My Facebook wall has lately been tremendously full of people debating Ask/Guess/Tell culture. I think the only posts that have been created by this is Malcolm Ocean’s Reveal Culture and Brienne’s Against Being For Or Against Tell Culture; if there are others, I will add them in. (If you don’t know what Ask/Guess Culture is, you should probably read this.)

On Facebook, Brienne makes a tremendously important point: that “cultures” is a bad framing; in reality, it makes more sense to frame them as something like “strategies”. It is a very rare individual who communicates solely through Ask, Guess, or Reveal. A person may use Ask to find out if someone else wants to hang out this weekend, but Guess to figure out what birthday present to get their mom. People don’t even use solely Guess or Ask in particular domains: someone might use Guess-based flirting with a partner they predict to be equally adroit, and Ask-based flirting for someone they think is too insecure to read the signals properly. In light of this, I will be calling them “Guess”, “Ask”, and “Reveal.”

Malcolm dislikes the idea of Reveal/Tell being seen as “an extreme form of Ask Culture”: as he points out, the demands of Reveal are quite different, and the ways interactions work are different as well. However, I think there’s a sense in which Ask and Guess are on different parts of a spectrum on which Reveal is one extreme end. Most obviously, Ask is textual communication, Guess is subtextual communication. But I think there’s a more subtle thing about skills.

Of course, all three strategies involve certain discrete skill sets. To Guess, one must be able to give legible hints; to Ask, to say “no” without fracturing goodwill in the relationship; to Reveal, to phrase needs and preferences that might hurt one’s partner in a tactful manner. But certain skills Guess and Ask/Reveal use are opposites. Guess requires cognitive empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they’re up to. Ask, conversely, requires introspection: the ability to figure out what you really really want. Guess demands less introspection (it doesn’t matter if you can figure out what you want as long as the person who might give it to you can); Ask, less cognitive empathy (confused about what someone wants? They’ll tell you!).

Reveal is extraordinarily demanding with regards to introspection: to make it work, you don’t just have to know what you want, you have to know what you want instrumentally and what you want terminally, how you function on a very basic level. One can imagine “Conceal Culture” on the extreme other end: extraordinarily demanding of cognitive empathy, with almost no introspection required. Perhaps its assumptions of trust are “I trust that you have a good model of me and my preferences; I trust that I can understand you well enough to meet your needs and follow your boundaries.”

I think one problem in discussions of Ask/Guess/Reveal is that, all too often, both the skills we possess and the skills we lack are invisible. If we are introspective and self-aware, we think of that as a skill everyone has, or at least that is easy to acquire. If we have very little cognitive empathy, our misunderstandings might register as Just What Happens When You Don’t Communicate, instead of a skill that can be learned. For instance, consider Wesley Fenza’s Let’s Not Gel:

On first glance, it seems as though Ask Culture is clearly the superior of the two. When everyone asks for what they want, everyone has more information from which to make informed decisions. When people only send subtle hints, misunderstandings abound. The only obvious disadvantage of Ask Culture is that it makes it difficult to interact with people who subscribe to Guess Culture. However, that’s not really an argument in favor of Guess Culture, just an argument that we should understand that not everyone behaves as we do.

The most reasonable argument for Guess Culture is… um… well… there aren’t really any reasonable arguments for Guess Culture. The first glance was correct. Guess Culture is terrible for anyone who values communication.

Well… no.

If you are bad at modeling other people, then misunderstandings abound. If you have an excellent model of someone else, then the subtle hints are all the information you need.

Here’s one argument for Guess: Guess is good for people who lack self-awareness. For instance, a lot of people get in bad moods when they’re hungry, but are not capable of figuring out that they’re in a bad mood because they’re hungry rather than because of those assholes at work. In Ask, they are going to continue to be in a bad mood until it independently occurs to them to eat something. In Guess, their friend can notice that they’re probably hungry and say “let’s go eat.”

In addition, Guess allows people to signal care for each other. Meeting a need in Guess is saying “I care about you enough to devote mental effort to noticing your hints and preferences”; this sort of signaling of affection can strengthen relationships and make people feel more loved. Ask totally rules out this method of expressing affection. Pointing out that Guess is less efficient strikes me as similar to saying “why would I care about whether anyone buys me gifts for Christmas? It’s much more efficient when I buy everything myself.”

Finally, I’ve been friends with people with extraordinarily good cognitive empathy. It is great! When I come over, they have a cup of tea heating up and last time they were at the store they picked up my favorite flavor. I feel like using pure Ask hurts both those people (it reduces the value of something that would otherwise be a tremendous selling point) and the people around them (no favorite-flavor tea).

In Malcolm’s post, he argues that calling them “cultures” makes sense because of the shared assumptions: for instance, even if you have really good Ask skills, Ask does not work if you’re in a culture where you can predict your conversational partner is not going to say no. Even if you agree that no cultures are Ask about everything or Guess about everything, you can certainly use “this is an Ask Culture” as shorthand for “this culture tends to be more Ask.” And even if a culture isn’t 100% Ask in general, it might be completely Ask about certain topics, such as flirting.

However, I disagree. A lot of discussion of Ask and Guess tends to treat all relationships the same: there isn’t necessarily a clear distinction made between being Ask with strangers and Ask with one’s life partner. I think that is absurd (and regret the posts in which I have done it).

When a relationship is relatively low in intimacy, you have to go by defaults, and I think it’s here where Ask and Guess resemble cultures the most. If I just met someone and think they’re neat, I don’t know whether I can trust them to say ‘no’ when I ask them to get coffee with me. However, I can make a reasonable guess based on the fact that my social circle tends to be Ask about hanging out with people.

On the other hand, when a relationship is more intimate, I have a much better source of information than defaults: my knowledge of the person themself. I can know that Jane is very self-aware on most subjects so I should use Ask, but she enjoys me signaling my knowledge of her restaurant preferences, so when picking a place to eat I should Guess. For Joe, extensive negotiation about every little detail is part of the fun of sex, so we can use Reveal, while for Robin, even subtle hints tend to break the mood, so we use Conceal.

I don’t think Reveal and its hypothetical opposite Conceal will get as popular as Ask and Guess as defaults. Reveal is extraordinarily demanding: both in terms of introspection and in terms of its own skill set (for instance, the ability to deal with people saying negative things about you without becoming very unhappy). Outside of a very selected group, I doubt one would be able to trust that everyone had the requisite skills. However, I can certainly see individual relationships adopting Conceal or Reveal norms and doing quite well.