Ask Culture as the Metric System

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.
More Than Two

In the latest article which grasps and struggles to reach the conclusion that passive communication/Guess Culture maybe isn’t so terrible, Kate Donovan attempts to explain how Guess Culture is useful in dating. Before I voice what looks to be a profound disagreement, I’d like to point out that Donovan is a brilliant writer and thinker, whose ideas are generally on-point and well thought out. She has smart things to say on relationships, community, psychology, and social justice (not to mention a very tasteful blog theme), so my disagreement should be read in the most respectful way possible. My prior thoughts on Ask/Guess Culture can be found here.

Donovan starts by stating

Indirectness/Guess Culture gets a bad rap for being all about unspoken and implicit rules and norms, but I think it’s also extremely protective. When you don’t have a strong preference, being indirect, rather than explicit, can prevent being forced to choose a side.

While I agree that Guess Culture is protective, I can’t say that’s a good thing. What Donovan describes in this paragraph is a failure of communication, not a triumph of one. If a person wants to communicate a mild preference, there are much easier ways. Donovan caricatures Ask Culture by suggesting that the only option for an Ask person is the following:

Direct Version
Joe: Do you prefer A or B?
Jane: A.

That’s a fine answer, if Jane has a significant preference for A. However, if Jane’s preference for A is mild, then it doesn’t convey all of the necessary information. Donovan argues that

Ambiguous social signals are data points. Instead of Jane needing to hope that her preference for A wouldn’t directly contradict Joe’s preference for B, they can ‘dance’. Joe mentions some things, which indicate that he likes A and B (apple, aardvark, acrobat, bulldozers, Buffy) and Jane offers a rejoinder of mostly-A indicators.

However, the conversation could easily go like this:

Direct Version
Joe: Do you prefer A or B?
Jane: I have a mild preference for A, but B would be fine if that’s what you prefer.

This way, all necessary information is conveyed without the need for subtle hints or ambiguity that could easily be missed or misinterpreted. No need to execute a complicated “dance” in a situation where not everyone always knows the steps.

Donovan goes on to apply this advice to dating:

Dating is a lot of slow escalation and plausible deniability. Presumably, two people on a first date have a sense that the person opposite them might have the characteristics they want in a partner. Being warm and lingering over dessert is a way to signal interest in a second date, without committing to a relationship, while being hands-off and failing to make plans for another outing conveys a lack of romantic interest without needing to baldly state that you can’t imagine dating them. One ambiguous signal (“She was being really touchy! But she might just be a touchy sort of person who’s only somewhat interested in me!”) is not enough information. The process of dating lets everyone find trends.

As a direct communicator, Donovan’s description of dating sounds like a nightmarish hellscape to which no reasonable person would ever willingly travel. Granted, I’ve done it. I’ve played the game. I’ve done the dance. But I don’t do it anymore, because there’s a much better way: you just say what you mean! When compared to directly communicating your desires, “being warm and lingering over dessert” is a terrible way to communicate your interest in a second date. Why not just say “I’d like a second date”? Failing to make plans for another outing can convey a lack of romantic interest. It can also convey that you are busy, or that you have trouble planning ahead, or any number of other things. Saying “I’m not romantically interested in you” conveys a lack of romantic interest much better, if that’s the message that you’re intending to send.

And therein lies the core problem with Guess Culture/indirect communication: it’s not actually a strategy for communication. It’s a strategy for not communicating. The only inherent “advantage” of indirect communication is that it allows people to say words without actually conveying any information. In all of Donovan’s examples of indirect communication, the goal of the speaker is not actual communication, it’s avoiding communication. In Donovan’s scenario, Jane wants to avoid letting John know her preference. In the circumstance with the potential business client, Jane wants to hide her true intentions. In the dating scenarios, the goals of Donovan’s participants are all to hide how they are feeling from the other party. Case in point:

Jim could be unwilling to tell Lisa that he’s not sure if he’ll wants to put up with her annoying laugh on a permanent basis. Sharing this will not end well, even if it’s true.

Another example:

Asking what your partner considers love, only to hear back that they don’t believe in love lets everyone safely pretend it was only a distant, academic interest in the topic, instead of rejected at the moment they proclaim their love.

None of these are people communicating. These are people intentionally failing to communicate. Sometimes that’s smart. Sometimes you don’t want to communicate what you think, how you feel, or what’s going on. That’s fine. The problem with indirect communication is that it’s designed to convince people that that’s not actually what you’re doing. Guess Culture/indirect communication is all about maintaining the illusion that you’re communicating, while really you’re withholding. I find it dishonest and unethical.

Ask Culture as the Metric System

I tend to think of Guess Culture as the U.S./British system of weights and measures, and Ask Culture as the metric system. In my society, the U.S. system is deeply ingrained and used almost exclusively. There is no rational defense of it as a better system on a macro level, but there are practical necessities that require us to use it on an individual level. We can’t go around indiscriminately using the metric system in a society that’s accustomed to a the U.S. system. It would create confusion, and things would end up built to the wrong specifications. Also, even if other people weren’t confused, it would be burdensome for them to have to translate everything into a system that’s meaningful for them (e.g. “15 centimeters? Let’s see… that’s about 6 inches. Ok, now I know what you mean”).

But if we could start from a clean slate, the metric system would obviously be a better choice. It’s designed so things are easy, work well together, and make use of intuitive conversions. Converting from millimeters to centimeters to meters to kilometers is simple and has far less potential for error and confusion. It’s inherently a superior system which we only resist because change is difficult.

Ask Culture/direct communication is like the metric system, in that it’s an inherently better system, with much less opportunity for error and confusion. Communicating directly with people is not guarantee that they will understand what you are saying, but it is much more likely. If your goal is actually communication, Ask Culture is vastly superior in just about every way.

Like U.S. system, Guess Culture’s only advantage is that it’s established. Because Guess Culture is so established, we have a byzantine and confusing system of etiquette rules all based around the idea that direct communication is rude or ill-advised. Donovan says “[d]ating is a lot of slow escalation and plausible deniability.” Sure, maybe it is, when you do it, but must it be so? When I date, it generally involves slow escalation (because that’s usually what’s reasonable in the circumstances), but there is no need for plausible deniability. Telling someone how you feel can expose some vulnerability, but that’s not a good reason not to do it. And in fact, if direct communication about that sort of thing became the norm, there would be a lot less vulnerability exposed because people would see rejection as normal and healthy (and they’d have a lot of practice taking it).

Unlike the system of weights and measures, we can actually do something about Ask and Guess Culture right now! We can tell the truth, even when it’s difficult or inconvenient to do so. We can choose to directly communicate, and make it clear that we expect others to directly communicate with us. Starting with the people closest to us, we can create a micro-environment where direct communication is the norm and indirect hinting is discouraged. And that would be a nice place to live.


2 responses to “Ask Culture as the Metric System

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

  2. Pingback: A Better Way to Ask for An Apology | Living Within Reason

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