Gel Culture: No Boots

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?

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.) For more detail including arguments for Ask/Tell, follow the links at the top.

It's not that I'm a partisan of "guess" culture; I have basically never heard an argument in favor of it. Maybe that is because guess culture is strictly worse. Or maybe I never hear the case for guess culture because ask/tell culture people say, "hey, would you mind asking for things? Here are some reasons why that would work better," while guess culture people just sit around quietly waiting for everyone else to figure out why they're wrong.

I think it's the idea of a fixed communication monoculture scares me. Living in a pure guess culture sounds terribly stifling - ordinary day-to-day situations where current norms are good enough might be bearable, but how would anyone know whether there are deep unmet needs if no one asks for anything? Art could be a solution here - you can write a story about someone else secretly wanting something, and then other people have a clue that you might possibly want that thing, but don't feel socially obligated to offer it if they don't want to, because, hey, it's just a story. But that only solves big long-term problems, it would be kind of ridiculous to have to write a short story every time you want to ask a friend for a favor or complain about someone's bad habits. It would also make it costly to write stories that weren't secretly requests, since everyone would misinterpret them. (I think this already happens.)

But 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.

I think I dislike telling more than being told - for being told, it's frequency, timing, form, and context, rather than content. With adverse feedback during synchronous communication, I'd rather get an offer of feedback than be surprised by it; if I'm in a bad mood or otherwise not "on" and caught off guard I may respond unproductively. Getting feedback, or overt requests in front of other people who don't need to know about it, is also aversive - sometimes it's embarrassing that I didn't already pick up on what you're saying, and I'd rather be embarrassed privately. An email is almost always fine, especially if you mention in the subject or first line that you have some criticism, and how big of a deal it is.

Even when there's no implied criticism, communication that requires immediate attention is still expensive for me to receive. If you want to be nice to me, you'll try to send it in a way that lets me pick the time I respond - or save it for a time when you know I'm ready to pay attention - unless it really can't wait.

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.

If I try to drop hints about something and you don't pick up on them and we miss an opportunity - that's life. If you ask me for something and I say yes but I really didn't want to and then I get upset about it later, we've learned something not to do next time. If you say something that sounds like it subtly implies a criticism of me that I would have preferred to get directly, and I worry about whether you dislike something I do, I know how to ask whether that's what you meant, and if you've earned my trust, I'll believe what you tell me. If you talk to me at a bad time, I might be upset - but I won't be angry at you. I might be overheated, or overstimulated, or hungry, and my annoyance might come out in my voice - but I promise I won't actually think less of you. I won't punish people, or stop associating with them, because they come from different communication norms - as long as they're willing to work with me to figure out how we can talk with each other in a way that works for both of us.

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. You're welcome to join in as much or as little as you want.

(Thanks to Miri for helping me think through some of these things, and to Alice, for teaching me her somewhat unusual style of communication, which made me pay more attention to this sort of thing in the first place.)

UPDATE: This post was about what I think is wrong with the Guess/Ask/Tell framing. I wrote a follow-up post suggesting some more precise framings I think might be helpful.

UPDATE2: Here's some criticism of "Gel Culture" with which I partly agree. "Gel" is a terrible name and I didn't bother picking one that would work beyond a cute title because I didn't actually mean to propose a new norm yet! I just didn't like the "everyone will be happier conforming to this communication monoculture" framing. This is an area in which I think Brienne and I agree.

4 thoughts on “Gel Culture: No Boots

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