Guess Culture versus Ask Culture

By Kim Holman

When I was a child, I grew up in a “guess culture” household. I had to pay attention to the people around me and make a guess as to whether or not I should ask for something. I learned that you should only ask when needed and when you think the other person will likely say yes. This is stressful on a child, to be honest.

I went to boarding school at age 14, and eventually learned to self-advocate and ask for things I wanted or needed, even if the answer might be no. This is how “ask culture” works. By the time I was 18 and graduated, I was pretty well-versed in both cultures, but had firmly taken to ask culture as my primary means of meeting my needs. It made for a rocky relationship with my parents because I was constantly asking for things – they thought I was being needy or greedy – but really what I was doing was simply asking a question and not having my guess of what their answer may be prevent me from doing so.
Asking for something could be as simple as “will you get me [brand, scent] of shampoo when you go to the grocery store?” Or, it could be something major, like “will you support me financially if I live off-campus,” or, “will you pay for the brake job for my car?”

Knowing your audience here is key. When I was working for an engineering consulting firm, they were very much an ask culture. I could always ask for something; I might get it, I might not, but there were no repercussions from simply asking a question. I went from that environment to work in government, in a related engineering field, and it was much more of a guess culture. Within my tiny office unit, ask away – but when it came to higher-ups, only ask for what you needed and what you felt like they would probably agree to or else you were painting a target on yourself, and maybe even being labeled as a problematic employee. It takes a lot of skill to navigate between these different cultures and to recognize when you should switch between your innate culture to the other.

Now that I am a graduate student I have begun to see some of the benefits of my self-advocacy and adopting of an ask culture. Here are some things that I have gotten by asking: a book read-along for my department of the new title by Dr. Pamela E. Harris and Dr. Aris Winger, Asked and Answered: Dialogues on Advocating for Students of Color in Mathematics – and copies of the book for everyone who is interested; a new office chair; an office in the department as a grad student with no TA or RA appointment; support from family and friends when I went back to school as a nontraditional student and mother of three. Yet, asking does not always go smoothly and here are some situations where I have had to tread lightly: inviting grandparents to my kids’ events, as they are out of town and feel bad when I invite them to things they cannot make; lactation space when I returned to work postpartum (we won’t even get into the legalities of this – we will accept it at face-value).

I was first introduced to ask vs. guess culture as a concept through a social media post. As soon as I read about these concepts I was finally able to put words to the way I navigate social and professional situations. Overwhelmingly, when dealing with women I am more confident in asking, but with men I overwhelmingly feel the need to guess as to whether or not I should even ask. This could be due to the people I know and interact with, and gender could be insignificant, or it could be a relevant point. I don’t know and I am still doing some self-reflection on these topics. I’ve also noticed that people in marginalized communities are more receptive to ask culture than cis-het white persons, in particular men. Again, I don’t know if that is significant or spurious, but it is an observation I have made with my own interactions. Of course, the context of these interactions could also play a role in who one receives or adapts between ask and guess cultures.

Something else I have noticed is that, as an asker, guessers who I don’t interact with often almost always respond positively to what I’ve asked. This could be because I don’t ask often, as I don’t see or talk to them often, so they aren’t doing things for me as often. At least that has been my impression. I will ask my grandmother for all sorts of things, although not very often. Being one of 24 grandchildren, I don’t think she keeps track of who asks for what and given that this side of the family is very solidly part of the guess culture crowd; if you ask for something you clearly need it or else you wouldn’t have asked. Like I said, I also very rarely ask my grandmother for things or to do things for me, so even if she is keeping tabs mine is very short.

Another key component in guess culture is evaluating whether or not you should pose the question. You have to evaluate the person or organization, and begin putting out feelers to see if they will potentially say yes or no. You only ask when you are certain that they will say yes to whatever it is that you are asking for. If you’re really good at navigating guess culture, you won’t even have to ask the question – it will be offered to you. That’s the kicker. Lead up to the request with those feelers so that they see your need and offer to meet it. This is HARD, y’all!

Incidentally, because I grew up and spent my formative years in a guess culture environment and have switched to being an ask culture individual, I feel that it has made me a more effective educator. I see the needs of my students and I offer to meet them well before those feelers go out and definitely before they ask. It has helped me to be able to anticipate what is happening around me and how I can be of service to others. In the classroom, in particular, I see it as a service. It reduces the anxiety in my students and makes me more approachable. Once they see that I am willing to meet needs that were unasked, they begin to ask for help, to come to office hours, to schedule meetings with me. It is a beautiful arrangement!

As we gear up to start a new semester, I encourage you to think about ask versus guess culture and how you might move from one into the other for better self-advocacy and to better serve your community.

Kim Holman

Kim Holman

Kim Holman is a PhD student at Auburn University studying discrete geometry. She goes by the name Professor Pi in the classroom and Moon Pi #3.14 on the roller derby track.

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