Askers, Guessers and the ‘Disease to Please’

Say­ing No to seem­ingly unreas­on­able requests and unwanted invit­a­tions is easy for some and a gruelling men­tal chal­lenge for oth­ers. This dis­par­ity between responses can be explained by look­ing at the beha­vi­our­al dif­fer­ences between Ask­ers and Guess­ers:

In Ask cul­ture, people grow up believ­ing they can ask for anything–a favour, a pay rise–fully real­ising the answer may be no. In Guess cul­ture, by con­trast, you avoid “put­ting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is put­ting out del­ic­ate feel­ers. If you do this with enough sub­tlety, you won’t 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.”

Neither’s “wrong”, but when an Ask­er meets a Guess­er, unpleas­ant­ness res­ults. An Ask­er won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess cul­ture per­son will hear it as pre­sump­tu­ous and resent the agony involved in say­ing no. Your boss, ask­ing for a pro­ject to be fin­ished early, may be an over­de­mand­ing boor – or just an Ask­er, who’s assum­ing you might decline. If you’re a Guess­er, you’ll hear it as an expect­a­tion. This is a spec­trum, not a dicho­tomy, and it explains cross-cul­tur­al awk­ward­nesses, too. […]

Self-help seeks to make us all Ask­ers, train­ing us to both ask and refuse with rel­ish; the medi­ation expert Wil­li­am Ury recom­mends mem­or­ising “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me”. But Guess­ers can take solace in logic: in many social situ­ations (though per­haps not at work) the very fact that you’re receiv­ing an anxi­ety-indu­cing request is proof the per­son ask­ing is an Ask­er. He or she is half-expect­ing you’ll say no, and has no ink­ling of the tor­ture you’re exper­i­en­cing. So say no, and see what hap­pens. Noth­ing will.

This the­ory ori­gin­ates from Andrea Donderi’s fant­ast­ic response to a 2007 Ask Meta­Fil­ter query on deal­ing with unreas­on­able requests.

From this art­icle, Dav­id brings the fol­low­ing to our atten­tion: Sayre’s Law and Parkinson’s Law of Tri­vi­al­ity.