Communication From Another Dimension

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:

  • Explicit vs Indirect
  • Verbal vs Nonverbal
  • Anticipation vs Self-Advocacy
  • Zero-Sum vs Coöperative

Explicit vs Indirect

Sometimes people just tell each other things. "Can I borrow that book?" Other times, people say things indirectly. "I'd really like to read that book sometime."

One advantage of indirect communication is that it allows the other person to save face in otherwise possibly embarrassing situations. You might gently correct their behavior in a way that doesn't make it obvious to everyone present that you did this - or at least, it's not obvious that it's obvious. You might make a request in a way that doesn't require them to explicitly turn you down - which in turn makes it harder for you to apply pressure or demand reasons in a way that might be very awkward for them to answer. "No, I can't lend you Paradise Lost, because I actually cut out the pages and replaced them with comics so I can seem smarter than I am." Or, "because I'm embarrassed at the stains on the pages."

Another advantage of indirect communication is that it's a way to show off that you understand each other. The better you know each other, and the more socially skilled you are, the less direct your communication has to be - so it's a costly signal of both friendship and social skills, both of which are things people have good reason to show off.

Direct communication has the obvious advantage of being easy to understand. Even people who know each other really well can sometimes miss hints and fall victim to the illusion of transparency.

The Romulans' Cloaking Device Produces the Illusion of Transparency

The Romulans' Cloaking Device Also Produces the Illusion of Transparency

Verbal vs Nonverbal

Sometimes we use words. "Hey, you've got something on your nose." Sometimes we don't. [Catches the other person's eye, flicks at own nose a couple of times.] The advantage of verbal communication is that words have meanings and you can look them up in a dictionary, you can elaborate pretty easily, and it's much easier to be clear.

One advantage to nonverbal communication is that it is often quiet. You can discreetly inform someone of something. This has the same face-saving implications that indirect communication does, but sometimes nonverbal communication can be very explicit. Nonverbal communication can also be performed without interrupting verbal communication. You could interrupt someone and say, "I don't understand what you're saying," or you could just make a quizzical face while they're talking.

Some people also find verbal communication difficult, painful, or cognitively expensive, and can't always do it. Very young people, and even some grown-ups, don't know how to communicate verbally, so this is their only way to express themselves to others.

Finally, some nonverbal communication is harder to fake, because it's involuntary. It's possible to tell a real smile from a fake one, sometimes people laugh, cry, or start anxiously redirecting their feet spontaneously without thinking about it consciously.


An Example of Involuntary Nonverbal Communication

Anticipation vs Self-Advocacy

If I had to make the case for Guess Culture, I would say that the Spirit of Guesserosity is trying to anticipate the other person's needs proactively. The advantage of this is that you get practice modeling other people and thinking about their needs. It's also nice for them, because they get what they want frictionlessly, without having to negotiate for it. This can be very important when other people may not even realize they want something. They might not notice they're shivering until you offer them a blanket. A coffee-drinking houseguest might not even think to ask a decaffeinated host to buy some coffee until it's the morning and they're grumpy and need their fix.

One disadvantage of anticipation is that sometimes you anticipate things incorrectly, and waste resources on something nobody needs. The Road to Abilene paradox is a classic example of this. In addition, if you expect others to anticipate your needs, you may not have practice asking for things you need.

Another is that when requests are rare, people may assume that they indicate an emergency situation and defer too much to them.

On the other hand, if local norms expect people to advocate for themselves, there's no way to get into a Road to Abilene problem. People ask for what they need, and trust that others won't automatically give it to them.

One disadvantage to expecting self-advocacy is that some people aren't very good at it. Maybe they don't really like talking or drawing attention to themselves. Maybe they don't come from a place where self-advocacy is normal. Advocating for yourself also requires a lot of self-knowledge. If you don't have a good understanding of what you need, you're not going to be able to explicitly ask for it. If everyone assumes that someone who needs a blanket would ask for it, the person who doesn't realize they're miserable and shivering because they're too cold may not get one.

Zero-Sum vs Coöperative

If I had to make a case for Tell Culture, I'd say that the Spirit of Telling is to try to get away from the assumption that requests are a tug of war. Implicit in the ask/guess dichotomy is that there are only two ways to resolve the situation when someone thinks they want something: either the request is granted or denied. Tell Culture seems like an attempt to make more requests into collaborations. Don't just say what you want - say why you want it, and how much you want it. Maybe the other person will have a better idea for how you can get it. Brienne gives an example of the same request made three ways in her Tell Culture post:

Ask culture: "I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip. Is it cool if I crash at your place?" Response: “Yes“ or “no”.

Guess culture: "Hey, great news! I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip!" Response: Infer that they might be telling you this because they want something from you, conclude that they might want a place to stay, and offer your hospitality only if you want to. Otherwise, pretend you didn’t infer that.

[Tell Culture]: "I'll be in town this weekend for a business trip. I would like to stay at your place, since it would save me the cost of a hotel, plus I would enjoy seeing you and expect we’d have some fun. I'm looking for other options, though, and would rather stay elsewhere than inconvenience you."

Response: “I think I need some space this weekend. But I’d love to get a beer or something while you’re in town!” or “You should totally stay with me. I’m looking forward to it.”

Note that the first response to the Tell Culture request doesn't just turn it down; it suggests an alternative that would satisfy some of both people's needs.


I wrapped up my earlier post like this:

I don't really identify as coming from ask, tell, or guess culture. I don't recognize any of those as my own. I don't even identify with wait or interrupt culture anymore. I'm from "use a bunch of heuristics and code switch all the time and sometimes people communicate wrong and bad things happen and that's okay we'll do better next time" culture.

I forgot the most important thing, though - the animating principle that distinguishes the good "use a bunch of heuristics and stuff" from the bad kind. That principle is, Hug the Query. Sure, sometimes you might need an approximation to make communicating less cognitively demanding. But never forget that "how do I Ask Culture procedures?", or even "Which is better, Ask or Guess?" is just a Disguised Query. The real goal is to make the conversation beneficial to both sides. If you expect that doing it "wrong" will yield a better result than doing it "right," then go ahead and do it wrong!

It's not enough that the other person ought to have understood. If you dropped a hint that would have been obvious by local standards but it's clear they didn't get it, drop a more obvious hint - or take them aside and tell them explicitly. If they keep accommodating your requests but it's clear they're uncomfortable or unhappy doing this, check in with them verbally, even if local norms expect them to advocate for themselves. If you are socially skilled, please consider adopting an attitude of noblesse oblige. Not only is it the kind thing to do, but it will let you be friends with more kinds of people; by being kinder, you'll become stronger as well. And that's usually a lot more important than "winning" the conversation.

7 thoughts on “Communication From Another Dimension

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