Ask Culture Meets Guess Culture

My primary online community (other than this one, of course) is a place called Metafilter. I”ve been involved there for more than ten years now. In addition to cataloging “the best of the web,”  the site hosts a question/answer forum called Ask Metafilter. Unlike Yahoo Answers or so many failed similar sites, the responses to queries on AskMe are almost uniformly thoughtful, on point, and informed.

For instance, in response to a typical Dear Abby-type question regarding an acquaintance asking to stay with a MeFi member in their NYC apartment for ten days, Andrea Donderini, aka Tangerine, posted a response that I’ve thought about for months. She said,

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.

Truth out!

The writer cuts a cultural distinction that subtly affects all of our careers, workplaces, and families. Too focused on making the Ask, and you’re seen as a boor. Too focused on timing the Guess just right, and you’ll get run over.

Add that framework to an understanding of the power dynamics in any typical workplace, and you’re well on your way to clarity regarding some of the reasons conversations regarding performance, pay, and other delicate matters get weird.

I can think of dozens of examples where this difference has played out at work, with friends, online, and in volunteer situations. I bet you can, too. A recent example: My “Guess Culture” HR intern had her feelings hurt recently because, in response to a request for some time off, my “Ask Culture” assistant was much more blunt with a “No” than my intern would have been. To my intern, the “No” served primarily as a rebuke that she had made a request at all, and was much more embarrassing than it would have been to my assistant. And discussing it was just pouring salt on the wound – far more painful than just leaving it alone. My assistant is both very assertive and very extroverted, so everything in her wanted to process the upset – while my intern simply wanted to all go away.

When we think about diversity, it’s easy to forget that there are many, many, layers to our differences. The worst thing you can do is to assume that someone wants to be treated as you’d like to be treated – by paying attention to these subtle style differences, you show respect and a willingness to meet your coworkers where they are, rather than where you are.

And you’re welcome for the introduction to Metafilter. Don’t get too addicted!

About the Author

Franny Oxford

Franny Oxford, SPHR is an HR leader for Texas entrepreneurs and privately held companies. Franny is committed to helping all members of the HR profession become better risk takers and stronger questioners of the status quo. Franny's wife is an RN and her 4-year-old daughter is a Princess. Or a Dinosaur. Or sometimes both. Franny blogs at Do the Work and you can connect with her on Twitter as @Frannyo.

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