Mind the Gap

Let’s start by looking at what Askers and Guessers is about. It is about how an individual asks for something. In both cases there is a want or a need. For Askers the sense is that to want/need is to ask. What is the risk in asking? There is no arguing the logic that if you don’t ask for something, you definitely won’t get it, and if you do ask, you might – so what’s to lose?

Guessers, on the other hand, try to assess what kind of pressure they might be placing by asking, to evaluate the likelihood of a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. For them the risk is in creating a burden for the other person, and attached to that burden, an obligation of reciprocity. The lighter the burden, the lighter the obligation of reciprocity.

Oliver Burkeman, in his book “Help – how to be a little happier and get a bit more done” (2011) references an online chain that makes compelling reading. It is about the difficulty of saying ‘no’ when a favour is asked of you. In this case, to a not particularly close friend who has suggested they stay for a few days while on conference in New York.

It is worth reading the chain to get the full picture, http://ask.metafilter.com/55153/Whats-the-middle-ground-between-FU-and-Welcome#830421 but the reason Burkeman had referenced it was for Andrea Donderi’s “Askers and Guessers” section, which followed:

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.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people – ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you’ll have to embrace Ask behavior. Otherwise you’ll spend your life in a cloud of mild outrage at the Cluelessness of Everyone.

This has opened a small online floodgate on the subject, which seems for the moment to have been untouched by the academic community. If it is being warmly and intuitively embraced, and delivering an ‘aha!’ moment to thousands online, it is surely worth exploring.

If the concept proves to be legitimate, there might be implications for Positive Psychology, from the perspective of that well researched and widely disseminated well-being intervention – Acts of Kindness.


Characteristics of ‘A’s and ‘G’s

The main tension between Askers and Guessers is that Askers have no problem asking for something, and equally no problem refusing. So when they ask a Guesser for something, saying ‘no’ can be difficult for the Guesser. In fact it may be stressful and tension-inducing. So unless the request is something the Guesser genuinely and willingly wants to agree to, the Asker’s request will cause tension for the Guesser.

Askers, as they have no problem in saying ‘no’, don’t understand that when a Guesser makes a request, there has to be a high level of need or importance for them to even ‘get to’ asking for something. Furthermore, a Guesser who has pushed themselves to ask for something will feel a ‘no’ strongly, and is likely to have no instinctive comprehension that for an Asker the ‘no’ comes with little or no emotional baggage.

What is the risk for Guessers in asking? That might feel that they are putting others under the stress of having to say an uncomfortable ‘no’. That may also feel that they will appear unintelligent, clunky and insensitive.


Communication between ‘A’s and ‘G’s

Guessers often think they have asked for something when they haven’t, because their communication default can be intentionally subtle and indirect. They are likely to imply a need and hope that another Guesser will understand and willingly rise (unasked) to meet the need. If the ‘hint’ goes unacknowledged, then the understanding is that this was not something the other person could or wanted to help with, and so ‘The Guesser’ is more sensitive not to ask directly. In this case, an Asker may – very reasonably – not have noticed that a request was even in the framework.

Another aspect of the indirect communication-by-implication is that guessers often think they have said ‘no’ when they haven’t. Guessers can also misinterpret or misread signals. They may see non-requests as requests. And they might not seek clarity (seeking clarity makes them look like they have not been able to read the situation, and their sense of self worth and value can be largely predicated on their sensitivity and ability to read others).

It could be said that Guessers rely on their empathic skills where Askers eschew empathy for clarity. If these characteristics are drawn around empathic and non-empathic behaviours what are the implications for the consideration of giving, kindnesses, reciprocity and obligation?

Let’s look at what happens when you put an Asker and a Guesser together. At the equity of their giving and receiving. The Asker finds it easy to ask, and easy to say ‘no’ to a request. The Guesser finds it difficult to ask, and also difficult to say ‘no’. It is not hard to see that the Asker will be asking for, and getting, a lot more from the Guesser. If it is to be expected that the Asker is also somewhat less empathic, they may also be less conscious of this imbalance of favours and unaware of niceties around expectations of reciprocity and obligation, and unable to imagine that their Guesser counterpart is building up a quiet and resentful head of steam.


Acts of Kindness and issues of Wellbeing among ‘A’s and ‘G’s

Burkeman (2011) makes a valid point when he questions the value of “Random” Acts of Kindness. His view is that an Act of Kindness may be better directed to a need – that a considered or thought-through Act of Kindness is a more useful and meaningful one. In giving somebody something they really want/like – or doing something for them that is genuinely useful, the signal is that you have understood them – it demonstrates emotional intelligence. And by the same stroke, rejecting a gift can say ‘you don’t understand me’. In this respect, there is no easier way to know if a kindness may be wanted or welcome than if it is asked for.

If we look at Acts of Kindness for the enhanced sense of well-being that giving generates, at what point for the Guesser does this stop happening when dealing with an Asker. How soon does it start to become resentment?

What about the well-being benefits of an Act of Kindness for an Asker? Will an Asker derive more well-being benefit in meeting a request than a guesser would?  Could this be because they are more likely than a guesser to agree to requests that sit well with them? Giving from a position of autonomy and alignment with their own needs/wants/values and comfortably saying ‘no’ if they don’t?

One wonders if Askers are happier than Guessers? Not anxious about the niceties and sensitivities. Comfortably pulling on and benefiting from the time, resources, energy and skills of others – simply executed by asking a favour. If, as Benjamin Franklin observed, there is nothing like asking a favour of someone to bond them to you, Askers may have a healthy network of good relationships with their fellow Askers that is built on this bond. Askers may also achieve their goals more easily, because they ask for more help.

The difficulty for Guessers being that Askers may seem to be getting more than their fair share, at the expense of the Guessers.



Despite its refreshing and instant recognisability, the understanding of Asker and Guesser cultures is a discussion in its infancy. Although it is the role of future research to determine this, it is more likely to be a continuum rather than two fixed and polarised categories. An individual may be an Asker in one domain and a Guesser in another, and may ask or hint depending on the person they are dealing with. As with empathy, they may overlap with a number of existing personality variables. Askers may be high in extroversion, low in neuroticism, and possibly low in agreeableness, and conscientiousness, while Guessers the reverse. As research opportunities go, there could be some serious fun had in deconstructing the components of the concept.

If the Asker/Guesser scenario is a genuine issue, then exploring and creating a greater understanding of the gap can only be helpful. While the two positions may be inherently difficult to understand intuitively for both parties, if the issue is the ability to empathise, then it could be the case that a Guesser may be able to grasp the Asker perspective and use that information to get to a more comfortable ‘no’ or a less cautious ‘ask’. This could be particularly useful for Guessers embarking on Acts of Kindness interventions and something that Positive Psychology practitioners might wish to consider when advising clients.

If further investigation into the asker/guesser dynamic could potentially contribute to the effectiveness of Acts of Kindness interventions, then a more thorough understanding of this dynamic would be an exciting opportunity deserving of attention from the academic Positive Psychology community.


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