In this post:
>> Why making requests of people feels so harrowing
>> How the way you were raised affects the way you ask for what you want
>> A quick guide on how to tell which category you (and your inner circle) are
I was in session with a coaching client who was frustrated with their partner:
“He isn’t taking enough initiative.” “You’d think he would be able to tell that I needed help!” “I want him to help me plan things, but he doesn’t do a good job.”
“Well, have you told him about any of this?”
Turns out they had hinted at their wants, felt uncomfortable expressing it in full, and would have prefered their partner just being able to read the room.
This isn’t an uncommon experience, and neither partner is technically doing anything wrong.
I think most of us can relate, but who you relate to says everything about whether you were raised with “ask culture” or “guess culture.”
You grew up on the value of directness. You can ask for what you want, but that comes with the understanding that you aren’t guaranteed a “yes.”
“It can’t hurt to ask.” When we want something, we’ll ask for it directly, and mostly assume others are doing the same.
“If they aren’t speaking up, they must be okay.” It can be frustrating to be around Guess culture. It feels like they’re never fully upfront about what they want unless they’re upset. You need to ask a bunch of questions before you can divine their true intentions.
It can also feel like you’re being blamed for not mind-reading, when you feel it’s the other person’s responsibility to communicate clearly about what they want.
Western society trends toward Ask Culture.
You grew up on the value of social perceptiveness, learning to anticipate needs.
Family members around you likely insinuated wants or needs and relied on you to pick on said insinuations. “I’m craving noodles today” versus “I want to eat noodles with you.”
It’s comfortable to imply what you want, but asking them directly feels uncomfortable.
You learned that it was rude or inappropriate to give someone a direct “no” or to put them in a position where they may need to give you a “no.”
When you’re forced to give someone a request, you try to go out of your way to make it clear that they can tell you “no” and it won’t hurt your feelings.
Friends may often refer to you as “diplomatic.”
When you turn down an invitation, you also feel obligated to come up with an external reason for not attending (sick family, for example). This reason should also be crafted in a way that doesn’t offend the other person.
The end result of all these rules is having to do an intricate and subtle social dance where one hints at what they want without outright asking or risking the faux pas of making someone else say “no.”
When someone is being especially persistent, even when you’ve turned them down before, it can feel especially triggering.
When confronted with ask culture, it can feel like the other party is being willfully selfish, uncaring, or overly pushy—“occupying too much space.”
Eastern society trends toward Guess Culture.
Typically the guesser feels uncomfortable being direct about what they want and works great with other guessers, but around an asker, their indirect requests get missed.
So they’re often left with a feeling of being let down or becoming increasingly more agitated because needs aren’t being seen or met.
Meanwhile, the asker is silently expecting the guesser to directly voice their wants and needs should they arise. Because when they don’t, the asker assumes that the guesser is doing okay and is typically surprised when they’re met with an emotional outburst (anger, frustration, hurt, and so on).
The solution here is first understanding who belongs in which camp; the next step is figuring out some middle ground.
We should have deep and honest conversation about how we ask for the things we want and how much we’re able to meet in the middle:
One party can become more comfortable with asking directly.
The other party can become more attuned to their partner’s body language and tone.
I grew up in a guess culture.
Speaking up for what I want feels like volunteering to go to the dentist for a root canal, but I find myself liking the principles of ask culture more.
I don’t want my partner being hyper vigilant, trying to read into my every tone and facial expression, just so they can take a guess at what I want.
If I want something, it’s in my best interest to learn how to express that as clearly as possible.
But as always, there’s no “right way” here.
I’d love to hear how you choose to address this great divide in your own relationships. And if you got something from reading this, let me know in the comments! Or even better, via the Substack link in my bio.
(Or, if you’re a guesser, it would be nice if you let me know what you think.)