July 21, 2022
How straightforwardly should we communicate our preferences to others? How many times does a person need to say "yes" relative to the number of times they say "no" so that a relationship can be maintained? Most people probably use a mix of asking and guessing; but under what conditions should each strategy be employed? What are the costs and benefits for the askers, guessers, and the people of whom the explicit or implicit request is being made? Since even the act of asking a question can be revealing, how can we know when to disclose certain pieces of information about our preferences? Does asking or guessing work better in small or large groups? Is it more polite to guess or ask? How does "tell" culture differ from ask and guess cultures? Does asking for consent (instead of guessing about whether or not the person consents) in sexual situations kill the mood?
Will Eden was on the podcast back in episode 040. You can read more about him there!
Sam Rosen was on the podcast back in episode 002. You can read more about him there!
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Will Eden and Sam Rosen about ask versus guess culture, leveraging group trust, and norms and preferences around communication in dating.
SPENCER: Sam and Will, welcome.
SAM: Hey, how's it going?
SPENCER: So today is the third conversation in a series we've been doing where we bring in two people that strongly disagree on a topic. And then, instead of debating, we explore together what the roots of the disagreements are, try to understand those and see why each of the two people disagree and try to learn about the topic in the process. The first one we did was on liberalism and conservatism. The second one was on social justice advocacy versus anti-woke sentiment. And today's one is on the idea of ask culture versus guess culture, which are two cultures or two conversational norms, or two communication norms (I guess you could say) that we can have. And so representing the ask culture side, we've got Sam.
SPENCER: Hey, Sam. Representing the guess culture, we've got Will.
SPENCER: Because guess culture is more prevalent in society today, I'll ask Will to start explaining what guess culture is. But before he does that, I just want to say why I think this topic is important. Basically, every day we go about our lives, and we want things from other people, other people want things from us. And we use different methods to communicate our wants and needs and desires. And so the question is, how should we communicate those desires? And if we do it poorly, then there might be missed opportunities where people aren't understanding what we're saying. Or there might be cases where we actually end up inadvertently causing negative side effects for people and so on. And so this idea of guess culture versus ask culture is really a concept of how we should express ourselves in a way that people get the things that they want, and don't cause negative side effects by accident. And so with that, I'll ask Will to jump in and just explain what is guess culture.
WILL: Sure. So I will note, this whole thing started on a thread online, maybe 10-ish years ago or something. And I should just note, this isn't something that's been formally defined in a study or something like that. It's a phenomenon that I think was more emergently recognized. That said, how I would best define it is basically how direct or indirect you want to be about communicating your preferences. And it does seem like a vast majority of people prefer, or at least do, a more indirect communication style. So I would say the important thing here is that preferences are still being communicated. But there's much more of a kind of a culture of trying to sort of hint at them, and expecting a little bit that the other person involved in the conversation is sort of actively trying to pick up on what you might mean. So there's a lot of saying indirect statements and expecting the other person to pick up on the fact that maybe you want something from that statement. I think the thread that kicked all of this off was someone complaining that their friend was asking to stay in their house when they came to town, and this person was just absolutely flabbergasted that someone would just ask so directly [laughs]. And I think that she was expecting there to be a little bit more of a gentle, polite protocol around that sort of thing. And it felt like the other person was inviting themselves into their home. So that was the case that kicked all of this off.
SPENCER: Could you give an example? What would that look like in guess culture if someone were going to ask to stay with you?
WILL: Yeah. So I think the way that I would phrase it, if I had a friend in a city that I wanted to stay with, I think I would tell them that I would be in town. And I might even go so far as to say something like, "Hey, I think it would be really fun to just hang out with you. And if you're up for it, I think it would be fun to stay at your place and see you, but I totally understand that is a huge deal. And I am totally fine with it if you are not fully comfortable with it and would say no, and it would absolutely not offend me."
SPENCER: I think you're doing something here, which is you're doing a very delicate mix of the two, right? Where you're asking them what you want but you kind of caveat in a way that sort of tries to remove a lot of the downsides of asking. But why don't you give us an extreme example here of like pure guess?
WILL: Oh, sure. Yeah, I think the absolute, purest form of this is just you tell them, "I'm coming into town," and you wait for them to volunteer if they want to, and say, "Hey, since you're in town, I'm happy to host you." I do think that guess culture is a little bit of a spectrum. I don't think that it's purely one or the other — and I gave an example of how I would do it — because I think I'm somewhere on the spectrum towards some ask culture.
SPENCER: Right. So at the extreme guess culture level, you're not even hinting necessarily that you want this thing. You're just hoping the other person will infer that you want it and offer it; that's really extreme. And then we have these hybrid ones where you are expressing that you want the thing, but you're doing it in a way that makes it extremely easy for them to back out, basically.
WILL: Yeah, totally. And I think, even there, there are various degrees of that. You could just say, "I'm coming into town," and let them offer if they want. You could say something like, "I'm coming into town, and I'm trying to figure out where to stay." Which, again, you're still not asking them, but you're making it even more clear that that's the frame in your head.
SPENCER: Yeah. And it also seems, with guess culture, there's a lot of mental modeling going on. So do you want to just say something about that, of how that operates in guess culture?
WILL: Yeah. I basically have a few models on here that I figured we would dive into over the course of this conversation. But I think one of the core things here with guess culture is, it does require more active modeling of the other person. But I think that that's actually something that almost everyone really deeply wants. I think everyone wants to feel heard and seen, I think everyone wants to believe that other people are consciously actively modeling them and trying to do things that they would like, and that they know that you would like. And so I think some of what's happening with guess culture is that it's putting the emphasis more on the closeness of the connection and being able to anticipate what the other person wants.
SPENCER: Right, because it feels good if you say, "Oh, I'm coming to town," and then they say, "Oh, you should stay with me. It'd be so great to have you here."
WILL: Yeah, it feels great. It's like, "Wow, I'm wanted!" Whereas, someone from that culture, if you then ask, and that person feels obligated to have you over, then all of a sudden there's this social weirdness, because they say yes, but they don't really want to say yes, and they're feeling weird about it. And then you show up, and they're not super happy, there's just this weird tension. I think that's the downside of when you mix these two cultures, is that sometimes people feel if they're directly asked, that they don't have an easy way to say no.
SPENCER: All right, so let's jump to the other side. Sam, do you want to give us your quick description of what is ask culture? And then talk about maybe the same example through that lens?
SAM: Yeah, sure. So, ask culture is just that you should be allowed to ask for things, people should be allowed to say no, and then you should accept that no with equanimity, that you should be okay with it and that this is a perfectly reasonable way to interact. It assumes that you don't have to understand the person and that it's okay to ask people their preferences and have people be able to communicate what they want. I think the crux of what ask culture for me is, should you be allowed to ask for 20%-probability things — like things where only one in five times you'll say yes — am I allowed to ask for that from you? Because, if no, then I can never get the preferences satisfied that are one-in-five chances, that's just off the table. You understand what I'm saying?
SPENCER: Yeah, so in this example of staying with someone, it might be that you're coming to town, you want to stay with them. And so in ask culture, you just say, "Hey, I'm coming to town, can I stay with you?" But then there's this more extreme case, which is like, maybe you want to stay with him for a month, or something like that, or maybe three months. And that's really asking a ton, and there's probably a pretty good chance they don't want you to stay with them for three months.
SAM: Yeah. But the cost of all the times you ask people, "Can I stay with you for three months?" and they say no. That transaction cost is probably outweighed by the benefit of, once in a while you get to stay with someone for three months and have a really cool experience. You know what I mean? How bad are the transaction costs, really, compared to the benefit for when you find a trade that's good?
WILL: Yeah. So I don't know if you guys are familiar with this concept called the Losada zone. And it comes out of a guy's academic research where he was looking at the number of positive feedback versus negative feedback, and what is the ratio that you need, basically, to maintain a happy and healthy long-term dynamic? And basically, what he found is, at an absolute minimum, you need to be giving some positive feedback, something like at a two-to-three-to-one ratio at an absolute minimum, and ideally, substantially higher. And so, when I hear about trying to do these asks with like a 20% hit rate, I start to worry that that ends up with a dynamic where you're frequently making big asks, and you're often hearing 'no'. And I do start to worry a little bit that that's going to create this negative dynamic over the long run, where you're basically hearing lots of nos and a lot fewer yeses. And I think even the most ask culture people are probably still at least going to be subconsciously affected by hearing that.
SPENCER: So just a quick note on that. The Losada ratio — that original paper, I'll just say, was really bad — but I think it's a funny example where, even though the research was deeply flawed, I think it's probably just directionally true, right? You really do need a lot of positives relative to negatives in a relationship. Like, if it's 50/50, it's probably not a good relationship. And I'll just say I agree with the general idea, but just for anyone who's curious about the original paper, it probably doesn't hold up.
WILL: Yeah. And I just fully generally feel that way about a lot of the social science stuff. Like even if it was a pretty bad paper, if it strongly fits with your intuitive experience of just being a person, there's probably something there.
SPENCER: Sam, do you want to reply to what Will said?
SAM: Yeah, I think he's kind of right, that you can't just be constantly asking for these low-probability things that will damage relationships. But then the question is, every once in a while, can you make a moonshot request? How costly is that really? I was thinking about the three sorts of parameters that move you from ask to guess, and I think they are: the frequency of the requests, how polite you ask the request, and the probability that you'll be successful in getting what you want when you ask — so it's like frequency, manner and probability. I think that I am in favor of more low-probability requests, where there's a lower chance that they'll say yes, and a higher frequency of them. But I completely understand that different people could want to be in different places on the spectrum. I just think that, if we tolerate more 'ask culture-y okayness,' then more weird preferences will get fulfilled, and more weirdos will be able to get what they want, where before they could never get it.
SPENCER: Can you unpack that a bit, because you're talking about weirdos getting what they want. What do you really mean by that?
SAM: Well, like if you had idiosyncratic preferences, it's a little bit awkward to find out if you can get it. Well, yeah, so I think weirdos, autistic people, disagreeable people, they all super benefit from ask culture. Autistic people, because they don't have to read the room as much, and it's much easier for them, and they like to be more literal. Weirdos, because they have all sorts of idiosyncratic preferences that are not getting fulfilled, and the default scripts don't lead to getting their preferences fulfilled. And then disagreeable people are just very, very comfortable saying no when someone asks them. So those are three people that love ask culture; whereas people that love guess culture, I think, are people that are very agreeable, and don't want to cause conflict and feel very uncomfortable saying no, or people for whom their needs are met entirely by the normal social scripts that they can just follow easily.
SPENCER: It seems like the ability to model people's minds is also really essential there, right? If you just have extreme difficulty predicting how other people will behave, or how they'll respond to requests or whatever, then guess culture is going to be really unpleasant to you. Because basically, it's saying, "Well, you have to do these subtle implications in order to get something and also you have to pick up on other people's subtle cues." But you don't know how to do the subtle cues, necessarily, and you also don't necessarily know how to pick up other people's, so you're just missing out on the benefits.
WILL: Yeah. And I totally think that ask culture works very well for certain types of people in certain groups. And I think there's this question of, well, what percentage of the population is that? And then what should be the expected norm if, say, maybe ask culture works super well for 5% of folks, or even 10% of folks? It still seems to me like the conversational burden of proof should be on the ask culture people to conform to the guess culture people, if it's something that is socially expected and is in fact, the norm, and in fact, works better for most people.
SPENCER: That's an interesting question. So, Will, it sounds like you think that guess culture does work better for most people. Sam, do you agree with that?
SAM: I think Chesterton's fence is on guess culture because most cultures are guess culture, so it probably works better for most people. I just know from experience that some hybrid of guess and ask culture just seems to me strictly better than guess culture. Now, full ask culture — I could see it being very unpleasant but a culture that tolerates more weird requests, more 'comfortableness' with saying no to, like, "Oh, no, I don't want that," and that being totally fine — I've just seen very beautiful things happen from that. People can just have their idiosyncratic preferences fulfilled, and they don't have to hide their desires. It feels freeing.
WILL: Yeah, I do think ultimately, we both have a fairly subtle view on this question. I don't think either of us is extreme in either direction. Very, very clearly, there are at least a subset of folks where it does work well for people. I think in terms of this question of, should we move culture a little bit more towards ask culture in general, I do think it is a pretty interesting question. I do think Sam is coming at it from a somewhat normative view of like, well, actually, culture would be strictly better if we shifted a little bit more towards that, which is maybe a point where he and I don't fully see eye-to-eye possibly. So I do think that's a question that we could explore. But I do think even for folks for whom ask culture works pretty well, if they, in fact, were with other people who were modeling them well, I still predict that they would actually prefer guess culture.
SAM: I definitely prefer my friends knowing my preferences all the time. That's way better and I agree with you that the ideal is a universe where we all just know what each other wants, and it's very harmonious.
WILL: Very hard to do.
SAM: Very hard to do, and people's preferences change, day by day, moment by moment. And sometimes it's just nice to be able to be like, "Hey, so does anyone want to go on a camel ride with me right now?" Like, it just seems like a fun thing that I can just ask people; they'll probably say no, but, if I just make the request, like, "Hey, I want to go to the zoo. I wanna pay a guy to ride some camels," that feels like...I'm really happy when that thing gets thrown out a lot.
SPENCER: So let's talk about negative externalities for a second. Because I think this is a big question with regard to ask culture. To what extent is asking actually creating a burden or causing negative emotions for the person you're asking?
SAM: I think it entirely depends on how agreeable they are. And for very agreeable people, it's very imposing to ask them a request, whereas for us weird people, it's not at all a burden — which I've been going lately thinking that (this 'galaxy brain take') that maybe really assertive people and very unassertive people — like very high and low agreeable people just shouldn't — they should not be interacting [laughs]. Maybe we should be a segregated society. This seems problematic to have them be associating.
SPENCER: Will, are you in favor of segregating all agreeable people from disagreeable people?
WILL: I think that might sound theoretically optimal. I don't know how we could actually pull that off though.
SAM: Society does seem to segregate by education level, and by wealth. So it's interesting that there already are these segregations that just naturally happen. But that's one that doesn't actually happen but would theoretically be nice.
WILL: I think that it could happen within social groups and sub-circles, right? I think folks — friends that they're closest to — are probably more similar. But we don't have a society-level segregation of that sort of people.
SAM: But do you see what I'm saying about how, when disagreeable people get asked a request, it's nothing? And when agreeable people get asked a request, it's like this terrible thing that they feel really nervous about and don't know what...they, like, panic. You know what I mean?
WILL: Yeah, totally. And I concur that the negative externality is larger or smaller, depending on folks' personality traits. But, do you think that the negative externality is actually 0? Or is it just that it's somewhat significantly less uncomfortable for certain kinds of people.
SAM: I think it's pretty negligible unless...I can see cases where someone, one person, has an extreme preference for something, and the other person has only a mild preference, and they say no, and the person feels like they're being flippant with their needs, or something like that. In that case, I could see it causing tension. But I think people can get into a place where they're very comfortable hearing a no and being cool with it. I think that's definitely achievable.
SPENCER: Well, I think there are some cases where the externalities can be a lot larger. And so when you were brainstorming for this episode, Sam, what would be a weird preference someone could express that you'd be fine with? You gave the example to me that, suppose one of your friends is just like, "I prefer being naked." You'd be like, "Oh, whatever, I don't care, that's fine. You can be naked. It doesn't make a difference to me."
SAM: I literally never care if anyone's naked around me ever. I know I don't care at all. And so people should just know that; you could just be naked around me. I don't give a shit at all. And so, in ask culture, you can find out whether I care; in guess culture, it seems like you can't really, like ever, find this out.
SPENCER: Right. But I think this is a good example because I think there's some people that, if their friend was like, "Hey, do you mind if I am naked right now?" they would find it — not only would they struggle to say no — but they actually might find it really upsetting.
SAM: Further reason why agreeable people and disagreeable people shouldn't be interacting. [laughs] No, I'm just kidding.
WILL: Yeah, I think that that's the pretty extreme outlier preference that I basically think — the conversational norm should in fact be to not say stuff like that until you're very certain that your friend is the kind of friend that is fine with that. And you should maybe find that out through other ways first, other than just explicitly asking them if you can take all of your clothes off.
SPENCER: Unless you're hanging out with Sam, in which case, go for it.
SAM: I don't assume that I can ask anything to anyone. But I really want people to assume that they can ask anything of me basically. Like, sure, though the frequency matters a lot. You can't ask me like every day, every hour for something. But every once in a while, you can just ask me for weird things and I'll take it seriously. I'm very cool with that. You know what I mean?
WILL: Yeah, I am fine with folks who want to opt into being part of ask culture. I don't think I disagree there. I still wonder if, on some level, we do disagree on how much people should be like this, I guess.
SAM: Yeah. In your more 'guess culture-y like' interactions, do you ever feel like there are things that you want that you just can't get because you can never ask for them? Or it's hard to hint at them? Does that ever feel frustrating to you?
WILL: It can, but in those cases, I think I suspect that the other person also doesn't really want to do them. And so, yeah, it's frustrating for me, but it's also not like I would necessarily get that thing if I asked. Or if I did ask, I would get that thing at such a cost to the other person that it wouldn't feel worth it.
SPENCER: But that suggests that you are modeling other people pretty accurately, because you're already predicting that they wouldn't enjoy it and assuming those predictions are pretty accurate.
WILL: Yes, it absolutely does.
SAM: I've been married to my wife for about 10 years now. And she knows me and I know her better than I think -– about as well as a person can know another person — and still we are uncertain of each other's preferences, and for lots of things. Like I don't know if she wants to watch this movie about a cartoon frog. I don't know...she doesn't know if I wanna take tango lessons with her. So like, I don't know, it seems like, even if you know someone really well, there's still uncertainty about preferences. And in that case, you should be allowed to ask to find out, just get information.
WILL: Yeah, I definitely think asking should be a fallback. But that's a fallback, right? That's not the first thing that we reach for. The first thing that we reach for is our mental model of someone. The second thing that we do is we ask when we're very much uncertain. And yeah, I mean, we just had our 10th wedding anniversary literally a couple days ago. But yes, even then, occasionally, we have to fall back on explicitly trying to ask for something.
SPENCER: And it's just this intermediate thing, right? Which is, it's not guessing, and it's not asking, it's like revealing something.
WILL: Hinting at.
SPENCER: Yeah, hinting at. I think, well, you're very skillful at this. And I think the more skillful someone is at this, the more benefits they get from guess culture. So I'm curious, suppose you wanted to get naked around someone, how would you do that in guess culture, right? [all laugh]
WILL: Oh, my goodness. I suspect that guess culture broadly coincides with people who don't get naked around each other super often? [laughs] I'm not sure how to evaluate this hypothetical.
SPENCER: See, I feel like, if someone really wanted to do that but was operating in guess culture, they'd be like, "You know, I was reading the other day about nudism. How do you feel about nudism? It is a little silly that we have to wear clothes all the time."
WILL: Yeah, totally.
SPENCER: You're gathering information about this preference without yet revealing your preference, right? And then if they're like, "Oh, no, I knew this was weird," you back off, right?
WILL: So I think almost everyone does this during early stages of new dating. I think fairly often, people aren't necessarily willing to come out with their craziest, most controversial stuff. However, you can bring up subjects and see how the other person responds and I think you can get a lot of info there. And if you bring up the idea of people being comfortable naked in front of each other, and they have some strong disgust reaction, I think you don't have to be that good at modeling them to realize that this isn't something that they want to do. And similarly if they're super open to it, or they mentioned some story where they did it or something, then, okay, that's a very strong signal.
SPENCER: Seems like there's an element here about when you reveal information or how much you reveal, and having the ability to deny that you have expressed something. Does that make sense?
WILL: Oh, yeah.
SPENCER: Maybe you want to go into that little bit? I feel like that's a key element here.
WILL: Yeah, I guess we haven't talked about plausible deniability yet. But I do think that is a very core part of the guess culture thing. And the idea here is you can have shared knowledge that's not common knowledge. So you can know that I know, and I can know that you know, that we're both really uncomfortable with something. But some of that discomfort is eased if you don't have to say that part out loud. You don't actually have to say the quiet part out loud. And I basically think that that is a kind of social nicety or politeness or something, which basically enables everyone to leave the interaction feeling better about each other when they sort of don't correspond. And I do think that is actually a pretty valuable social lubricant. That is not something we should just readily do away with.
SPENCER: But maybe we should give an example because I feel like it might be hard to understand with that one — like maybe a case might be, you've got two people, one is attracted to the other. And maybe person A knows that person B (who they are attracted to) is not into them, and person B knows that person A likes them, but yet somehow, by that going unacknowledged, it makes it much less humiliating for the person who is not liked.
WILL: Yeah, I think that's a huge case that comes up extremely often. And I do think making that one-directional attraction explicit can sometimes literally even end friendships.
SPENCER: Right. There's a huge difference if it's like, maybe your friend is attracted to you. You're really not sure but you've considered that possibility, versus you're absolutely sure your friend is into you. There could be a really big difference there in how it affects you and how it affects your future interactions.
SAM: Some benefits that I have from ask culture is that I've just asked other people, "Hey, I want to throw a party at your house. Can I do that?" And they're like, "Yeah, sure." And then I get to have a cool house to throw a party in.
SPENCER: I'm pretty sure you did that to me, Sam.
SAM: And you're not the only person that I thought of, Spencer. So like, I don't know, I get to have a cool party...
WILL: How did you feel though, Spencer? And I'm curious if you said yes or no.
SPENCER: I said yes and I was happy to say yes because I was like, "Oh, that sounds great." Sam's gonna organize the party; I don't have to do any work. And then I don't even have to leave my house. It's perfect. But also, I think that I would feel very comfortable saying no to Sam. So that actually makes it less aversive, and maybe that's also a key element here. Like imagine someone makes a request, but they're gonna have their feelings really hurt if you say no, right? That's so much worse.
SAM: Yeah. Which is why these are like equilibriums. Because if everyone knows that everyone's not gonna get their feelings hurt, it takes the pressure down. Whereas if everyone knows, their feelings might be hurt, it doesn't. You know what I mean? And if there's uncertainty about which kind of person you are, it's ambiguous.
WILL: And I basically keep coming back to, I think it's extremely hard to not hurt someone's feelings on at least some level. I do agree that there is a spectrum, but I keep coming back to, on some level, even if it's deep, even if it's subconscious, that's doing some damage there.
SPENCER: What's maybe a more innocuous example, where you feel like there might be a hidden damage?
WILL: I mean, if it's that innocuous, then there's not very much damage, right? The point is that you're trying to avoid the super bad outcomes. I think you gave the perfect example of there's two friends — one of whom is into someone, the other person isn't — and that could be a potentially friendship-ending thing. I think the whole point is that guess culture can preserve the situation in the worst, most extreme circumstances. And I think it actually matters less for small things. I think possibly some of the greatest costs to the guess culture thing is having to be super indirect about really minor things. But I think that that's a social dance that's actually protecting the really major things.
SPENCER: So why can't we just turn it off for the minor things? Is it because we don't always know what's minor? Or is it just like building a culture and habit and expectations so that it then applies in the more serious cases?
WILL: Yeah, all of the above, basically. I think humans are bad at mode switching, just in general. I think it's hard to go from super ask to super guess. And I basically think that that will end up imposing its own costs. And probably most people couldn't really do that. And I think that it's relatively hard to switch in between super ask and super guess, like, depending on the size or the importance of the ask.
SPENCER: I feel like the classic example here is when people are eating appetizers, and there's just one left, and nobody eats it. And then the waiter comes and takes it away, [laughs] because everyone wanted it, but nobody wanted to request it.
SAM: A place where ask culture fails really badly, is if you ask someone in a group of people, and their answer will signal things about their personality, so they're pressured to say the thing. Whereas if you ask someone one on one, it's a much safer asking context?
SPENCER: That's interesting but if you ask in a social context, then there might be extra costs based on their answer, like how their answer is perceived by others, and so on.
SAM: Yeah, like if someone says, "Can I sit with you?" If I'm around four people, they'd be like, "No, I don't want you to." I don't know, there's something about it that makes me look bad if I have a preference or something like that.
SPENCER: I think that's a case of as soon as questions reveal information. And even the fact of asking a question can be a problem. So for example, let's say you ask someone, "Oh, are you attracted to me?" They could say — they could refuse to answer. And even if you ask, — like you could do an ask culture thing — like, "Hey, are you okay about having a conversation where we discuss how attractive we are to each other?" But then there's a meta thing where, if the person says no, then there's an implication about why that is, like, "Well, maybe it's because you're gonna tell them you're not attracted to me," or whatever, right? So sometimes asking a question forces a reveal of information, right? [laughs]
WILL: I do think you raise a good point, which is that, the larger the group setting, I think the larger the costs to a failed bid. And so I could see the guess culture thing becoming increasingly important when it's a larger group and ask culture working a little better when it's like you and your friend.
SAM: I was thinking about what I think about ask culture versus guess culture is. I was thinking, "Am I forced to read the room like it's a comic book? Or am I forced to read the room like it's a Tolstoy novel?" [laughs] Like, how much reading do I really have to do here? I just feel like I shouldn't have that much obligation to read it like a Tolstoy novel.
WILL: Right. And I think this idea of the social obligation — and where the burden falls in a conversation — I think is actually really crucial here. Basically, my model is something like, when there is an explicit ask being made, that is necessarily creating some discomfort. And the question is, where does the onus lie to prevent making things really uncomfortable? And I feel like ask culture is basically asking the person of whom the ask is being made, to bear that burden. And guess culture is saying that the asker should bear the burden of the uncomfortableness. And it does feel to me like the person doing the active part of the conversation — namely making the ask — it seems fairly clear to me that that's a reasonable case for the person who should actually bear the costs here. And from that perspective, they are the person who can most easily prevent that cost from happening, namely, by changing the way that they ask or hinting at it or just not asking.
SAM: I think the question of whose burden it is ultimately, I don't think that that is the right way to think about these questions. I think you should just think about which of these two hypothetical societies would I prefer to live in? The one with more 'guess culture-y' norms, or 'ask culture-y' norms? I don't think that, fundamentally, the question comes down to where the true obligation lands. I just think you should think about what sorts of groups would you want to be in? And I like living in groups where people can ask, "Hey, I would like to be naked right now. Not in a sexual way. I just would like to be naked," and that being an okay ask, and that way, that person can get their preferences met without it being a problem.
SPENCER: Why do you reject that frame around whose responsibility it is? Because I think one argument could just be, well, if someone is benefiting by making the request, they should bear the cost, right? So that's like a fairness thing. But then there's another argument that it might be more efficient for them to bear the cost — which I think is what Will was getting at — like, do you want to elaborate on that, Will?
WILL: Yeah, so I think the simplest thought experiment here is just the person that is hearing the ask, they aren't the ones who are modeling asking for the thing before it happens, normally. Obviously, in a guess culture situation, if something is being hinted at, then yeah, I think they have some obligation to at least try to hear that signal and model it and then choose to respond or not. Whereas in the ask culture situation, the guesser is effectively socially blindsided, right; there's just this ask coming out of nowhere. And in this case, it's actually the person doing the asking, that knows what they want. They know, possibly how that ask will fall on someone's ears, and so on, right? From that perspective, the social burden should be on the asker because the asker is the one with the most information about the ask. And from that perspective, I think it makes more social sense for the person doing the asking to try to mitigate the effect of that ask. And that process itself looks like doing the guess culture thing.
SAM: I agree with his intuitions. And I agree that, if you're in his framework, his conclusions follow from his framework. I just think that different people will flourish under different norms and we have to just ask the question of what percentage of people will flourish under what norms and what percentage of people will flourish under other norms and I don't think those questions of what norms we should have should be solved on that level, not in the level of, fundamentally, what is the deontological moral law about this? We should just figure out what percentage of people flourish in different norms, and then try to figure that out.
WILL: So suppose there's a group of friends, and maybe half of them you think would flourish under ask culture, but half of them would flourish more under guess culture. What do you think that social group should actually default to?
SAM: I mean, guess culture is the default, just because most humans in most of the world are guess culture, so you just have to understand that that's what most people are. I think the ask culture people should say, "Hey, we are 'ask culture-y,' and we would like to do ask culture norms. And if you'd like to do it with us, we'd love that. But if you don't want to do it, like I guess we'll do it with each other, but not with you guys." There should be some sort of conversation about which norms are preferable.
SPENCER: It's a very ask culture way of addressing it. [laughs]
SPENCER: You don't think they should just subtly hint? [laughs]
SAM: I just want to say that there's something really, really beautiful when a bunch of very ask culture people are able to ask for anything from each other and it feels not spammy — sometimes if you ask too much, it's like spammy. But it just feels like people are getting their idiosyncratic needs met. And everyone's very cool with asking for things and saying no and it being fine. I've just seen it happen in my life. So I know it's possible. And all you guessers out there who haven't seen it, maybe try it out. See if you like it.
SPENCER: Now I'm imagining a friend group where like one person is naked all the time, one person's like always petting a lizard at all times. I don't know.
WILL: We're all just living our best life. [laughs]
SAM: I actually had a thought about making ask culture and guess culture more extreme. So like, if you had a more extreme version of ask culture — I call it like, 'agro-culture,' where like, not only can you ask for things; if they say no, you can be like, "No, I want to do it." — like you can pressure them. So it'd be an even more extreme version of ask culture. And then 'coward culture' would be the most extreme version of guess culture where you just never ever bring up anything that could be, in any way, uncomfortable.
WILL: We all live lives of quiet desperation.
SAM: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
SPENCER: If only everyone would guess my preferences and just enact them.
SAM: Yeah, exactly.
SPENCER: I assume you're not in favor of 'agro-culture,' Sam.
SAM: Okay, I could live in 'agro-culture,' and I would be fine in it. But I prefer ask culture to 'agro-culture.'
SPENCER: In 'agro-culture,' are you required to yell your preferences or can you say them nicely?
SAM: No, no, but you're allowed to pressure people. You have to be, like, "No, I really want you to do this. That's why I'm asking you." Very disagreeable people are interacting with other disagreeable people in 'agro-culture.'
SPENCER: So one question I have for you both is, do you think that which culture we use should depend on our level of closeness with people? Do you think that, as we get closer to people, we should be more in an ask mode? Whereas, let's say you're interacting with a stranger or someone you don't...you can't really model their preferences very well, it makes sense to be more guess based.
WILL: So I basically think that guess culture works the best when you have the most shared model. And in some ways, it's actually the opposite, right? If you're with totally different strangers from a totally different culture, you almost have to do something more ask culture, because you're not going to be able to model them super well. So in some ways, it's almost the opposite. I do think, in theory, it's actually better in a lot of ways to be more polite with strangers, but it's also harder to model them. And so you actually get more benefits from being explicit with them, at least in certain circumstances. I think that if it were a situation that's actually physically dangerous — if there are two tribes who encounter each other in the wilderness, and they're heavily armed or something, 10,000 years ago — then I think that's a situation where you actually do want to probably default to extreme politeness unless you're basically ready to just kill them. And I think that, like our brains still at least have a little bit of that kind of instinct. I think we're not just completely comfortable with complete random strangers. So I basically think that something like guess culture, politeness norms, are good if it's a very high-stakes thing. But I think in modern society where, if you live in a large city, you're going to be encountering people from all different places, cultures, and I think the risk of a merely offensive thing devolving into violence is actually fairly low, and the shared model is fairly low; I think that is actually a relatively good point to use more ask culture.
SPENCER: It's funny, because it feels like there are forces cutting in both directions, right?
WILL: Yeah, I agree.
SAM: Yeah, totally.
SPENCER: If you meet strangers, but they're very much immersed in your same culture, it feels like guess is a safer default to fall back on. Whereas, let's say you met strangers, but from a completely different culture, your guesses might be completely wrong and inappropriate. You actually have to just ask a bunch of questions like, "Is it okay to do this?" and that kind of thing. And then similarly, as you get to know someone really well, your model of them hopefully will get more and more accurate. So you can actually guess what they want more and more often, which is really cool. On the other hand, maybe it's more comfortable now to just say what you want, because you know the person so well, and they're less likely to feel hurt or offended.
WILL: Yeah. Here is an example from my life where I, in theory, would want to be guess culture, but I actually have to be more ask culture. I'm traveling to a foreign country; I don't know what the rules are on how to give folks tips. And generally, in that case, what I will try to do is I will explicitly ask, but I'll try to ask not the person who I'm actually supposed to give the tip to, but someone else who knows. Like if I'm at a hotel, I might ask the concierge desk, "What are the customs for trying to give folks tips here?" And yeah, that's a slightly awkward thing to ask. And I think, on some level, we would both prefer that I didn't have to ask, and, if I can, I'll try to search it on Google first, right? But there are cases where I have had to just explicitly make that ask, even though I didn't want to, but it would have been an even worse offense, if say, I tried to directly hand them the money versus put it in an envelope somewhere, right? I was using ask because that was actually the more polite thing than making a serious error.
SPENCER: One time when I was traveling in a foreign country, I noticed that the cashiers, whenever they would give me my change back, they would bow. And so, I started bowing back because it just felt intuitive. And then someone who lived there noticed us doing that and they thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. And I was so confused, then the way I finally was able to understand why they thought it was hilarious was that, to them, it was like, imagine you go to a restaurant, and then the waiter comes over and is like, "Would you like some water?" And you're like, "Would you like some water?" And it made that little sense to them. And so it made me realize like, "Oh, man, it's so hard, if you've never been in a culture to know what the right thing to do is."
SAM: I deeply want my close partners to model me very closely. I love that part of guess culture, but I also just really want them to be able to ask for strange things like, "Hey, Sam, do you want to go to a production of a Humpty Dumpty theater performance?" I'm like," Oh, sure, that sounds good." I probably don't want to go but I want you to ask. I like people offering me things, feels like they're giving me opportunities.
WILL: Yeah, I guess I hear that and it makes me wonder if the fundamental need or want that you have isn't even really something about ask versus guess culture but is something else, like something about having spontaneity or surreal experiences or...something that it seems like you're optimizing for that isn't actually ask culture or something?
SAM: Yeah, maybe. It feels like — okay, if someone wanted someone to be the sperm donor, it seems like I want it to be okay to be like, "Hey, do you want to be a sperm donor to me?" without it being like a thing you have to hint at first. It just seems like that's — I wanna be able to make weird requests, and I don't think people should be so nervous about making weird requests. And I feel like, as long as you don't do them super frequently, then it's not that burdensome.
WILL: So I concur with you on the frequency thing, but then how do you know what the right frequency is? And seems like you might have to guess? [laughs]
SAM: Yeah. You gotta guess when to ask.
SPENCER: It turns out, to deal with humans, you have to have some ability to model humans.
SAM: And some ability to make requests with them. And I definitely think that manner is a thing that you can almost go totally guess on, and it'd be fine. It doesn't really take away from the parts of ask culture that I care about — I'm totally fine that, under ask culture, you ask very politely; that seems like a great improvement to ask culture. You know what I mean? What's being lost is when it's low-probability things that you're just not allowed to ask for, ever, or you have to be very careful about them and they just don't get talked about — all for the polite manner; I'm not for that. We just don't talk about low-probability preferences.
WILL: Right, and I hear you there. And I concur that it's more of a cost if it doesn't ever get raised but, as you pointed out, you can also ask extremely delicately, too.
SAM: Yeah, I'm for delicacy. I'm just not for never bringing up these low-probability asks.
SPENCER: It seems to me that there is a fusion of the two that can have the best of both worlds — although it can be quite difficult to pull off — which is that, when you're confident in people's preferences, you're using guess culture. When you actually want something and you're unsure whether how the person will feel about it, because if you're sure they don't want to give it, why ask? But if you're actually unsure, and you actually want it significantly, then you ask in a way that gives them a really easy way out or minimizes the cost to their response, basically. And I think Will, at the very beginning, when we started recording today, you gave an example of that, where you're making a request, but you're building a structure around it that lets them back out of that request, essentially. And I'll do this too, with like, "Oh, hey, I was wondering if you'd be willing to introduce me to this person. Totally get if you're too busy right now to do it or if you don't know them well enough, no problem."
WILL: I totally do that all the time, yeah.
SPENCER: You're essentially giving them a backdoor out. I've even gone so far, in a few cases where it was like a push...I felt like it was pushing boundaries a little more being like, "By the way, no pressure even to reply to this email; if you can't do this, you're not even gonna need to reply." Just to try to make it just so they don't have to insert themselves into any awkwardness.
WILL: Yeah. And I basically think that gets you a lot of the benefits with only a relatively minor cost, which is having to add a paragraph of disclaimers. I don't think that's zero cost but I think if that's the cost to pay to make the ask, but in a way that the other person just has complete freedom to actually say no, I think that's a cost that's pretty worth paying.
SPENCER: So I think one thing we haven't really touched on — which I think is really important to this whole conversation — is how painful it can be when the two cultures mix and there's not an awareness of the mixing. Do either of you want to comment on that?
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. And because ask culture is the minority, it feels like they have to be the ones that tell the people around them like, "Hey, we're ask culture," you know what I mean? Because otherwise, you're going to be constantly bumping into the more common guess culture and causing problems. It's really sad if an ask culture person is just very innocently wanting to ask you something but they're totally fine with you saying no, and then the person is very offended that they asked for the thing. And it's like, "Wait, why are you offended? You can just say no," and it's like, "I'm offended." And then they're mad at each other because they don't even agree with the framework for who's in the wrong here. You know what I mean? They just fundamentally disagree about how such interactions should go and it doesn't get resolved easily.
SPENCER: Exactly. And I think there's a flip side cost on the other side where it's like a guess person and an ask person — and the ask person keeps asking for what they want and the guess person does it and so they just end up doing everything the ask person wants. And then the guess person is like, "What a jerk! They keep taking — they're taking advantage of me."
WILL: "And they're not doing anything I want." Yeah.
SAM: Just tell me that you wanted to order Chinese food! Come on, man!
SPENCER: So, preparing for this podcast episode, I was talking to my girlfriend about ask versus guess culture. And during that conversation, we realized that there was something I was trying to communicate to her via guess culture that she totally had no idea was me attempting to communicate information. [laughs] So then I was like, "Oh shit, I should have been using more ask culture so..."
SAM: How much is it solvable by badges? Can we just wear badges that will tell what we are? Is that possible? I would like, "Please, society."
SPENCER: Yeah, but the guess culture one has to be really, really ambiguous. [laughs]
SAM: I have a t-shirt that just says "Free hugs," just so that everyone knows they just can get a hug whenever they want. I mean, like, it's kind of ask culture.
WILL: I think actually, that's a pretty good solution. I think folks who are super ask culture can basically easily broadcast that fact socially, and folks should, if anything, maybe do more of that.
SPENCER: How do they broadcast that? I mean, Sam, do you do it? And if so, in what ways?
SAM: I think I let people know that I'm pretty ask culture. I don't say those words to people that don't know the vocabulary. But I try to — I don't know — let people know that this is what I'm like.
WILL: And have a shirt saying, "Free hugs." [laughs] Yeah, I mean, there are so many ways that we signal all kinds of socially subtle things. I think even, honestly, someone who dressed really flamboyantly, I think you just put higher odds that they're probably a ask culture type of person.
SPENCER: We talked about agreeableness before, versus disagreeableness, but I think there's another thing here too, which is like an openness thing, right? Some people — you could make a very strange request of them, and they're just like, "Oh, whatever," and other people might be weirded out more easily, so I think both of those things are going on.
SAM: Yeah, I'm like a weirdo who's disagreeable, and I'm a decoupler, and those things just put me in the lover of ask culture?
WILL: Yeah. And it's funny, though, because I am, too, but I'm also more guess culture [laughs]. I don't think I will personally get offended if someone asks me something, and I do feel okay to say no. Sometimes it can feel hard — like, I don't want to tell them no, but if I really have to tell them no, I basically will just say no — but it does feel like it comes at a cost. And it does feel to me much more socially meaningful, if someone is able to sort of pick up on the thing that I want and offer to do that, because that just feels so good to me that like, "Wow, they actually have some idea of what's going on with me," and that good feeling, I want that more than I want the explicit thing where I sometimes get the thing I want.
SPENCER: That also gets to the point about signaling. Do you want to dig into that a little bit, Will?
WILL: Yeah, one of my really big models is that costly signaling, I think, is really important in basically all human interactions. The idea is that, when you're trying to communicate something, there's always this question of "How do you send a sign that it's actually credible?" Because the alternative is, if you could just say something and have everyone think that what you're saying is true, then people will just believe anything, so then someone can just lie or make things up. So the idea with costly signaling is that there are various methods for us to send more credible signals. And the question to that is, "Okay, well, how do you do that?" And one of the main paradigms here is you send a signal that is hard in some way to send. And in this particular case, I basically think what you're signaling is that you actually have a really well-developed and accurate model of someone. And the cost involved there is basically that you've had to cognitively model them. I don't think that that's easy for people. And I think that it makes it harder for people who are pretending to be super close to you; it makes it much harder for them to get away with that, right? You are sending this very accurate signal, and you have paid the cost of trying to model them. And what that basically means is that in a guess culture, if someone picks up on those subtle cues and actually gives you something you want, they feel so much better about it, because they really actually believe that someone has genuinely paid enough attention to them, that they could get what they want. And that's something that's very hard to fake. And I think sending those signals to people makes them feel super good.
SPENCER: This is like a 6th love language, people socially modeling you accurately.
SAM: It's possible. I agree. If Ellie asked me like, "Hey, Sam, can I buy a horse?" I think that's the thing where she doesn't have a good model of whether I want us to own a horse or not. So maybe the weirder you are, the more...
WILL: Really though?
SAM: What do you mean? We've never discussed whether we should own a horse. That's just not a thing that's ever come up in our 10 years of marriage.
SPENCER: I brought that up on the first date. I don't know why you guys didn't talk about that. [laughs]
SAM: I want her to be able to ask me, "Can we buy a horse?" You know what I mean?
WILL: I genuinely don't believe that she doesn't have any guess about whether you'd want to own a horse or not, based on 10 years of non-horse related conversations. [laughs]
SPENCER: Well, look, they've discussed camels and they've discussed llamas, but they've never talked about horses so...
WILL: Right, but you should infer from the camels and the llamas. They're all dromedaries. [laughs]
SAM: It's really nice to be modeled. But it's also really nice to feel a trust in someone that they'll be okay with your no and that they'll be actually chill with it. I want to just tell people that they should be more cool with rejection in general and I kinda think that, though I've often...I've gone in and out of my life with how painful rejection is so I don't want to just say, "Oh, get over rejection." But I do think there is something really nice when you're with people where it's actually cool to say no to things and it's actually not that painful. I've had times in my life where I'm like, "Hey, do you want to go on a date?" And they're like, "No," and I'm like, "Cool," and then we just keep on being friends and it has no effect on the relationship. And that's nice, though I understand that it's sometimes very painful.
WILL: Yeah, I suspect that that particular experience is the minority of cases.
SAM: It is the minority of cases. But what I'm saying is, maybe it is nice when you're around people that all trust each other to be able to handle the no with equanimity. So in the same way that being modeled is nice, it's also nice to know that, when you make requests, when they say no, that will be just chill, if they say no.
WILL: Yeah. So I do see that. I guess my question is, how?
SAM: By talking about that that's the norms you want and then enacting them, which involves some 'ask culture-y' stuff, but like, just saying, "Hey, I like it when we have it so that we can ask each other — we say no, we're cool with it, and we don't badger each other — but we're allowed to ask for things."
SPENCER: Well, that brings up a point, which is if you're gonna engage in ask culture, it seems like you're taking on a responsibility to actually not be hurt if they say no. Because otherwise, it seems really unfair. If you ask for something that someone may or may not want to give you, and then you're gonna be really upset if they say no, you're basically setting a trap for the other person. [laughs] And then a guess culture person's like, "Oh, no, if I had to say no, are they gonna be hurt?" And then they're gonna say yes, just to avoid trying to hurt you. Okay, so one thing I want to get your take on before we wrap this up is tell culture, which as far as I know, is an idea that I think Logan came up with, and it will link in the show notes to the article on that. And I'll just quickly summarize it based on what Logan wrote about it. So in tell culture, you tell the other person what's going on in your own mind whenever you suspect that you'd both benefit from them knowing. You don't assume others will accurately model your mind without your help, or that it'll even occur to them to ask you questions to eliminate their ignorance. And additionally, you interpret things people tell you as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance. So basically, it seems to me that it's sort of a form of ask culture, where you tend to express what's going on in your own mind. Logan gives this example which I'll just read here because I think it clarifies it a lot. So suppose you're in a conversation and you're finding it aversive and you can't figure out why that is, and you want to have the conversation again another time — you want to stop it. In guess culture, you might suddenly hint that you'd want this conversation to end with your body language, which the other person may or may not pick up on. In ask culture, you might say something like, "Can we talk about this another time?" In tell culture, you might say something like, "I'm beginning to find this conversation aversive and I'm not sure why. I propose we hold off until I figure that out." So I'm curious to hear both of your takes on tell culture.
WILL: Yeah, I mean, I do think that it's a little bit telling that if you check the comments on that post, the number one upvoted comment is one by Julia Galef, where she basically says, "I sort of hope that culture doesn't really head in this general direction." So I would say even within the LessWrong community, I think there is a large contingent of folks who find this troublesome. I basically think her point in that comment was basically, tell culture can be used as a way to abdicate responsibility for your own feelings, and as a way to kind of not own things. And yeah, I do think it is a good post, and I think the comments are great. I would suggest that folks who are curious should try to read it. But I think, like all of these things, there's a version of it that potentially works. And I think, being an even more extreme version of ask culture — though not completely — I do think people that like extreme versions of ask culture and are better-fitted for it will probably get more benefit out of it. But yeah, I think the main concern with the tell culture thing isn't actually even on the ask versus guess spectrum. I think it's more a general push back to all kinds of things including nonviolent communication and all of that, which is that sort of low-skill, low-awareness version of tell culture is like putting all of your thoughts and emotions on display and not fully owning them yourself. And I think that a skilled version of tell culture will do this, but I do also think there are lots of cultures — particularly the guess culture type people who would hear someone unilaterally doing tell culture and just be shocked and horrified, if they're having a conversation, and one person just bursts out with like, "Yeah, I'm really not enjoying this conversation right now." I basically think that is setting up a lot of folks to feel quite uncomfortable if they don't have the toolset to deal with that.
SPENCER: I was at a conference once where there's a group conversation happening and someone engaged in what you might call a very unskillful tell conversation. They literally just blurted out, "This conversation is really boring. Why don't we talk about this other thing?" It was so shocking. [laughs]
SAM: Sometimes that can be the right thing to say if it's done skillfully. If actually everyone is feeling bored, and you want to have a joke that lets you change the thing. But I just think that you shouldn't have any obligation that the things you say will affect other people, and you should have some responsibility for that. And that's the thing I really don't like about tell culture, you shouldn't be able to say anything about the contents of your mind without any like, I don't know, caring about other people's feelings and it just feels not kind.
SPENCER: Yeah. Because the contents of your mind can have pretty significant negative ramifications on others, right? If they make the other person feel guilty, or make the other person feel frightened of you.
SAM: Or low-status.
WILL: I do think some of it is that the contents of our mind obviously can have effects on other people. I think some of the specific fear is something like someone saying, "Well, I don't really endorse this, you know, but..." and then they say something super hurtful. And it's like, "Well, okay, because they said they didn't endorse it, they're also not owning it." And so you can't really then be like, "Hey, that's awful of you." Because then they could be like, "Yeah, but I don't actually really mean that. I was just thinking that in this moment," And that, I think, is the social game that I think folks are worried about. And, as with all of this stuff, I think the best version of tell culture doesn't do anything like that. But I would actually argue that tell culture requires a degree of skill vastly exceeding the best people at the guess culture thing.
SPENCER: So one other topic I want to touch on before we wrap up is the idea of consent in dating because I think this is an example where these questions about how much you should be guessing really come to the forefront. I'll just give you one example of a kind of infographic about consent — and I've seen these kinds of infographics in different places like college campuses and stuff — but this is what this particular one said, "What is the correct way of asking for consent? Be clear, open and transparent. Get an explicit yes." And then it says, "Are positive nonverbal cues consent?" and it says, "Nonverbal cues are unreliable; aim for verbal assurance." And then it says, "Does asking for consent kill the mood?" and it says, "No, a safe environment can make the experience more pleasurable." So this feels to me like it's really talking about switching this norm in dating from a guess culture — where you're flirting but in a subtle way and trying to pick up on signals of interest — to an ask culture norm of like, "Would you like to have sex with me?" and then you wait for verbal consent. At least that's what the poster seems to be implying.
WILL: Well, yes, I do think that they're saying as much of it has to be as explicit as possible. But they're also actually saying that you have to be even more attuned to the implicit stuff, too. And I think this is most clear about the idea of enthusiastic consent, right? So it is not even actually okay just to get a verbal yes; they're saying you need a yet higher standard, which is it has to be, "hell, yes!" The person has to also be showing enthusiasm and excitement. And that is basically saying that it wants all of ask culture and all of guess culture; it wants everything, right? You not only need the explicit yes, you need the implicit yes. And you'd have to be successfully attuned to the implicit yes, too, because merely verbally saying, "Yes, I want this," isn't sufficient if the other person is feeling pressured into doing so for any reason.
SPENCER: So would you say that it's an unrealistically high bar that it's trying to optimize for, absolutely make sure that you have consent. But maybe in practice, it's almost impossible to achieve that.
WILL: My gut instinct is like the vast majority of romantic situations are still more implicit than explicit. And I think that there are particular subcultures that are trying to be both explicit and implicit. I think for a while there were subcultures that were trying to actually just be fully ask culture on this question, but then I think this started to encounter some of these problems.
SAM: I think some rational communities do full ask culture dating.
WILL: Yes, I do think that's true. My sense is that isn't where the mainstream is heading. I think the mainstream is heading to this norm of having both implicit and explicit signals being necessary. I do also think this is a tough problem, too, because there's also at the same time, this social expectation that the guy is supposed to ask the girl out. And that does seem like, obviously yes, there are ways to do it with more plausible deniability. But the sort of explicit ask to even try to kick things off is already something that is, I think, so firmly ingrained in our culture, that that expectation isn't going to go away either. And, yeah, I just think the modern dating scene has just become actually really, really difficult. I think the expected skill level for a fully endorsed version of this thing is just extremely, extremely high.
SAM: I think I would prefer to have more ask culture in dating but I understand that not everyone has this and I think it's on people with idiosyncratic cultural preferences to find people with the same idiosyncratic cultural preferences and form communities that do th e thing. I can't just unilaterally be like, "Alright, I want ask culture so everyone has to be ask culture." That seems like that problem of ask and people running into each other. I do think there's something really beautiful about fully ask culture dating culture. But I understand that it's not possible for a lot of people, and that people have to be careful to self-segregate by their preferences on this matter.
WILL: And I also think there's something extremely beautiful about the exquisite guess culture dance. [laughs] Like, "Wow, we successfully navigated this thing and now we're together! This is awesome. It's so exciting and thrilling." It's like, "Oh, is she into me? Maybe, maybe not. She's sending the signals."
SPENCER: Yeah, I think a lot of people do enjoy that, right? They don't want things to be too explicit. They find that to be a buzzkill. And I think this is especially challenging when it's someone who really wants to be respectful and make sure they have consent, but then the other person actually doesn't want them to be too explicit, because it turns them off.
WILL: Yeah. And I do think actually, the evolution of apps for dating is actually pretty fascinating, right? Because I do think they're trying to walk the line of the explicit and the implicit. Because the way that old-school OKCupid worked is, you could just see everyone's stuff, and you can search them, and then you'd have to send some message. Whereas with Tinder, you can only even talk to each other if both parties said yes, but you're making that decision to say yes or no with no idea about what the other person also thinks, right? So I do think the apps have this interesting combination of explicitly...you are having to contact them and actually talk to them and ask, but implicitly, you're both sort of opting into having that talk, right? So yeah, I definitely think the dating app versus in-person dating are both doing very different things with the mix of ask and guess. But yeah, I still keep coming back to, there is this expectation that the guy will ask, and that part of dating, I think, isn't really going to go away completely. I do think also, many, many people used to meet their life partners at their job. And there's definitely been much more of a push recently to discourage that, either implicitly or explicitly. And if you just check surveys, way fewer people meet their spouse at their job, but it's still a shockingly large fraction. And I think, in that case, you actually really need the level of plausible deniability there. And so I think we're seeing the rise of more guess culture type approaches in something like trying to date someone at your workplace, even as maybe we're getting this more ask culture thing, say, like online apps or something.
SPENCER: Alright, the last thing I want to do with you, before we finish, is really try to dig into what you think you disagree with the other person about? I want to see if we can make a list of the points of disagreement here.
WILL: I mean, I think in some ways we actually don't disagree that much, which is somewhat what makes this conversation fascinating.
SPENCER: I mean, maybe you disagree on the margin, we should have more ask culture, like I think Sam would turn up a knob to increase ask culture, and maybe you wouldn't, Will?
WILL: I think I keep coming back to, it's really context-dependent. I do think it would be good if there's broader awareness of what ask culture is and ask culture norms. And I think it would be good if at least most people in guess culture knew that that was a thing and knew to expect that sometimes. And I think it would be good for society if more people could explicitly openly opt into being part of ask culture. But I think it really does need to still be the thing that you're opting into and not become a societal default.
SAM: Yeah, I think I just really want to protect weirdos and autistic people and disagreeable people and allow them to have spaces where they get to be weird and autistic and disagreeable with each other and flourish in that way, because I've seen it happen. So I'm out here just trying to protect these people, because I'm certainly a weirdo and I'm disagreeable. And I want people to ask me for things, and I want people to be weird around me and ask if they can be weird around me. I want people to feel comfortable, not knowing what I want and asking and finding out what it is that your preferences are, and not assuming they just know. Because often they don't know, because I'm not a standard person. Something I've noticed is that the typical mind fallacy is more dangerous if you're a weirdo than if you're normal, because you're more likely to just get it wrong.
SPENCER: Can you explain the typical mind fallacy?
SAM: Typical mind fallacy is just assuming that other people's minds are like yours. And so, for most people, if they're normal — if they're like most other people — then it goes well most of the time. But if you're idiosyncratic, then having the typical mind fallacy will just cost you misery all the time. So that's another way that weirdos and autistics are hurt by guess culture, because hardware that works for most people doesn't work as well for them.
WILL: Yeah, I think some of where Sam and I do disagree isn't even on the societal and policy level. I think some of it could just be, he is ask culture and I am guess culture. [laughs]
SAM: But we get along so well, Will! I don't know how it happened!
WILL: And so I think where we most disagree isn't even one of fact; it's one of personal preference and deep-seated way that we relate to the world and to people or something, which allows us to, I think, very well explore the kind of ask/guess spectrum here without necessarily having to disagree about the way we think the world is.
SPENCER: Yeah. If I step back from this whole debate, the way that I see it is that guess culture has the advantages that you avoid inflicting costs on other people accidentally, like by causing them to have to say no to you — or to make them feel pressured to say yes, when they don't want to say yes — and also gives you the benefit of everyone trying to model each other's preferences in a good way where the people that care about you actually figure out your preferences, and then try to preempt them, which can feel really good, and has this costly signal effect. Whereas on the flip side, ask culture has this really big advantage, that you avoid these missed opportunities — like where you actually want something, but you wouldn't express it if you were in guess culture, or maybe you'd express it by hinting at it and the other person might not pick up on that. Whereas in ask culture, you can avoid these missed opportunities by just asking for them. And also ask culture can work a lot better for certain subgroups, like people who, for example, have trouble with modeling other people's minds, who would really struggle if they had to get the hints. To me, that's the crux of it, and I'm curious whether you agree with that, or is there anything you'd add or disagree with there?
SAM: I think that's definitely the crux of it. And I definitely think that they both have their costs and their benefits. And I think that missed opportunities are worse than the social costs of feeling rejected — I just think that when you add up the weights, at the end of the day, missed opportunities are a bigger deal.
WILL: Yeah, that is possibly one area we disagree, which is the relative costs of the missed opportunities in guess culture versus the social obligation (and all of that) under ask culture.
SPENCER: To what extent do you agree with the overview I gave? Is there anything you would add to that?
WILL: No, I think you've summed up things well.
SPENCER: I think we also probably agree that, whichever culture you're in — whether it's guess or ask — there's a hybrid that you can benefit from at times, right? So if you're in guess culture, you might be able to benefit from asking a bit more, but doing it in a really polite way that gives them an easy way out, but lets you ask for things that others might not realize you want. And then if you're in ask culture, you might benefit from trying to be super polite when you ask. And so there is this way of meeting in the middle where you get benefits of both cultures. Would you both agree with that?
WILL: I'm curious, which do you lean towards, Spencer? Do you lean towards guess or ask?
SPENCER: I lean towards guess, but I push myself more towards ask on purpose because I lean towards guess and I don't want to miss opportunities. And so I nudged myself, slightly uncomfortably, into a more ask direction, but trying to be super polite and giving people a really easy way out.
SAM: Yeah. Nice.
SPENCER: Well, thank you both. This was a super fun conversation. I learned, and I hope that listeners learned as well.
SAM: Yeah, this is great.
WILL: Yeah, it's fun.
JOSH: Why do you go to Burning Man? What do you like about it? What do you hope to gain or accomplish while you're there?
SPENCER: So first of all, I'll say I haven't been to Burning Man in a few years. But I have been a number of times in the past, and I think it's an incredible place. So there are a lot of misconceptions about what Burning Man really is. One way to think about it is it's a place where you can essentially be free to do whatever you want, in a safe environment for doing whatever you want. And it's like the Wikipedia of events. There's almost nothing that's put on by the Burning Man organization that people actually engage in a lot, just a few minor exceptions to that. But really, what Burning Man is (like Wikipedia events), everyone who comes who wants to, contributes something, creates something. And then that means there's thousands of things happening of all different sorts from beautiful art that people create, to interesting experiences people create, to talks and lectures, to athletic events, to — really the sky's the limit. And so it's really a place you can go and you can experience all these different creative things that other people have made for free. Nobody charges for anything. They made it because they wanted to share it and they wanted the joy of creating it. And so yeah, it's a really wonderful and special place because of that. Another thing I think is really fascinating about Burning Man is it really constructs a new set of social norms. So basically, for almost everything, they banned the use of money. And a lot of people then naturally assume, well, if you can't use money, you must be bartering — like literally, I can't tell you how many people have told me they thought Burning Man was bartering and how many times I've had to correct that misconception. You really don't barter at Burning Man, and you don't use money. And so the question is, well, how do you get anything? Or how do you do anything? And the answer is people just give it to you for free, because they want to. So everything you have to do there, it's just people made it for free and let you experience it. And if you need something like water or food, someone's extremely likely to just help you out just to be nice and let you have some. They're not going to charge you money for it. Obviously, you can't, shouldn't just take it without asking but — so yeah, I think it creates a really special set of social norms. It's really different than ordinary life. And there's something really remarkable and wonderful about having this temporary bubble of a different social world that's all based on giving freely with no expectation of anything in return.
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