In my post complaining about the way people talk about Guess, Ask, and Tell Cultures, I summarized them this way:
The gist of the difference is that in “ask culture” it’s normal to ask for things you want even if you don’t expect to get them, it’s normal to refuse requests, and it’s not expected to anticipate others’ needs if they don’t ask for things, whereas in guess culture, you’re expected to offer things without being asked, you don’t ask for things unless you really need them or strongly expect the other person will want to give them, and it’s rude to refuse requests. (Tell culture is a variant on ask culture where instead of just making a request, you express the strength and exact nature of your preference, so other people can respond to your needs cooperatively, balancing your interest against theirs, and suggesting better alternatives for you to get what you want.)
But the more I think about it, the more I'm sure that the problem isn't that one or all of these is bad - it's that these distinctions are insufficiently dimensional. Here are a few more precise axes along which communication differs:
Anyone who's taken a sufficiently high-level statistics course, or tried to teach themselves statistics, knows that there are a bunch of different kinds of statistical procedures, and a bunch of different "statistics" and "tests" they have to do to figure out whether the results are "significant." For example, I've seen the F Test introduced, explained mathematically, derived a few times - but I never quite figured out what it was actually doing. Not during my mathematical statistics course, not during my regression or econometrics courses, not at work, not in my own reading. Then last night a friend asked what it was and I explained it in about 30 seconds, then realized that I'd figured it out. I figured it would be nice if someone explained this on the internet, and I'm someone, so here goes:
The way people have been praising ask culture and tell culture makes me imagine a boot asking a human face whether it would like to be stamped on - forever. Whether it wants to or not, eventually the boot's going to give in. But why do I feel so uncomfortable with the idea of ask/tell culture? It seems so sensible; why do I want to run away and hide whenever I hear someone explain how good it is?
Warning: mild spoilers above the fold, big spoilers below. There is no way to describe this book without spoilers.
The protagonist is a detective solving a mysterious murder. A body has turned up in the fictional Eastern European city of Beszel. The problem: the body has been dumped across an international border; the victim lived in, and was almost certainly murdered in, the neighboring fictional Middle Eastern city of Ul Qoma.
These aren't like East and West Berlin, or Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, sharing a single contiguous unambiguous border. The cities occupy the same physical grid of streets with borders and "shared" areas crisscrossing the literal topographical ("grosstopic") area. Only some unfathomed and possibly unfathomable force prevents the citizens of each city from perceiving and interacting with each other. It's not just that it wasn't legal to dump a body across the border - it shouldn't have been possible at all.
I cannot tell you what makes The City & the City, by China Mieville, so good without spoiling the whole thing, but I will tell you that it does not betray the trust of a reader who expects mysteries to be about something. This is not Lost. There really is a secret to the Cities, it makes sense, and it is big enough to justify the story. To the right kind of reader, this is recommendation enough - if so, go and read it.