response to these arguments is that a passage that can even remotely be interpreted this way is abhorrent. Also, Jesus explicitly said he didn’t come to overturn the old laws (Mathew 5: 17-18)). Another example is that it was only in 1976 that Nebraska became the first state to recognize that a husband could rape his wife. It was only in 1993 that all 50 states did. On a personal level, I know someone that, when she was young, thought that going on a date required her to have sex if the man asked for it.

This attitude continues today. Consider that we have had to popularize the phrase “no means no” and its affirmative counterpart “yes means yes” (active vs. passive consent). Men need to viscerally internalize the second half of the ask philosophy. It should always be okay for a woman to say no. Too many women have been abused simply for turning a man down or for making it known that even trivial come-ons or physical complements are not welcome. There is a discussion group called something like I’m a nice guy, you fucking bitch. It is mostly posts of anonymized screen shots from online dating interactions. A man is all gushy and nice about wanting to meet someone and the moment they are turned down the response turns nasty. The fact that there are multiple discussion groups for this type of behavior is evidence of how common men turn to abuse when turned down. (There is plenty of other evidence.) Men need to stop doing this – now!

Even nice guys need to understand that there are enough men (not all men, but enough men) that don’t except no as an answer. This is why women have to be so cautious with every man until an individual man proves they are safe to be around. For example, don’t be insulted if a woman doesn’t want to be picked up at their house on a first date or wants the first date to be short and somewhere safe. It’s okay to offer to pay for a date, but if you insist after the woman says no, you are engaging in dominating and abusive behavior. Don’t make physical complements, even about clothing, unless you know a woman well or are in a dating situation. Even if you think you’re just being nice, these actions can make a woman start worrying about potential future abuse. Such caution is a necessity based on evidence. Don’t make it about you if you’re not the abusive type. Making it about you makes you one of the abusive men.

An important aspect of ask culture, perhaps especially in dating, is immediate acceptance of the refusal. There may be times, such as during negotiations or planning sessions, where pursuing the reason behind saying no is appropriate, but generally speaking it is okay for the reason to be “I don’t want to.” Especially if you don’t know someone, are only casual acquaintances, or just happen to` work together, there is no obligation for someone to explain themselves.

Guess culture proponents apparently think directly asking for something is rude. Part of this argument seems to be that saying no is also rude. Some of the guess culture defendants basically said you have to come up with a lie to justify why you’re saying no. Seriously? It’s better to lie than be upfront? This is the same reasoning that forces women to stop, smile, and politely respond to a random comment from a strange man rather than simply ignoring them or honestly telling them their attention is not welcome.

I would be quite surprised if any negotiator, mediator, or relationship counselor did not consider clear, open, and honest communication to be essential to resolving conflict. If there is anything that’s come out of the #Metoo movement it’s that, in the context of sex, clear communication is absolutely critical. The guess culture effectively promotes the opposite. I ask people in the guess culture to recognize the potential for confusion and harm their culture creates. There shouldn’t be any guessing that “It should always be okay to ask and it should always be okay to say no.

(The cover picture is of Lil Abner where Sadie Hawkins Day originated. As far as I can tell the picture is a promo for a Columbia-Tristar movie.)

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