Almost 20 years ago, a simple question was asked on the internet: if you’re visiting a city where a friend lives as a tourist, should you reach out and ask if you can crash with them? The ensuing debate was incredibly passionate, and deep divide between two groups of people: those who thought it was obvious that you should just ask, and your friend could say no if they wished, and those who thought it was unconscionably rude, and that you’d essentially be pressuring your friend into hosting you.
Your instinctive answer to this question, as one now internet-famous commenter wrote, depended on whether you came from an “ask” or “guess” culture. These cultural scripts inform much of how we interact with others — and like so many things, the stakes of these cultural differences can be turned way up in a romantic context. Are you from an “ask” or a “guess” culture, and what does that mean for your relationship?
What’s an “ask culture” vs. a “guess culture”?
Someone from an “ask culture,” whether that’s within their own home and family or within their broader cultural context (or both) is likely to name wants and needs directly, and prefer asking directly if they need something. They also prefer (and expect) others to do the same with them, which means they’re open to direct requests from someone and okay with saying no to them if they can’t or won’t fulfill them.
Indirect requests or assertions are likely to be perceived as passive-aggressive, manipulative, or dishonest — “Why didn’t you just ask?”, you might hear. Without making unfairly broad generalizations, people from the East Coast of the US or some areas of the global South may have grown up in cultures like this — think of TV depictions of New Yorkers.
On the other hand, someone from a “guess culture” is likely to experience direct naming of wants or needs, or making direct asks, as rude and demanding — in guess cultures, saying a direct “no” to anything is often considered very disrespectful, and so putting someone in a position where they might need to say no to a request may be perceived as trying to pressure someone into a “yes.”
Instead, it’s more socially acceptable to make a statement — “There’s so much to get done before my sister and her kids arrive!” and wait for the other person to offer something of their own volition, rather than ask directly if someone can, say, help you clear out the guest room. You might be more likely to come from a guess culture if you grew up in the American Midwest or deep South, or in some Scandinavian or Asian cultures.
How do these two paradigms interact in a relationship?
Imagine this scenario: Two people have just moved in together after a year of dating. Partner A, who’s close to their mother, says “My mom is so excited about our new place — she actually wants to come down and stay for a few days and help us unpack and organize. What do you think, can I tell her yes?”
Partner B agrees, but finds it excruciating to have a houseguest to cater to on top of trying to unpack a house, and resents not being able to have one-on-one time with their partner in the first weeks of living together. As a result, they’re irritable and chilly during the entire visit; it finally culminates in a whispered fight in the bedroom with the door closed, where Partner A hisses “I asked specifically and you said you were fine with my mom coming; if you didn’t want her here, why didn’t you say so?” Partner B says something like “Well, it’s not like I could say no!”
Here’s another one: Partner B is under a lot of stress at work, with major projects and lots of conflicts, and housework is falling behind. “I feel awful, the house is disgusting!” they say. “I don’t know how to stay on top of my half of the chores with so much going on at work.” Partner B reassures them that it’s not a big deal and they don’t mind; housework is less important than their mental health, and they don’t resent living in a slightly dirtier house.
After months of this, a fight finally breaks out when Partner B admits they feel like Partner A never helps them or supports them with anything — “Like when I was going through that work crisis, you couldn’t even pick up my half of the chores for a week!” Partner A is baffled; they say they would have if Partner B had only asked. “I asked so many times!” Partner B exclaims.
As you can see, even when two people share the same baseline values and even want the same things in a relationship, how we communicate about those things — or how we interpret others’ communications — can cause big problems. A disconnect in ask/guess cultures can mean that one partner may feel like they’re constantly trying to “read their partner’s mind” and being punished if they can’t, and the other partner frequently feels put upon or browbeat.
How can you set yourself up for success if you’re from two different cultures?
As with any relational issue, it’s helpful to approach in good faith and try to remember your partner’s positionality. It can be constructive to have deeper conversations about your cultural contexts and family environments — what did it feel like growing up in the other person’s house? What was the context if someone asked or requested something of you? What associations do they have with it? What associations do they have with your natural style of communicating?
It’s important to remember that neither an ask nor guess approach is inherently better — the goal here is not to bring the other person around to your way of doing things and get them to do it “right.” The goal is to start to create a shared communicative style between the two of you that works for you both. That will likely look like a compromise where both of you put in effort towards practicing both speaking and listening in the way your partner prefers and assuming good faith even when you can’t.
Remember not to assign your own intentions to your partner’s communications if you know you came from different cultures — while you asking “Can you walk the dog today so I can catch up on email?” might be an ask that doesn’t allow “no” for an answer, your partner doesn’t mean it that way if they came from an ask culture. Likewise, remember that your partner making statements tangential to their desired outcome isn’t them trying to be passive-aggressive; it’s a culturally familiar way to communicate that has reasonable roots in respecting others’ autonomy and space.
It’s not a bad thing for “ask” partners to try out phrasing things like “I was thinking about checking out the lake sometime soon” rather than “Want to go to the lake after work on Friday?”, and it also won’t hurt “guess” partners to practice asking directly “Could you take a turn being the designated driver at Annie’s party tonight?”.
It’s also helpful for “guess” partners to practice saying no to things — as paradoxical as it might sound, saying no can build trust and rapport when you see that your relationship doesn’t necessarily suffer damage because of it — and it can help it feel less harsh if your partner gives you a “no” in the future, as you know from experience on the other end of it that they don’t intend harm or judgment.