Wait. What? The forecast calls for rain, you have plans, and to be completely honest, it’s not like you’re best friends. Has your work friend crossed a line and asked you a completely inappropriate question? Your reaction to this situation depends entirely on whether you’re an Asker or a Guesser.
The concept of Askers and Guessers has floated around the internet for years. Interestingly, its origins are not from a psychology textbook, but from a 2007 message board comment by a user named Andrea Donderi.
“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,” Donderi wrote in her post. “This is Ask Culture.” On the other hand, someone who has grown up with what she deemed as “Guess Culture” will “avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be ‘yes.’” Donderi posited that these two very different ways of asking for a favor can create all sorts of misunderstandings in both personal and professional relationships.
Since its initial publication, Donderi’s comment (along with the concept it raised) has surged in popularity over the years, leading to deeper discussions about Askers and Guessers in The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic. (More recently, the debate about Ask vs. Guess culture has resurfaced on TikTok.) Although the concept of Askers and Guessers came from an internet forum (and does not reflect officially recognized personality “types”) some psychology experts buy into it as well—and say understanding the differences between the two camps can help clear up communication issues at work, at home, and everywhere in between.
What is the difference between an Asker and a Guesser?
In general, experts say Askers and Guessers have very different ways of communicating, and it might all come down to their formative experiences in childhood.
First, the Askers. “These types of people may be more blunt and straightforward,” explains Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, an educational psychologist and behavior analyst. The hypothetical work friend from our earlier example—who doesn’t hesitate to ask for help moving on a rainy Saturday—is probably an Asker. “[Askers] need to get something checked off their list and will ask for help to achieve that goal effectively.” Askers are much less concerned about the reaction of the person they’re asking, and more about accomplishing the task at hand. If the Asker gets a no, it’s not a big deal; they’ll just ask someone else until they get a “yes.”
Guessers, on the other hand, have a more external focus when it comes to asking for help. “Guessers may be worried about imposing on others and [concerned] about the answer they are going to get,” says Patel. Therefore, a Guesser rarely asks for a favor unless they have to. They’d most likely never ask a casual acquaintance for help moving, and would much rather hire a moving company or do it themselves if necessary. “Guessers most likely will not ask the question unless they are certain it wouldn't be a major inconvenience [to] the person they are asking,” Patel adds.
"[Askers] need to get something checked off their list and will ask for help to achieve that goal effectively... Guessers most likely will not ask the question unless they are certain it wouldn't be a major inconvenience [to] the person they are asking." —Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, educational psychologist
Like so many other human behaviors, an Asker or Guesser may have adopted these communication styles as a result of their upbringing. For instance, a Guesser may have learned to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting a parent in an abusive or unstable household. But Donna Marino, PsyD, notes that these habits might develop not because Askers and Guessers always have drastically different formative experiences, but because of their unique perceptions of the asking styles of people around them.
“An Asker may observe a parent who is brusque and asks for what they want, but always seems to get it and is then influenced to do the same,” says Dr. Marino. “The Guesser could be a child in the very same family who watches the same situation, but perhaps they are more tuned in to the social-emotional dynamics and notices how the Asker parent is received negatively by other people. While the parent gets what they want, they aren't well-liked or don't have good relationships.” So, in a nutshell, the Asker will typically prioritize results, while the Guesser will prioritize the feelings of others.
Let’s go back to your work friend’s last-minute request for help moving. If being asked for a favor like this feels so cringey it makes you want to hide in the office bathroom, you’re probably a Guesser. If you don’t feel that much discomfort about being asked (hey, no harm done, right?), you’re probably an Asker.
If you tend to be direct, insistent, comfortable asking multiple people until you get a “yes” and tend to speak off-the-cuff without much planning, you’re likely to be an Asker, explains clinical and educational psychologist Aura De Los Santos. Meanwhile, if you put a lot of thought into what you’d like to say, try to avoid rejection, and care about being perceived as rude or blunt, you’re more likely to be a Guesser.
Another way to tell whether you’re an Asker or a Guesser? It’s pretty simple, says Dr. Marino. If you are a Guesser, you are likely to be extremely self-aware, so it would already be obvious to you that you’re a Guesser. If you have to ask, well…you’re probably an Asker.
Why do Askers and Guessers clash so much?
Askers and Guessers have wildly different styles when it comes to asking for assistance. And naturally, this can (and often does) lead to a conflict between the two personalities.
“The Asker may be frustrated that the Guesser is not just coming out and asking for what they want or need, and may feel that they have to be a mind reader,” says Dr. Marino. “The Guesser may develop resentment for not having their needs met and at the same time be put off by and even feel burdened or resentful of the Asker’s requests.”
For instance, in a romantic relationship, a Guesser may feel that their Asker partner is moving too quickly, but be uncomfortable requesting to slow things down. Meanwhile, the Asker might speed ahead in the relationship without considering the feelings of the Guesser. (Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask if he wants to come back to my place. He can always say “no.”) On the other hand, two Guessers might spend months in a relationship standstill because they are both too afraid of rejection to move forward. (It’s been a year and we still haven’t said “I love you.” But now it’s too awkward to bring up.) Two Askers may have the opposite problem, leading to a whirlwind romance that self-destructs before it even gets started.
"With consistent practice, Guessers will get more comfortable and may find themselves becoming able to say things even more directly." —Donna Marino, PsyD
Askers and Guessers might also run into snags when they’re working together professionally. “Guessers will think about the questions they need to ask supervisors all day and it can really mess with their productivity and well-being at work,” says Patel. And if your supervisor is an Asker, they might assign you a large workload, assuming you’ll speak up and say “no” if there’s too much on your plate. (Of course, being a Guesser, you probably won’t.)
Meanwhile, Askers excel at quick, direct communication, and that can be a helpful strength to have in an office environment. “Askers are often extremely efficient and people might look up to them for their confidence and delivery [at work,]” Patel adds. On the other hand, that assurance can sometimes be perceived as rudeness or arrogance, especially by a Guesser. “They do need to watch themselves to make sure they don’t cross the line and think before they speak in the office environment.”
Friendships can get extra sticky between Askers and Guessers, because the energy dynamic can start to feel uneven. “Askers will almost always have an opinion and ask for what they need,” Dr. Patel explains. “Guessers will often think about both of their perspectives and want to do what’s best for both of them. Over time, this may make the [friendship] feel one-sided.” Ever heard of energy vampires? You might be feeling this way simply because your friend is an Asker who isn’t aware of your boundaries and you’re a Guesser who is having some difficulty setting them.
How to communicate effectively in Ask vs. Guess culture
Yes, Askers and Guessers can frequently run into challenges navigating their very different communication styles. But they’re not doomed to constant Mercury-in-retrograde vibes—so long as they’re willing to do some work to meet in the middle.
If you’re an Asker:
1. Pay attention to body language and social cues
Often, an Asker is so focused on getting a “yes” that they might forget to check and make sure the person they’re talking to isn’t offended or uncomfortable. In the eyes of the Asker, this person can always say “no.” What’s the big deal? But if that person is a Guesser, setting a boundary can be extremely difficult, especially if they’re caught off-guard by a surprise question that feels like it’s come out of left field.
“Askers need to pay more attention to noticing people's non-verbal cues like facial expression, body language, tone of voice, or hesitancy before responding,” says Dr. Marino. She adds that it might be helpful for Askers to keep a tally of how often they ask for help from others. Have you asked to use your roommate’s salad dressing three times this week? It might be time to buy your own bottle.
2. Put yourself in the Guesser’s shoes
Askers might assume that it’s no problem for most people to firmly say “no” to a request. If they don’t want to do it, why wouldn’t they just say so? If this is you, make a habit of pausing to think before you ask someone else for something, while keeping in mind that not everyone can say “no” as easily as you can for a variety of reasons. Is this something that has the potential to be fun or rewarding for this person? Is this something that only this particular person can help you with? Is this an emergency? If so, go ahead and ask your work friend if she can help you move this weekend. If not, you might want to ask a closer friend…or better yet, hire a professional moving company.
If you’re a Guesser:
1. Practice saying “no”
Guessers rarely put someone else in the position to have to say “no,” so it won’t come as a surprise that turning down a request can be tricky for them. De Los Santos suggests practicing saying “no” as often as possible. It may be helpful to practice when the stakes are low, like when the dental receptionist asks if you can take a 2:00 dentist appointment when you want a morning slot.
Dr. Marino suggests writing a few scripts, so you won’t get too flustered while setting a boundary. “With consistent practice, Guessers will get more comfortable and may find themselves becoming able to say things even more directly, like, 'No, thanks, I'd rather just stay in tonight,' or 'Actually, I don't enjoy doing that,'" she explains.
Sometimes, says De Los Santos, Askers will double down on their request. “Guessers need to reinforce the ‘no,’ be clear in their answers and stand firm in their position,” she advises.
2. Lean into discomfort
Often, Guessers will bend over backward to keep a friend or family member from feeling uncomfortable and thus say yes to something they don’t want to do or have time to do. But when a Guesser starts practicing boundary setting, it might feel more uncomfortable than just agreeing to help a co-worker move in the rain, at least at first. Dr. Marino recommends explaining what’s going on to a close family member or friend that you trust. Tell them you’re working on saying “no,” and that you would like to start practicing with them. Admitting you’re feeling uncomfortable, in this case, might actually alleviate some of those feelings of discomfort, she explains.
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