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Recently I read an article on 'ask' and 'guess' culture1, and it brought me a lot of clarity. It explains the reason behind many of the interpersonal conflicts that I faced during the past 10-20 years of my life. After reading the article, I feel that an atomic bomb was set off in my mind.

I identify myself as an 'asker'. However, I live in a city in Asia, where easily more than 80% of the people around me, including both of my parents, are 'guesser'. As a result, I find it hard to form meaningful interpersonal relationship, even with my parents. The reasons are as followed:

Often in my interpersonal relationship, I receive comments from the 'guessers' (usually indirectly such as through a mutual friend) that says I am insensitive, arrogant. I interpret these comments as telling me that the manner that I ask the 'guessers' is not ideal. Maybe I am too forceful or too impolite when I made my request. Hence, I react to these comments by changing the way I ask them to do something for me. Such as saying 'please' (which is very rare in our culture), or even to the extend of saying 'I beg that you...'. In short, I 'lowered' myself, so that I am not seen as authoritative. These do not help, but made things worse, and they are still resentful towards me.

After reading the article on 'ask' and 'guess' culture, I am aware that this is not a good approach, because I should not even ask them in the first place. If I ask, they find it hard to say no. If I ask it in a begging manner, it is even harder for them to say no, even if they are unwilling.

I am unwilling to change myself into a 'guesser'. At the same time, I am aware that it is impossible for me to change my society and turn the people around me into 'askers'. The only solution, therefore, is that I adapt to the 'guess' culture while keeping my personality as an 'asker'. Do you have any advice on how can I do that?


1 [from The Guardian] We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favour, a pay rise – fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid "putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes...". A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't 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." (more to read here)

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  • In addition to that, to avoid us throwing mud at a wall and hoping to see what sticks: If you have tried, or considered trying, anything, and it didn't work (or you think it won't work) to achieve your goal, could you include it in this question?
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 22 at 9:42
  • Hmm. At least with the link it's probably clear enough to reopen it, thanks for finding that @OldPadawan ! I would still love to see if you can include anything about how you've tried or considered trying to handle this so far, Jean :) After reading a bit of the link, one of my first instincts would be to preface questions with an 'I don't mind if the answer is no, but...' sort of construction, but I don't know if you've tried or considered something like that already?
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 22 at 9:56
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    It's hard to understand a goal and a solvable problem right now. I get the culture difference but I don't understand how they obstacle to what you call meaningful relationships. Do you get blamed for asking things "bluntly"? Do you compel people with requests you felt were free to be refused? Do you wait for people to ask you things but get frustrated they guess wrong on your needs? That could be very different answers.
    – Arthur Hv
    May 22 at 19:30
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    thanks for clarifying :) I've added a (generic) culture tag, but can you tell us which part of Asia you live in? I know some folks from China, Indonesia and Vietnam, they have some common ground but are really different. It might be better if people with a sharp knowledge of your part of the world can answer.
    – OldPadawan
    May 24 at 8:51
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    Thank for your replies. I am from Singapore. Most of the people in Singapore are Asian, therefore the local standard is 'guess culture'. I know we are expected to behave as guessers, but I find it to go against my value (and to some extend, my personality). I am unwilling to shift my value just so I can 'fit' into the society. But I feel terrible if I do not do that, because of the lack of social acceptance (and human are social beings). Hence I posted this question to seek advice. May 26 at 2:51
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Pretend you are an anthropologist

You are in the middle of a culture which is foreign to you. But you need to survive. You don't need to change your personality, but you probably need to learn more about this "foreign" culture. You have already made some steps forward, by learning the difference between 'guess' and 'ask' cultures. But it looks like you also need to know a lot more about the 'guess' culture.

Apply yourself to a serious study, as you would do for a foreign language. It will be a lot of work, but you seem motivated. Talking about 'surviving' shows the problem is important for you and it's worth the effort. Find books about etiquette and study them. Pay attention to literature and movies for examples. Study the people around you and their interactions as if you were an anthropologist. Be curious, see it as mastering a science (at first). After you know more about this culture which is now foreign to you, you can choose to think of it not just as an observational study, but as learning a skill. Thinking of it as learning a skill will help you separate issues of personality and identity from issues of communicating with others. Just like learning a foreign language is a skill not a personality change.

My experience: I am an 'ask' person who grew up in a mostly 'guess' culture. For example, if I wanted to stay with friends in another city, any form of asking would have been seen as rude. [Rule in my culture: you don't invite yourself at someone's home.] It would have gone something like this:

  • Me: I may visit your city next month.
  • Friend: About when?
  • Me: [dates] Then, details about the purpose of the trip, plans for things to visit (avoiding the topic of lodging). Staying on the topic of the trip (all the time not touching on lodging), signals that you are hoping for an invitation.
  • Friend (sooner or later understands it's a request) : You must stay with us then!
  • Me: No, I could not inconvenience you so much! (it's polite not to accept immediately)
  • Friend: insists that I must stay, that they will be offended if I don't, that their guest room is comfortable ...
  • Me: Thank you so much. I'm really looking forward to this visit
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If I ask, they find it hard to say no. If I ask it in a begging manner, it is even harder for them to say no, even if they are unwilling.

As you already identified, the problem is that it is hard for them to say no. So instead of begging (and therefore making it even harder) you could focus on trying to give the other person the feeling that it is absolutely okay for them to say no and that it is not your intent to make the other person uncomfortable. You could even go a step further and already make up an excuse for them in case they want to say no but don't know how.

Let's take the example from your linked article. Let's say you are the person who's coming over for business and wants to stay at your friends' house. If you assume that they are 'guessers' you could say something like:

Hey, I will be in your town for the next two weeks. When I am there I would be really happy to see you again. I was also wondering whether I could stay at your place since you have a spare room. But if you are too busy or if you don't have the nerves at the moment to accomodate somebody that would be totally understandable. I actually found a really nice hotel nearby already. Either way it would be nice to go for a coffee sometimes.

Of course this was only an example and many things also depend on the relationship you're having with the person you're asking. But with this approach you could gradually introduce people in your life to the fact that you don't mean to be rude when asking for things while at the same time learning about others and what they potentially find offensive.

Maybe this is helpful in some way. I wish you all the best.

Edit:

I come from an 'ask' culture and I have had this kind of problem with a former study colleague. He was from India and we had kind of a bad start with each other. But when I changed the way I asked my questions our relationship improved slowly. In the end we even became roommates. After some years of knowing each other we even talked about this and he told me that I came off way too strong in the beginning.

Of course this whole answer is purely subjective and also my situation is completely different but it worked for me I wanted to share my experience because maybe it helps the author of the question.

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  • I think in a truly "guess" culture you wouldn't blurt this whole request out as one thing. You would say you are planning a trip to their town and would love to see them. They say oh yes they would love to see you. Maybe they ask if you have a place to stay. You say that you are considering hotel x, unless there is someone in town you can stay with. They say "well good luck with that" or "that hotel sounds nice" or "but of course you must stay with me" -- or maybe they do after another 10 or 15 iterations. The whole point of "guess" vs "ask" is that you do not ask if you can stay. May 31 at 12:57
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    @KateGregory I totally agree with you that this is the way it is expected in a truly "guess " culture. But as far as i've read the question, that is not what the author is asking. So just saying that "you do not ask if you can stay" probably does not help. I was trying to find a compromise between those two types of cultures.
    – maxboff
    May 31 at 13:10
  • Dear maxboff and KateGregory, thank you for your insightful replies! I figured out that at the extreme end of the guess culture, it is inappropriate to even ask 'can I stay at your house'. At the same time, there are situations (maybe not too often) where you have to ask even if it risks offending the other person. In such cases, maxboff's suggestion comes in helpful. Thanks again for sharing and I am happy that I learnt something new! Jun 8 at 4:48

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