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Are You an ‘Asker’ or a ‘Guesser’? The Answer Could Change Everything

Bethenny is visiting Los Angeles for a week and asks long-time friend Carole if she can stay at her place. Carole is surprised by such a forward question and feels put on the spot. Nevertheless, she agrees to let Bethenny stay for the week because she feels too awkward saying no. What results? A week of passive aggressive “Mmhmms” in response to the copious amount of “Is everything OKs?” and an otherwise strong friendship weakened by unspoken tension.

So, who are you in this scenario? Are you a Bethenny or a Carole?

If you identify more with Bethenny, you’re probably an Asker. If you’re more of a Carole, you’re probably a Guesser. Here’s what it means to be an Asker and Guesser, and why it’s important to know for your relationships at home, work and everywhere in between.

What is Ask vs. Guess Culture?

Coined in a 2007 blog post by Andrea Donderi in response to a question very similar to the example above, Donderi explains, “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, Donderi writes, “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.”

What happens when an Asker collides with a Guesser?

A thoughtful Asker will make a request believing the person they ask has the control to say no. A Guesser, however, thinks such a request is pushy and even borderline manipulative—“How could I possibly say no even if this request is completely inconvenient for me?” is how a Guesser thinks. This snowballs into a passive aggressive avalanche that is absolutely toxic for relationships. And that applies to all relationships—an employee asking a manager for a raise, a child asking permission to have a sleepover or even a woman asking her partner to change the channel.

Why knowing if you’re an Asker or Guesser is useful

It’s really, really hard to change something that’s part of how we grow up. The Ask and Guess culture of the home you were raised in is deeply nuanced and more often than not, completely unconscious. But there’s also larger cultural influences at play. Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian, “This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it's a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they're diehard Askers.”

So, just as it benefits an American doing business in Japan to understand the seemingly subtle differences between Askers and Guessers, it also benefits individuals in their everyday relationships. Why did Donna get so rigid after she agreed to let Ray borrow her car? How could Ray be so thoughtless, assuming Donna has nothing going on in her life?! If you take a step back, you can see exactly how the dynamic unfolds. Donna, a Guesser, believes she can’t say no if the request is made because she would never ask such a thing directly. And Ray, an Asker, sees no problem in making the request. If Donna can identify herself as a Guesser and Ray as an Asker, she can be more empowered to say how she really feels. And if Ray knows that he’s an outspoken Asker, he can navigate his requests more gingerly.

2 Tips for Guessers

1. If you’re a Guesser being hit with a request that feels pushy, try responding in a way that gifts you some time to consider the details. All you have to say is, “Let me think about it.”

2. Remember that your subtle way of making requests—as clear as it feels to you—probably doesn’t translate to most people. So if you want something—whether it’s a raise or more help with the laundry—ask for it. It may feel like it goes against every grain in your being, but it might be nice to have some directness in your life.

2 Tips for Askers

1. Askers, when making requests, include the possibility for the person to deny said request. Something like, “Hey, so this might not be feasible for you—let me know your schedule—but I was wondering if I could borrow your car on Saturday,” demonstrates that you understand this is a favor and might not benefit the person you’re asking.

2. Keep in mind you might be dealing with a Guesser. This could feel like you’re engaging with an alien who speaks a completely unspoken, repressed language. So if you’re an Asker in power (a boss, teacher, leader), help a Guesser come clean with what they want. Let them know that in your relationship, it’s OK to say what they want (of course, if it’s appropriate…you get it).

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