some people ain't got no couth

I have probably mentioned that I am an unrepentant lurker on Ask Metafilter — one of my favorite topics there, partly because it generates so many widely-ranging responses and thus so much debate, is etiquette. I am certainly no Emily Post, but I think I have a decent sense of appropriate behavior in most situations, so I am often surprised to see that people often have such different ideas.

One question I remember reading a while back (but can no longer find, d’oh!) dealt with the issue of whether it is polite to ask your guests to remove their shoes inside your house. I myself would never dream of asking guests to take off their shoes — granted, there are certain situations when I might expect them to do so (like if they came in from outside with some nasty-ass muddy rain boots, for example), and I would hope they would without being asked. (Side Story: I dated this guy in college who never took off his muddy shoes and was forever getting dirt on my BED, because he would kick back on the bed to watch some “Prices” [aka The Price is Right] with his nasty boots still on, all “See you when you get back from class; I’m gonna watch some Prices!” Needless to say I got shut of him quickly.) Likewise, I have removed my shoes in other people’s houses without complaint, and without being asked, when I saw that was their policy — it’s kind of hard to miss a pile of 40 pairs of shoes by the front door when you arrive at a party — they didn’t have to put themselves in the uncomfortable position of asking me. I am perfectly willing to respect other people’s shoe policies, but, at the same time, I think it’s rather rude when someone insists on the shoe removal, berating their guests into de-shoing, as depicted in one episode of Sex and the City, and as enacted at several parties I have attended in Zembla. Such a host places her guests in the often uncomfortable situation of putting their socks — or worse yet, bare feet — on awkward display.

The reasons I feel this way will probably become clear once I get to the real topic of this post, which, believe it or not, even after all that chat about shoes, is not actually shoes. One of the most insightful answers I have seen on Ask Metafilter was in response to this etiquette question, where a man was wondering how to politely refuse a woman who had invited herself to stay with him and his wife while in town. After a flurry of responses, some criticizing the woman for inviting herself to stay with these people (who were not her close friends) and some arguing that there is nothing rude about asking when the person can Just Say No, one poster finally nailed it:

This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture.

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 [the original poster in the thread] 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.

Obviously she’s an Ask and you’re a Guess. (I’m a Guess too. Let me tell you, it’s great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises.)

Thing is, Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people — ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signaling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you’ll have to embrace Ask behavior. Otherwise you’ll spend your life in a cloud of mild outrage at the Cluelessness of Everyone.

As you read through the responses to this question, you can easily see who the Guess and the Ask commenters are. It’s an interesting exercise.

I really responded to this theory, since I had never thought about it quite this way, and it seems to explain a lot — I am a Guess-Culture person, and I generally find the sort of Ask-Culture behavior exhibited by the would-be house guest here quite rude. As a few other respondents (apparently also Guessers) noted, the Asker (woman inviting herself to stay) has put the Guesser (potential host) in an uncomfortable position: he must either do something he doesn’t want to do, or he must say no, both of which are undesirable actions for him.

As that commenter notes, Guessers who are asked to do things by Askers tend to feel uncomfortable and manipulated when this happens, and I can certainly vouch for that. It’s not that Guessers don’t like to do things for other people, but we like to be able to keenly sense an opportunity to offer something to someone else when it’s appropriate. Boundaries blur, of course, when we’re dealing with close friends or family — people who know they can comfortably ask with the expectation that we’ll say yes. If the Asker in the Metafilter situation had been a close friend of the couple, rather than merely an acquaintance, the couple would likely have felt more comfortable saying yes. As it was, they were uncomfortable saying yes, and just as uncomfortable saying no.

Guessers, I think, generally don’t like to be in the position of saying no; saying no is rude, so Guessers would rather make a polite, if untruthful, excuse when they are put on the spot. The respondents in the thread who were apparently Askers found this ridiculous: why lie about something when you can Just Say No? If the lady asked a question, she surely must expect that she might be turned down. Not to a Guesser, though: a Guesser rarely asks for something outright unless they know (or strongly suspect) the answer will be yes.

This is a huge part of why I hate asking strangers for things (“strangers” not being just people I have never met before, but people to whom I haven’t been properly introduced or whom I know only in limited context). I shudder at the idea of asking professors to serve on my committee if I haven’t taken a class with them, for example. I hate having to ask a waiter for something he should have brought me anyway, like (hello!) silverware or more water. (That treads into different territory, though, and I don’t think you all want to hear about what I think is appropriate or inappropriate about different styles of table service.) Guessers not only sort of sense our way through the social world by “putting out delicate feelers,” but we expect that other people do, too, and when others fail to read our signals, things can get messy. Guessers can be overrun by our Asker acquaintances and wind up getting more and more irritated when the Asker doesn’t pick up our signals. Askers, or so I guess, may think Guessers are alternately passive aggressive or pushovers, or simply big fat Milquetoasts who refuse to state a preference (“Where do you want to eat?” “Oh, I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” and on and on that goes).

It seems I am going to have to learn to be an Asker, but frankly, I don’t wanna. I still think Asker behavior is rude and I can’t foresee changing that opinion any time soon. I do think, though, that perhaps starting to think more about the kind of person I am dealing with may help me figure out how to approach those totally uncouth, raised-in-caves, Asker-types.

I still stand by my shoe-removal beliefs, though: if you come over to my house all caked in mud and you don’t figure out you should remove your shoes without putting me in the position of asking you to, I will cut you.

13 Comments

  1. DAMN SPAM FILTER MAKING ME PRESS “POST” TWICE! NOW VAGUE IS GOING TO BE ALL LIKE, “OOH, I GOT THREE RESPONSES, I WONDER WHO IT IS?” AND ALL IT IS IS ME POSTING TWICE ACCIDENTALLY THEN RANTING ABOUT POSTING TWICE. SHE DOESN’T DESERVE THAT! POOR GIRL! AND NOW I’M JUST MAKING IT WORSE, JUST COMPOUNDING HER DISAPPOINTMENT BY WAFFLING ON ABOUT IT!

    I’m just going to go an lie down for a moment…

    Reply

  2. OK, that was hilarious. I hate the stupid spam word verification thing– as far as I know, I can’t turn it off. My comments are as lax as I can make them (like, people don’t have to be signed in, no moderation, no email, etc) but it still happens — even to me!

    Reply

  3. Looking at how one side of my family behaves, I think there might be a third form called Doers. Doers neither Ask nor Guess, which means they only really function well among other Doers.

    Then on the other side of my family was my grandmother, who had Southern Ways. She was a Triple Inverse-Asker. Meaning, she’d never ask for anything, and she’d always demur from your offer twice before accepting, even if it was something she really wanted, like a tall julep.

    “Can I offer you a drink?”
    “No, thank you.”
    “Can I offer you a drink?”
    “Oh no, that’s quite alright, honey.”
    “Can I offer you a drink?”
    “Yes, I’d like a mint julep — three fingers of Old Shinsplint and hold the sugar.”

    Reply

  4. Holy crap! My world has been rocked. I’m an asker in a guesser culture (ie The South, note caps). No wonder everyone thinks I’m rude. Because I’m not. Really.

    Reply

  5. Today, I broke with my Guessing tradition and blatently asked a friend for something. And I got it. Wow, a new way of life.

    I’ll probably return to the Guesser tomorrow. At least, that’s my guess.

    Reply

  6. I tend to side with the writer of an article in The New Yorker on this subject: that is, your floors should not be so fragile and precious that people can’t, you know, walk on them. It is rude to track dirt into someone’s house, because they’re the ones who are going to have to remove it, but if your shoes are clean then I can’t see why you can’t leave them on.

    It’d be fun, if one were a confrontational person, to just call the host’s bluff and refuse to de-shoe.

    Host: Would you mind removing your shoes?

    Guest: Yes, I would.

    Then have a martini while their anal-retentiveness battles their fear of causing a scene.

    Reply

  7. Pea — That is pretty much exactly how I feel. Asking makes me all hivey.

    Danimal — I myself have been guilty of the “reject offer twice before begrudgingly accepting” methodology, but never, never! when it involves whiskey. That I will accept immediately.

    King — Man, quit cloggin’ up mah comments already!

    Lori — all the more reason you will do well in CA! There are very few Guessers on the West Coast…that I have met, anyway. Oh, I don’t know, maybe I just say that because I am grouchy. There are plenty of Guessers, just way more Askers than there are in The South.

    Oedipa — Well, at least you can say you tried something new! (And got what you wanted, of course, that’s the best part)

    Blandwagon — Absolutely. The shoe thing tends to happen more with people who have light-colored carpeting, but I was recently asked to deshoe at a house with wood floors and ceramic tile. The Hell? Of course I complied, because we guessers hate to stir the pot, you know?

    Reply

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