'Askers' vs. 'Guessers'

This article is from the archive of our partner .

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 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.

Over the weekend, Oliver Burkeman wrote a column for The Guardian taking up Donderi's dichotomy and asking, "Are you an Asker or a Guesser?" A number of bloggers took the bait, expanding into broader thoughts about the niceties of social etiquette. Here's what they had to say:

  • Contributes to Personal, Professional, International Tensions  In his column for The Guardian, Burkeman notes that neither type's approach is wrong per se, "but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won't think it's rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who's assuming you might decline. If you're a Guesser, you'll hear it as an expectation. 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."
  • We Ask Strangers and Close Friends  Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez offers a sociological reading of Donderi's theory that's worth perusing in full. "The polite indirection of 'Guess Culture' is... often a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity, which we generally want to do in social relationships where there's an intermediate level of intimacy—whereas relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks," Sanchez writes. "We do this, I think, precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous: We’re indirect because we’re negotiating just where on the gradient we fall ... To ask too directly at that stage can seem rude because it effectively demands a binary verdict on a work in progress."
  • Actually, One of Them Is Wrong  The New Republic's Jonathan Chait takes a hard line. "This is actually pretty simple: Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. What's more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us ... Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness."
  • It's Not So Black and White  The Incidental Economist's Austin Frakt endorses a more situationally fluid approach. "The problem with assuming one way is better than another is that it ignores the obvious temporal heterogeneity in preferences. The 'requester' (whether of Asker or Guesser type) is in more in need of a 'yes' (or 'no') response from the 'requestee' (again, of either type) at some times than others. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say 'yes' (or 'no') at some times than at others ... Therefore, it is perfectly sensible to be an Asker for some things at some times and a Guesser for other things (or even the same things) at another."

What say you--does the Asker/Guesser model ring true? (Or, put another way: We're not asking, but some people might want to leave comments, and perhaps you know someone who does...)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.