Ask v. Guess: Managing expectations (especially around the holidays!)

“People can’t hear what you don’t say. Thinking isn’t communicating.”

(Frank Sonnenberg)

Asking and guessing

My 23-year-old daughter explained the concept of “Ask v. Guess Culture” to me the other day. Apparently it’s been “a thing” for a while, but I missed it. The idea is that some people come from “Ask Cultures,” meaning that it is a social expectation that people will ask for what they need from one another, rather than assuming or guessing. Others come from “Guess Cultures” where politeness and consideration are demonstrated through being careful not to “ask for too much,” or to ask at an “inconvenient time,” etc.

The theory states that neither is inherently right or wrong; That painful conflicts emerge when people communicate with the opposite orientation from our own. “Guess Culture” people are hurt and offended when “Ask Culture” people ask for what they want, expecting “Guess Culture” people to manage their own boundaries. “Ask Culture” people feel anxious and uncomfortable because “Guess Culture” people seem to expect them to somehow magically know their expectations and limits.

Heh heh… You know what I’m about to type, don’t you? Yup…

Flag! On! The! Play!!!

This this is one of the main issues that clients report as a cause of suffering in relationships of all kinds. Worse, it militates against the kind of interdependence that helps us meet and be intimately, satisfyingly met in the relationships that really matter to us.  Just… no.

There is a reason why I promote The Four Answers and the XYZ Formula so often. These tools make it possible for us to share our most honest selves in a way that doesn’t compromise honesty, compassion, thoughtfulness or integrity.

No more guessing games

“Guess Culture” attempts to “play nice” by guessing what someone will think and feel and adjusting our requests based on those assumptions. Many of us are tacitly trained to interact this way. In fact, it feels rude to do anything different because we’ve gotten the message that both sides of the exchange belong in our control.

It may be nice, but is it respectful, thoughtful or kind? Not really. 

Thanks, COVID?!?!

Let me be clear: I am in no way grateful that very large numbers of people are suffering and far too many are dying from COVID. There is no silver lining on that kind of devastation.  However, there has been some weirdly positive fallout in our relationships. Avoiding a highly contagious, horrendous disease has provided some people with the confidence they have needed to move from “Guess” to a version of  “Ask,” in a way they likely would not have otherwise.

Aunt Martha and her cooties

Say for example that you have to tell Aunt Martha that she can’t come for Thanksgiving dinner at your house because she is not in your COVID bubble. You know that she has attended events with other people indoors without masks. She feels confident that all of her friends have taken precautions are safe.  You have no way of knowing whether or not you agree. You don’t know these people. You have asthma and your partner is immunocompromised. It’s just not okay.

In “normal” times, (and if it were something less lethal, like a cold,) your Guess Culture mindset might lead you to let her come over. You and your partner would feel uncomfortable and try really hard not touch what she touches or to come too close, but you would acquiesce. Why? Because not assuming that she would be offended because you left her out would feel rude.

You don’t want to have a conflict.  You don’t want her to be mad at you.  You don’t want her to feel like you’re shaming her for not understanding that you and your partner are more susceptible to, and likely to suffer worse with her cold.

Enter COVID. What would have been a challenging cold, is now something that can be brutal and lethal. When an issue is life or death, we find courage.  Your voice may shake and you have to start and stop a few times to get the message out, but – COVID. You ask.

But I don’t want to be like… that!

I first started to understand Ask Culture many years ago when I worked for a boss who was like… that. By culture, gender and position, he had total freedom to ask for anything and everything that occurred to him. He was a wildly creative person who excelled at out-of-the-box approaches and solutions, so he asked for some seriously challenging things.

We were an office full of mostly female, mostly Guess Culture people. My colleagues and I would frequently get angry or be mystified by his gall. We of the Guess Culture thought that we were required to say yes. As our boss, we wrung ourselves out at times, trying to find a way to say “yes” to requests that were not actually ok with us.

The first time he asked me for something I simply could not do, I nearly went into full melt down. After days of wringing myself dry, trying to screw up the courage to say no, fearing that I would be screamed at or lose my job… I did my best to center myself and steady my nerves, closed my eyes, stammered, stumbled… and said no.

I waited for the blast of fury. I opened one eye.

He shrugged and said, “Ok. No problem.”

Excuse me?!? Can I please have the last three days back?!?


I finally understood that some people and some cultures expect you to show up with an authentic yes or no, to say not now, or negotiate. I came to understand that this man often asked for things that were even beyond what he needed because he expected to have a healthy negotiation where I counter with what I want. He enjoyed the process of co-creating an acceptable solution. In fact, he respected me more when I pushed back! 

He didn’t hide who he was or what he wanted. He invited me to own who I am and what I want. We were more authentic with each other. With our creativity in full force, we were able to develop some intriguing ideas and to get to know one another much better.

The best of both worlds

The direct approach of Ask gives us the opportunity to be more ourselves and to receive a more authentic person in the exchange. The emotionally-loaded approach of Guess attempts to interact with thoughtfulness and compassion.  The direct approach of Ask can be harsh and angsty, especially for people who fear explosions. The emotionally-loaded approach of Guess can leave us never knowing where we really stand with people and feeling that it is unsafe to share parts of us that we fear will be rejected.

So let’s keep the positives of both and ditch the hurtful parts.

Back to Aunt Martha

Using the XYZ Formula, that solution might sound like this: “Aunt Martha, we totally trust that you are keeping COVID boundaries that work for you,” (a version of “when you X…”) “but it leaves us feeling very uncomfortable with having you at our house for the holiday.” (“… it leaves us feeling Y…”) We’d like to work together with you to find creative ways to bring you into the celebration from a distance. (“… And we would prefer that you Z.”) Are you willing to brainstorm with us?

At the end of it, we will all know one another better, and, we will have kept ourselves safe.

Two things to note

First, notice that I didn’t suggest we go into the reasons why her presence is not ok with us. We don’t need to justify or argue about why we choose what we choose for ourselves and our households. These are our boundaries to manage. No one else has to understand or agree.  If we know Aunt Martha to be one of those people who will try to talk us out of our boundaries, we are not about to hand her free ammunition.

Secondly, remember that we cannot guarantee that Aunt Martha will respond well. She doesn’t have to play along with our “rules.”  Guess Culture would have us wrestling and wrangling and trying to get our therapists to tell us just the “right” way to approach Aunt Martha so that she doesn’t lose her sanctification on us. Regardless of how well we know Aunt Martha, all of those mental calisthenics are not guaranteed to give us a better response.

You can’t control how healthy or unhealthy Aunt Martha is. That’s her job. Your job is to show up in your relationships as healthfully as you can. If Martha loses her mind, you do not have to argue back, justify or even entertain her unhealthy behaviors. It might not be nice to tell Aunt Martha that you are getting off the phone now or to not respond to her text, but it is loving, thoughtful and kind. (It isn’t very loving, respectful, thoughtful or kind to enable her bad behavior.)

What about you?

Thinking about your relationships, past and present, do you lean more toward Ask or Guess? What positive and negative results have you gotten from each? How might you tweak your social style to get the benefits from each without their liabilities?

I wish you creativity, stamina, conviction, and health in every dimension.

If you’re struggling in your relationships, drop me a line here.  I’m happy to help any way I can.