Let’s Not Gel


Since the concepts were created in 2004, there has been a lot of debate over the relative merits of Ask Culture and Guess Culture. From the original Metafilter comment that introduced the concept:

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.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person — and you obviously are — then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

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 glace was correct. Guess Culture is terrible for anyone who values communication. As Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert state in More Than Two:

Passive communication is the norm in many families, and indeed in many cultures. Every now and then some pop-psych article will surface that compares passive with direct communication and says that neither is inherently “better,” and all you need to do is learn which style someone is using and adapt to it.

In polyamorous relationships, though, passive communication will fuck you right up.

Perhaps Guess Culture can work in a hermetically sealed environment where everyone is committed to reading subtle social cues and anticipating the unstated needs of others. I have my doubts, but it’s possible. However, in poly relationships, where communication is so important, Guess Culture spells disaster.

BrienneStrohl of Less Wrong proposed an even stronger form of Ask Culture called Tell Culture:

The two basic rules of Tell Culture: 1) Tell the other person what’s going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you’d both benefit from them knowing. (Do NOT assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it will even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance.) 2) Interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.

Tell Culture seems like a good addition, but substantially similar enough to Ask Culture that the real debate seems to be between Guess on the one side and Ask/Tell on the other. The latest attempt to harmonize the two sides comes from Benjamin Ross Hoffman, advocating something he calls “Gel Culture.” Hoffman points out the obvious issues with Guess Culture, but adds this about Ask Culture:

ask/tell culture sounds exhausting. I’ve explicitly asked for feedback, in certain contexts, but I do not like the prospect of telling & being told always, all the time, forever. Sometimes talking takes a lot of energy – and if people aren’t expected to anticipate others’ needs, that means it’s perfectly acceptable for people to do things that overload me, and take up my time, space, and attention, when I just don’t have the energy to say “please not now.” After all, if I had wanted something different, I should have asked.

This is, as the logicians call it, a reductio ad absurdum argument. Hoffman says “I do not like the prospect of telling & being told always, all the time, forever” as if this is somehow being proposed by advocates of Ask/Tell Culture. It isn’t.

Taken to its extremes, any social heuristic can be made to look ridiculous. Of course extreme, inflexible Ask Culture sounds overbearing. Extreme, inflexible ANYTHING would be horrible.

Eat more kale!

Eat more kale!

When people say “Ask Culture is good; Guess culture is bad,” it’s like saying “kale is good for you; sugar is bad for you.” It’s a useful general rule, but taken to it’s extremes, it’s ridiculous and harmful. Very large quantities of kale can cause hypothyroidism. Your brain literally cannot function without sugar. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, for almost everyone, reducing sugar intake and increasing kale intake would be beneficial.

The same goes for Ask and Guess Culture. While extreme, inflexible Ask Culture sounds like a nightmare, and a complete lack of regard for people’s unstated needs isn’t healthy, the fact remains that almost every society would benefit from moving toward Ask Culture and away from Guess Culture. Hoffman’s “Gel Culture” presents a false equivalence.

Hoffman proposes a plea of understanding:

Guess culture sounds stifling to me, and ask culture sounds much to talky. But one thing both seem to have in common is the assumption that if someone doesn’t follow the correct forms, they’re doing something terribly wrong. People who identify with guess culture think that ask culture people are abrasive, intrusive, and offensive. People who identify with ask culture thing that guess culture people are passive-aggressive and set unfair standards. But me? I’m used to people messing up. People make social mistakes all the time. I make social mistakes even more often than that. I don’t think that people are bad or silly or socially incompetent for having a communication style that differs from mine.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. As I said before, it’s good to understand that other people have different communication styles. However, the fact remains that Guess Culture people are passive-aggressive and set unfair standards. Passive-aggression is a cornerstone of Guess Culture. Hoffman’s plea that we forgive each other for “social mistakes” is fine, but let’s not gloss over the fact that these actions were actually mistakes, and work on correcting them in the future. Otherwise, we just end up making the same mistakes over and over.

Hoffman’s article is just the latest in a series of articles seeking to harmonize Ask and Guess Culture with the rhetorical equivalent of “can’t we all just get along.” This sort of analysis seems to presuppose that we have no influence on our culture. It takes the standpoint that the culture is what it is, and we must find the best way to navigate it. That’s true to a point, but the debates over Ask and Guess Culture are relevant to me as a question of where we should be taking our culture. Should we strive toward Ask Culture or Guess Culture? How should we conduct our own social circles? Should we favor social connections with people who ask for what they want or people who count on us to anticipate their needs? These are important questions.

It seems undeniable that Ask/Tell Culture is superior to Guess Culture. Let’s all try to implement that as best we can. As Hoffman says, we should be gracious in the face of mistakes, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that spreading Ask Culture means making the world a better place.

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7 responses to “Let’s Not Gel

  1. Pingback: Gel Culture: No Boots | Benjamin Ross Hoffman's personal blog

  2. Kade Azkyroth

    Perhaps Guess Culture can work in a hermetically sealed environment where everyone is committed to reading subtle social cues

    *…and neurologically capable of doing so*

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Placing Blame | Living Within Reason

  4. Pingback: Ask Culture as the Metric System | Living Within Reason

  5. Pingback: Self-Interested Feminism | Living Within Reason

  6. Pingback: Nuance Culture | Thing of Things

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