‘Askers’ vs. ‘Guessers’

Last Updated on October 5, 2021

I love those moments when you come across a mental model that crystallizes a bunch of mental loose ends – that satisfying moment of insight – sometimes called an Aha moment.
I recently stumbled on the ‘Askers’ vs. ‘Guessers’ model, and it did just that – it gave me a clear way of looking at something that has perplexed me a bit over the years…

What are Askers and Guessers?

It’s best described via example, here’s a good one I borrowed from The Atlantic:

Let’s say your husband or wife has a friend who will be coming to your city for two weeks on business. This friend writes to you and your spouse, asking if you can put him up while he’s in town. Has this person committed a gross violation of etiquette? Whether you answer yes or no may speak to whether you’re an Asker or a Guesser–the two personality types.

The Asker vs. Guesser categories come from an old Ask Metafilter comment:

This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture. In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

Why is this interesting?

If you interact with people who have different cultural influences to your own, you will probably find this model useful.

I grew up in Australia, but I’ve lived much of my adult life as a expat. I’m currently based in the US. In my circles back in Australia there is more of a guessing culture, whereas I’ve met a lot more Askers here. I’ll admit I’ve been unsettled at times by having big things asked of me! My assumption was that the ‘ask’ came bound with an expectation to say yes – but I’ve just realized that is not necessarily the case.

And on reflection, I think that being an Asker might be better for everyone. I begrudgingly admit that I find Jon Chait’s view somewhat compelling:

Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration.

What’s more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us. I’m not a super hospitable guy, but I frequently find myself offering things to other people that I’d like them to take – say, leave their kids at my house to play with my kids – but they refuse to take because they think I’m a Guesser, offering hospitality I secretly hope will be turned down. Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness.


💎 I’m sure you’ll like this gem

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place

George Bernard Shaw

🔖 The original comment from Andrea Donderiand that defined Askers vs. Guessers

🤔 This got me thinking about high context vs low context cultures.

Here’s my original post