Tag Archives: Ask Culture

Altruism and the Patriarchy

eleanor-roosevelt-2“If anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say- the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happiness be attained.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

It is taken as a given in our society that the highest good is the transcendence of selfish desires and the service of others. Our paragon on virtue is Mother Teresa, who lived in poverty in order to dedicate her life to work in service of the poor (and pushing her religion, but we overlook that). Selfishness is generally considered the worst of all sins. Heroes sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones. Villains say “greed is good.” Our dominant religion is centered around the story of a man sacrificing himself for the good of mankind. The greatest evil is an angel who selfishly sought to exalt himself above god.

Above all, we are told that shallow, selfish desires lead to life devoid of meaning:

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The relationship between meaning and happiness was the subject of a recent study. In the study, researchers surveyed 397 adults about how happy their lives were, and how meaningful. The terms were not defined, which allowed each study participant to interpret them as they wished.

The study found, rather unequivocally, that a meaningful life is not a happy life. The study gave the lie to the Roosevelt quote above, and found that when we put our own desires aside and focus on helping others, we end up less happy. This finding reinforces the previous finding that having children does not make people happy. The study found that “meaning” is actually largely achieved through trauma and misery.

Emily Esfahani Smith at The Atlantic, through some bizarre reasoning, spun this finding as proof that people should focus more on living meaningful lives and less on being happy. Smith’s article is heavy-handed in its suggestion that everyone would be better off to pursue meaningful lives through sacrifice, not “mere happiness.”

Smith’s position is not only diametrically opposed to my ethical position that the most ethical decision is often the one that makes the decision-maker happy, but it also reinforces the cultural status quo outlined above, where righteousness is only found in the service of others.

So, according to the conventional wisdom, which Smith reinforces, the way to be a good person is to sacrifice what you want in favor of devoting your life to the service of others. Individual desires don’t matter. What matters is the service of others. Anything else is shallow and selfish.

This is a problem because one of the patriarchy’s main tools of oppression is its ability to convince women that their desires don’t matter. In addition to the “everyone should serve others” meme pervading our culture, there is a complementary meme that says “women should be subservient to men.”

That dominant religion I mentioned earlier? Its scriptures explicitly instruct women to be subservient to men. Women’s reproductive rights are continuously under assault because women’s needs aren’t seen as important. Women’s sexual autonomy is constantly under attack because women’s desires are seen as less important than men’s. The male gaze is constantly catered to. The vast majority of our leaders, from CEO’s to elected officials, are men.

There are thousands of other examples of how the message is sent every day, that women’s desires don’t matter, and that they should be happy in subservient roles. Implicit in this message is the message to men that our desires ARE important, and that we should get what we want. We are told to “be a man,” and to stand up for ourselves. We are taught to be confident and even violent in pursuit of our own happiness.

So men end up receiving two conflicting messages: one is that our individual desires don’t matter, and that we should serve others, but another that we should get what we want and be aggressive and tenacious in pursuing it. Receiving both messages gives men options about how to balance our own individual desires vs. the desires of others, and generally facilitates healthy decision-making. It’s not the best system, of course, but it does have some flexibility. Generally, men are permitted by our society to display a wide range of selfish and altruistic behavior and still be considered acceptable.

Women have no such luck. Because there is no countervailing message, women ONLY get the message that being subservient is virtuous. On one hand, they are told to be subservient to everyone. On the other hand, they are told to be subservient to men. There is no message (except a small-but-growing message from the feminist movement) that what they want as individuals matters.

So it’s no secret why the vast majority of rapists are men, women end up doing most of the housework and child-rearing, women ask for raises far less than men, and men generally make fewer sacrifices than women.

So when I see an article like Smith’s, which denigrates and demonizes the pursuit of individual happiness as “selfish” and “shallow,” I see it for what it is: an oppressive tool of the patriarchy. I think there’s a place for encouraging altruism in our culture, but not at the expense of individual happiness, and not in a way that suggests that anyone trying to make themselves happy is a bad person. People can take the pursuit of individual happiness too far, but the answer is balance. People should be encouraged to balance their individual desires against those of others (or, even better, shown how their individual goals can be served by helping others). Rather than be taught, as they are now, that everyone’s happiness matters except theirs, people should be encouraged to view everyone’s happiness (including their own) as equally important. People should not be told that the only way to live a good life is to sacrifice what they want. People will listen, and most of those people will be women.

This is the main reason I push back so hard against the dominant cultural idea that virtue is found only in sacrifice. I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects that such ideas can have, particularly on women. As a staunch advocate of Ask Culture, creating space for people to voice their desires is a top priority for me. And step one of that process is encouraging people to value their desires.

Self-Interested Feminism

Recently, Emma Watson delivered a speech at the UN pleading for men to get more involved in the cause of feminism:

Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.

Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s.

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

There has been some pushback to this idea. Many people feel that men should support feminism out of a sense of altruism. Anne Thériault had this to say at Feminspire:

Rape culture is something that men should care about not because it might affect them, but because it affects anyone at all. Men should care about women’s safety, full stop, without having the concept somehow relate back to them. Everyone should care about everyone else’s well-being – that’s what good people are supposed to do.

I find altruism of that variety unreliable at best, illusory at worst. Either way, I feel that the most ethical things to do is often to prioritize our own well-being over that of others. There is nothing unethical about trying to make ourselves happy, so long as we are not doing disproportionate harm. Nobody has to be a hero. We are not morally required to work to change society, even if we acknowledge that society is unjust.

As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I’m not a feminist because I care deeply about all of my fellow humans. I’m a feminist out of self-interest. I’m a feminist because my personal goals align with the goals of the feminist movement. And I think that most men, if they rationally examined the situation, would agree. Patriarchy, rape culture, and male privilege suck for everyone.

I. The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too

This is not actually my most important reason, but it is a reason. This point has been so well documented that it’s nearly self-evident. Here is Katie McDonough at Salon:

Women and girls make up the majority of victims of sexual violence, but a culture that straight up says that teenage boys can’t be raped makes it almost impossible for male survivors to come forward. Destructive ideas about sexual male entitlement are at the heart of rape culture and the reason that so many women and girls are victimized in their lifetimes, but they also feed into this idea that men always want sex, which makes men who have been victims of rape question whether or not what happened to them even counts as a crime. It took a really, really long time for this to even become a crime. These same norms also encourage men to have really warped relationships to desire and sexual satisfaction. This stuff hurts women the most because of the violence it engenders, but it hurts men, too.

The ridiculousness of rape culture is to the point where we actually have articles with titles like “Can Boys Be ‘Coerced’ Into Sex?” Spoiler: they can. Here is Charlie Glickman:

One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.

"a good captain needs abilities like boldness, daring and a good velour uniform"

“a good captain needs abilities like boldness, daring and a good velour uniform”

Glickman’s article, which I encourage you to read, discusses how masculinity is a performance that men must keep up at all times, or else they’re not real men. This form of toxic masculinity proclaims that men are violent, unemotional, and aggressive, or else they are weak and womanly.

Men’s Rights Activists, though deeply confused about the causes, also tend to notice the ways in which patriarchy hurts men. What they tend not to realize is that these things that they label as “female privilege” are actually benevolent sexism, stem from exactly the same places as women’s oppression, and that reverse sexism is really just a necessary result of ordinary sexism.

Concerns like those noted above have been a problem for me as far back as I can remember. One of my most vivid memories of elementary school is the experience of being terrified to tell my best friend that he was my best friend, because that would be “gay” or something. I never told him, and throughout my young childhood, I was always insecure about how much he liked me because I was too afraid to talk about it with him.

Patriarchy harms men in general, and me personally. I struggle against the need to perform my masculinity daily, and feminism is the only movement that supports me at all in that struggle.

II. Patriarchy Makes People Awful

In Part I, I reviewed several of the ways that patriarchy hurts men. Many of those same forces encourage men to be terrible people. The need to perform masculinity encourages men to be aggressive, violent, competitive, and unemotional. This naturally hurts men who don’t conform to their prescribed gender role, but it also hurts everyone else, who are forced to deal with a bunch of men who either are, or who are pretending to be, aggressive, violent, competitive, and unemotional. The fact that most men effectively perform masculinity is the primary reason why I dislike most men, and have trouble forming male friendships. Would you like someone who fits the above description of masculinity? I wouldn’t.

Patriarchy also teaches women to behave in ways that I don’t like. Harriet J from Fugitivus has a good list of the problematic ways in which patriarchy encourages women to behave:

  • it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
  • it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
  • it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
  • it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
  • it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
  • it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
  • it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
  • it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)

The result of all this conditioning means that women are overwhelmingly encouraged to resort to Guess Culture, subtlety, and indirect communication. I hate that style of (non) communication, and I hate that our patriarchal culture punishes women who communicate directly. In our efforts to move toward Ask Culture and encouraging direct communication, patriarchy is our enemy.

III. Feminism Means Better Sex

Just today, Miri Mogilevsky posted about how feminism can make you better in bed. The whole post is great, but here is a relevant quote:

Of course, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But if you do want to do it, you should never have to feel guilty or abnormal just because your desires don’t conform to gender roles. Sex is a lot more fun when you don’t have to measure yourself against invisible, constantly-shifting standards like “Real Man” or “Real Woman.”

I also favor sexual promiscuity, and think that people should be having all the sex they want to have without fear of stigma or judgment. Patriarchy opposes this goal, and feminism supports it:

In a time when nonheterosexuality is close to losing the status of ‘alternative,’ transgender people have scored Medicare coverage for gender-confirming surgeries, Fifty Shades of Grey has made it clear that kinky desires are as mainstream as it gets, and open relationships are more visible than ever, there is one sexual lifestyle that remains imbued with stigma: unbridled promiscuity. Accepting promiscuity—having lots of (mostly) casual sex with lots of different people—as a valid lifestyle choice is perhaps the final frontier in creating a sex-positive, open-minded, sexually tolerant society.

Dan Fincke, of Camels with Hammers, also argues in favor of what he calls the Sexual Utopia:

By sexual utopians I mean anyone who wants us to get as close as is reasonable to a world of maximal guilt free sexual pleasure with no irrational hang ups or needlessly burdensome restrictions. People who dream of the day when we can indulge more freely in positive sexual experiences, unencumbered by arbitrary moralisms. Nudity is natural and good. It’s aesthetically pleasurable and not even always sexually. We should celebrate the beauty of the human form rather than hide it. Everyone should love and have sex with whomever consensually wants to have sex with them. Alternative sexual orientations and genders should be celebrated, not merely tolerated. Kink that doesn’t harm anyone shouldn’t be seen as immoral. Whatever floats your boat so long as no one gets hurt. People should be able to negotiate the terms of their own relationships rather than have adultery defined in some absolute way that forbids any sexual openness among committed people. Friendships can incorporate a dimension of sexual enjoyment apart from romantic commitments. Even entire friendships can be all about two people’s enjoyment of having sex with each other if that’s what they enjoy. Young people should be empowered to make wise sexual choices instead of repressed with abstinence-only fear-mongering. And there should be no stigmas about making or consuming porn or engaging in prostitution or patronizing a prostitute, etc., so long as everyone involved is treated respectfully and is kept healthy. And, of course, if you’re asexual or a celibate or abstinent or a strict lifelong monogamist, etc., then that’s okay too!

How do we get there? Feminism:

Only in a culture where women aren’t punished for sexuality, aren’t commodified and treated like objects to be traded, and don’t see men trying to sexually exploit them around every corner will they be empowered to choose sexual utopia. But so long as rapes are excused and so long as sexual exploitation of their images is dismissed as irrelevant (and only theft is acknowledged as a real harm) and so long as their feelings about sex are going to be disregarded in moral calculations involving them, they have every right to become protective and restrictive. Women will and should only expose themselves to more risks of sexual openness when men prove more responsible not to regularly exploit them, dismiss their feelings, and blame them for all the consequences.

Smashing the patriarchy, dismantling rape culture, and doing away with male privilege are the only ways that I can think of to encourage people to feel safe having the sex that they want to have. And when people are having the sex they want to have (and not the sex they don’t want to have) that makes sex better for everyone except people who want to have sex that doesn’t involve enthusiastic consent, and I do not think the desires of such people should be taken into account.

IV. Male Privilege Is Not Worth The Cost

Mia McKenzie, of Black Girl Dangerous, feels that telling men to be feminists out of self-interest is disingenuous, because it ignores the ways that men actually benefit from a patriarchal culture. Her list of benefits:

1 out of every 5 American women has reported experiencing rape in her lifetime. For American men, it’s 1 in 71.

White (cis-gender) American women earn 78% of what their white male counterparts earn. Black (cis-gender) American women earn 89% of what their Black male counterparts earn and 64% of what their white male counterparts earn. Latina (cis-gender) women earn 89% of what their Latino male counterparts earn and 53% of what their white male counterparts earn.

Only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.

Of course, the gender pay gap exists everywhere in the world, including the UK. And so does rape.

For starters, the only arguably zero-sum benefit listed is the one about CEO’s, and I certainly wouldn’t be upset if we had more gender balance in our CEO’s. I’m not planning on being a Fortune 500 CEO, so increasing equality in that sense wouldn’t harm me in any way that I can see. The gender pay gap is not zero-sum at all. Equal pay doesn’t require that men’s pay be reduced, it requires that women’s pay be increased. The assumption that monetary gains for women would come out of men’s paychecks doesn’t seem obvious to me, especially when corporate profits are rising at the same time wages are falling. While there might be some balancing effects by which employers pay men less in order to pay women more, there are plenty of other sources for that money to come from, most notably from corporate profits.

Statistics about rape are definitely not zero-sum. The fact that one in five women has been raped is not an advantage to non-rapist men in any way! There is definitely no need to increase men being raped in order to decrease women being raped. If suddenly, only one in 71 women experienced rape in their lifetimes, I think most men would be happy about the reduced numbers. Certainly, being a man means that I experience the privilege of being much less likely to be raped (or cat-called, or harassed, etc.), but that’s not a benefit I lose by dismantling the patriarchy.

Sometimes, I do receive benefits that come at the expense of women. When I’m applying for a job or a promotion (or elected office), I’m favored over female competitors. When I want to make my voice heard, it’s easier for me to do so over competing female voices. Patriarchy makes it easier for me to convince women to do what I want. I probably got more attention from teachers as a child than my female classmates. But I would gladly give up those advantages in exchange for the advantages of an egalitarian society that I’ve outlined above. Most other manifestations of male privilege can be equalized by expanding male privilege to women, not by denying it to men.

V. Conclusion

The feminist movement, as it currently exists, has some serious issues. Those issues may be serious enough for reasonable people to abandon the movement altogether. It is not my intention to argue here that people should all go out and donate to mainstream feminist nonprofits or read mainstream feminist writings (thought I can’t say those are bad ideas). My intention is simply to argue that a more egalitarian society will help all genders, including men, and that creating a more egalitarian society is the explicit goal of the feminist movement. Reasonable people can disagree on tactics, but I feel that the majority of men should be able to agree that the patriarchy should be smashed, rape culture dismantled, and male privilege be destroyed where necessary and expanded, where possible, to include all genders. These are the goals of feminism, and I feel that men have compelling, self-interested reasons to support them.

Ask Culture as the Metric System

Every now and then some pop-psych article will surface that compares passive with direct communication and says that neither is inherently “better,” and all you need to do is learn which style someone is using and adapt to it.

In polyamorous relationships, though, passive communication will fuck you right up.
More Than Two

In the latest article which grasps and struggles to reach the conclusion that passive communication/Guess Culture maybe isn’t so terrible, Kate Donovan attempts to explain how Guess Culture is useful in dating. Before I voice what looks to be a profound disagreement, I’d like to point out that Donovan is a brilliant writer and thinker, whose ideas are generally on-point and well thought out. She has smart things to say on relationships, community, psychology, and social justice (not to mention a very tasteful blog theme), so my disagreement should be read in the most respectful way possible. My prior thoughts on Ask/Guess Culture can be found here.

Donovan starts by stating

Indirectness/Guess Culture gets a bad rap for being all about unspoken and implicit rules and norms, but I think it’s also extremely protective. When you don’t have a strong preference, being indirect, rather than explicit, can prevent being forced to choose a side.

While I agree that Guess Culture is protective, I can’t say that’s a good thing. What Donovan describes in this paragraph is a failure of communication, not a triumph of one. If a person wants to communicate a mild preference, there are much easier ways. Donovan caricatures Ask Culture by suggesting that the only option for an Ask person is the following:

Direct Version
Joe: Do you prefer A or B?
Jane: A.

That’s a fine answer, if Jane has a significant preference for A. However, if Jane’s preference for A is mild, then it doesn’t convey all of the necessary information. Donovan argues that

Ambiguous social signals are data points. Instead of Jane needing to hope that her preference for A wouldn’t directly contradict Joe’s preference for B, they can ‘dance’. Joe mentions some things, which indicate that he likes A and B (apple, aardvark, acrobat, bulldozers, Buffy) and Jane offers a rejoinder of mostly-A indicators.

However, the conversation could easily go like this:

Direct Version
Joe: Do you prefer A or B?
Jane: I have a mild preference for A, but B would be fine if that’s what you prefer.

This way, all necessary information is conveyed without the need for subtle hints or ambiguity that could easily be missed or misinterpreted. No need to execute a complicated “dance” in a situation where not everyone always knows the steps.

Donovan goes on to apply this advice to dating:

Dating is a lot of slow escalation and plausible deniability. Presumably, two people on a first date have a sense that the person opposite them might have the characteristics they want in a partner. Being warm and lingering over dessert is a way to signal interest in a second date, without committing to a relationship, while being hands-off and failing to make plans for another outing conveys a lack of romantic interest without needing to baldly state that you can’t imagine dating them. One ambiguous signal (“She was being really touchy! But she might just be a touchy sort of person who’s only somewhat interested in me!”) is not enough information. The process of dating lets everyone find trends.

As a direct communicator, Donovan’s description of dating sounds like a nightmarish hellscape to which no reasonable person would ever willingly travel. Granted, I’ve done it. I’ve played the game. I’ve done the dance. But I don’t do it anymore, because there’s a much better way: you just say what you mean! When compared to directly communicating your desires, “being warm and lingering over dessert” is a terrible way to communicate your interest in a second date. Why not just say “I’d like a second date”? Failing to make plans for another outing can convey a lack of romantic interest. It can also convey that you are busy, or that you have trouble planning ahead, or any number of other things. Saying “I’m not romantically interested in you” conveys a lack of romantic interest much better, if that’s the message that you’re intending to send.

And therein lies the core problem with Guess Culture/indirect communication: it’s not actually a strategy for communication. It’s a strategy for not communicating. The only inherent “advantage” of indirect communication is that it allows people to say words without actually conveying any information. In all of Donovan’s examples of indirect communication, the goal of the speaker is not actual communication, it’s avoiding communication. In Donovan’s scenario, Jane wants to avoid letting John know her preference. In the circumstance with the potential business client, Jane wants to hide her true intentions. In the dating scenarios, the goals of Donovan’s participants are all to hide how they are feeling from the other party. Case in point:

Jim could be unwilling to tell Lisa that he’s not sure if he’ll wants to put up with her annoying laugh on a permanent basis. Sharing this will not end well, even if it’s true.

Another example:

Asking what your partner considers love, only to hear back that they don’t believe in love lets everyone safely pretend it was only a distant, academic interest in the topic, instead of rejected at the moment they proclaim their love.

None of these are people communicating. These are people intentionally failing to communicate. Sometimes that’s smart. Sometimes you don’t want to communicate what you think, how you feel, or what’s going on. That’s fine. The problem with indirect communication is that it’s designed to convince people that that’s not actually what you’re doing. Guess Culture/indirect communication is all about maintaining the illusion that you’re communicating, while really you’re withholding. I find it dishonest and unethical.

Ask Culture as the Metric System

I tend to think of Guess Culture as the U.S./British system of weights and measures, and Ask Culture as the metric system. In my society, the U.S. system is deeply ingrained and used almost exclusively. There is no rational defense of it as a better system on a macro level, but there are practical necessities that require us to use it on an individual level. We can’t go around indiscriminately using the metric system in a society that’s accustomed to a the U.S. system. It would create confusion, and things would end up built to the wrong specifications. Also, even if other people weren’t confused, it would be burdensome for them to have to translate everything into a system that’s meaningful for them (e.g. “15 centimeters? Let’s see… that’s about 6 inches. Ok, now I know what you mean”).

But if we could start from a clean slate, the metric system would obviously be a better choice. It’s designed so things are easy, work well together, and make use of intuitive conversions. Converting from millimeters to centimeters to meters to kilometers is simple and has far less potential for error and confusion. It’s inherently a superior system which we only resist because change is difficult.

Ask Culture/direct communication is like the metric system, in that it’s an inherently better system, with much less opportunity for error and confusion. Communicating directly with people is not guarantee that they will understand what you are saying, but it is much more likely. If your goal is actually communication, Ask Culture is vastly superior in just about every way.

Like U.S. system, Guess Culture’s only advantage is that it’s established. Because Guess Culture is so established, we have a byzantine and confusing system of etiquette rules all based around the idea that direct communication is rude or ill-advised. Donovan says “[d]ating is a lot of slow escalation and plausible deniability.” Sure, maybe it is, when you do it, but must it be so? When I date, it generally involves slow escalation (because that’s usually what’s reasonable in the circumstances), but there is no need for plausible deniability. Telling someone how you feel can expose some vulnerability, but that’s not a good reason not to do it. And in fact, if direct communication about that sort of thing became the norm, there would be a lot less vulnerability exposed because people would see rejection as normal and healthy (and they’d have a lot of practice taking it).

Unlike the system of weights and measures, we can actually do something about Ask and Guess Culture right now! We can tell the truth, even when it’s difficult or inconvenient to do so. We can choose to directly communicate, and make it clear that we expect others to directly communicate with us. Starting with the people closest to us, we can create a micro-environment where direct communication is the norm and indirect hinting is discouraged. And that would be a nice place to live.

Let’s Not Gel


Since the concepts were created in 2004, there has been a lot of debate over the relative merits of Ask Culture and Guess Culture. From the original Metafilter comment that introduced the concept:

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 — and you obviously are — 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.

On first glance, it seems as though Ask Culture is clearly the superior of the two. When everyone asks for what they want, everyone has more information from which to make informed decisions. When people only send subtle hints, misunderstandings abound. The only obvious disadvantage of Ask Culture is that it makes it difficult to interact with people who subscribe to Guess Culture. However, that’s not really an argument in favor of Guess Culture, just an argument that we should understand that not everyone behaves as we do.

The most reasonable argument for Guess Culture is… um… well… there aren’t really any reasonable arguments for Guess Culture. The first glace was correct. Guess Culture is terrible for anyone who values communication. As Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert state in More Than Two:

Passive communication is the norm in many families, and indeed in many cultures. Every now and then some pop-psych article will surface that compares passive with direct communication and says that neither is inherently “better,” and all you need to do is learn which style someone is using and adapt to it.

In polyamorous relationships, though, passive communication will fuck you right up.

Perhaps Guess Culture can work in a hermetically sealed environment where everyone is committed to reading subtle social cues and anticipating the unstated needs of others. I have my doubts, but it’s possible. However, in poly relationships, where communication is so important, Guess Culture spells disaster.

BrienneStrohl of Less Wrong proposed an even stronger form of Ask Culture called Tell Culture:

The two basic rules of Tell Culture: 1) Tell the other person what’s going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you’d both benefit from them knowing. (Do NOT assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it will even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance.) 2) Interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.

Tell Culture seems like a good addition, but substantially similar enough to Ask Culture that the real debate seems to be between Guess on the one side and Ask/Tell on the other. The latest attempt to harmonize the two sides comes from Benjamin Ross Hoffman, advocating something he calls “Gel Culture.” Hoffman points out the obvious issues with Guess Culture, but adds this about Ask Culture:

ask/tell culture sounds exhausting. I’ve explicitly asked for feedback, in certain contexts, but I do not like the prospect of telling & being told always, all the time, forever. Sometimes talking takes a lot of energy – and if people aren’t expected to anticipate others’ needs, that means it’s perfectly acceptable for people to do things that overload me, and take up my time, space, and attention, when I just don’t have the energy to say “please not now.” After all, if I had wanted something different, I should have asked.

This is, as the logicians call it, a reductio ad absurdum argument. Hoffman says “I do not like the prospect of telling & being told always, all the time, forever” as if this is somehow being proposed by advocates of Ask/Tell Culture. It isn’t.

Taken to its extremes, any social heuristic can be made to look ridiculous. Of course extreme, inflexible Ask Culture sounds overbearing. Extreme, inflexible ANYTHING would be horrible.

Eat more kale!

Eat more kale!

When people say “Ask Culture is good; Guess culture is bad,” it’s like saying “kale is good for you; sugar is bad for you.” It’s a useful general rule, but taken to it’s extremes, it’s ridiculous and harmful. Very large quantities of kale can cause hypothyroidism. Your brain literally cannot function without sugar. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, for almost everyone, reducing sugar intake and increasing kale intake would be beneficial.

The same goes for Ask and Guess Culture. While extreme, inflexible Ask Culture sounds like a nightmare, and a complete lack of regard for people’s unstated needs isn’t healthy, the fact remains that almost every society would benefit from moving toward Ask Culture and away from Guess Culture. Hoffman’s “Gel Culture” presents a false equivalence.

Hoffman proposes a plea of understanding:

Guess culture sounds stifling to me, and ask culture sounds much to talky. But one thing both seem to have in common is the assumption that if someone doesn’t follow the correct forms, they’re doing something terribly wrong. People who identify with guess culture think that ask culture people are abrasive, intrusive, and offensive. People who identify with ask culture thing that guess culture people are passive-aggressive and set unfair standards. But me? I’m used to people messing up. People make social mistakes all the time. I make social mistakes even more often than that. I don’t think that people are bad or silly or socially incompetent for having a communication style that differs from mine.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. As I said before, it’s good to understand that other people have different communication styles. However, the fact remains that Guess Culture people are passive-aggressive and set unfair standards. Passive-aggression is a cornerstone of Guess Culture. Hoffman’s plea that we forgive each other for “social mistakes” is fine, but let’s not gloss over the fact that these actions were actually mistakes, and work on correcting them in the future. Otherwise, we just end up making the same mistakes over and over.

Hoffman’s article is just the latest in a series of articles seeking to harmonize Ask and Guess Culture with the rhetorical equivalent of “can’t we all just get along.” This sort of analysis seems to presuppose that we have no influence on our culture. It takes the standpoint that the culture is what it is, and we must find the best way to navigate it. That’s true to a point, but the debates over Ask and Guess Culture are relevant to me as a question of where we should be taking our culture. Should we strive toward Ask Culture or Guess Culture? How should we conduct our own social circles? Should we favor social connections with people who ask for what they want or people who count on us to anticipate their needs? These are important questions.

It seems undeniable that Ask/Tell Culture is superior to Guess Culture. Let’s all try to implement that as best we can. As Hoffman says, we should be gracious in the face of mistakes, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that spreading Ask Culture means making the world a better place.