Just an Ask Culture girl, living in a Guess Culture world...
February 23, 2016 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I've moved countries temporarily, and one problem I find myself repeatedly coming up against is clash in communication styles - Ask Culture versus Guess Culture. Specifically, I am a textbook Ask Culture person, coming up repeatedly in both work and social interactions against people who are entirely Guess Culture.

Repeatedly pressing people for clarity or yes and no answers does not seem to get a response. I don't get the answers I need, I don't know what people's expectations are, I feel like I'm being obnoxious, and it's all very frustrating. Any advice? Examples:

1) New, sort-of boss (I'm working in a casual, part-time sense of the word - which in itself is very Guess-y!) refuses to make his expectations clear. To quote him on deadlines: "Our deadlines are flexible, but not completely flexible." ?!?!?!? He just outright dodges the question in emails and in face to face communication. It's amazing! He also has a bunch of projects he apparently wants me to work closely on, but they seem to exist only in his head at the moment.

2) Acquaintances enthusiastically saying we should meet up, and then... tumbleweed. When I try to arrange something in advance, they're never sure if they'll be free that particular day. Social stuff in this city tends to be arranged on the spur of the moment, like "Hey I'm in the neighbourhood, let's grab a coffee!" - but I find this very awkward as I don't want to disturb people when they are busy (and don't like to be disturbed when I am busy). I need to plan activities ahead of time because family commitments prevent me from being particularly spontaneous.

3) Setting up a schedule with my personal trainer was like pulling teeth, as he seemed to be unable to tell me directly that he could only offer me three-times-weekly sessions instead of the twice-weekly sessions that I was asking for. I wouldn't have been offended if he'd just said this! We did come to an agreement after a long and meandering conversation, but I felt that I was making him uncomfortable, when it was truly not my intention.

I feel like I'm being kind of obnoxious and boorish if I press for details so I try not to and I also try not to push it when it comes to organising social outings if I'm not getting positive responses. But that means I miss out on seeing people.

With regards to the work-stuff, not knowing clearly what is expected of me makes me very anxious. I think my anxiety and need to be in control of stuff are at the heart of my very Ask-Culture approach to life anyway. In general I'm very good at getting along with people and no one has ever accused me of being obnoxious, so feeling like I'm making people uncomfortable with my requests for clarity is a very unfamiliar, and unpleasant feeling.
posted by Ziggy500 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What is your question here? Figuring out how to deal with it? In my experience, it takes time to adapt to a new culture & you will eventually settle in. Is it a linguistic problem as well? Sorry, I'm trying to figure out the core question here!
posted by kariebookish at 11:09 AM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

not sure if this helps, but one thing i have found useful (as an englishman living in s america - i am not sure this is exactly the same cultural difference, but it sounds similar to 1+2) is understanding that this can work both ways. for example, if i can get over myself and just say "yes" when i mean "no" then things will work out later - i can drag things out until they understand it was a "no" (and they are happy with this). in other words, it's not like the "other world" forces you to to commit to things you don't want to do, it's just that they say "no" differently. so if you learn to play by their rules you're not losing anything (you're not committing to something you don't want to do, you still get to "no" eventually)

but that doesn't cover your 3 which, tbh, sounds like you missed the constraint and the personal trainer was trying to avoid repeating himself.

[sorry for multiple edits; trying to clarify a little]
posted by andrewcooke at 11:11 AM on February 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

What is your question here?

Sorry, I had to reformat this question a couple of times and I guess didn't edit properly. My question is how to communicate effectively with people and have questions answered or reach a level of clarity I am currently not achieving, OR become more comfortable with this kind of communication culture. No, there is no language barrier.
posted by Ziggy500 at 11:13 AM on February 23, 2016

It would probably be helpful too to know what country you are in and where you are coming from, if you are comfortable sharing.
posted by bearette at 11:17 AM on February 23, 2016

With the boss, i would communicate your deadline to him and ask for a confirmation...
"I am scheduling a Monday deadline for the X Project--does that work for you?"
"Project M should be firmed up by March 1--does that give enough lead time to prepare for our client meeting?"

For friends, I would try to 'go with the flow' and not worry about intruding with a last-minute invite to them. And it is OK for you to decline their invites when they are too last minute for your taste.

I'm a bit stumped on the personal appointments like training--other than maybe making a big deal about your personal schedule..."i've got lots of doggy grooming appointments this month, so I really have to nail our schedule down..."
posted by calgirl at 11:31 AM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Success here isn't going to involve changing everyone except you. I'd be wary of any answers that boil down to you insisting even harder that everyone around you accommodate a communication style that is completely foreign to them.

Take this as an opportunity to live a way you haven't before. Go with the flow. The theme in your angst here seems not to be that you're an "ask" person in a "guess" culture, but that you are a control person that needs exact and accurate planning in most aspects of their life. Embrace serendipity and messiness.
posted by danny the boy at 11:38 AM on February 23, 2016 [14 favorites]

I think you just have to roll with it. It'll take time. Wait, listen, learn to read between the lines. Observe how coworkers and others respond to statements that seem vague to you.

(But for "Our deadlines are flexible, but not completely flexible." - I would read that as "please just turn X in by the time I previously requested/respect set deadlines, generally".)

Pressing for commitments to social events in advance, if that's not how things are done, is not going to make their happening more likely. (If drinks tend to happen spontaneously after work, on say Thursdays or Fridays, most often, maybe see if you can rearrange your family commitments to accommodate that possibility?)

Re the personal training - the trainer was probably embarrassed by having to ask you to commit to a plan he knew you didn't want.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:39 AM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Acquaintances enthusiastically saying we should meet up, and then... tumbleweed. When I try to arrange something in advance, they're never sure if they'll be free that particular day.

I wonder if the underlying anxiety is skewing how your perceiving this, because at the end of the day, everyone has a different communication/how they do things style, etc., but until you learn more about them.

What about doing a hybrid of organizing? Ask acquaintances about their favorite (cafe, thing, whatever) in their neighborhoods. Mention you'd really like to check it out. Mention that you plan to go there on day X. Then you go (maybe take a family member if it is hard to do it alone). But you will have controlled the situation - certain day, time. Then contact the acquaintances and see how things go.

It might by another person's preference. Or it could be that they don't wan to say no. But bit by bit, you will meet people and figure it out. As people get to know you, they might meet you part way and let you plan things in advance.

Also, sometimes, this is why expat friendships might help - if there are groups/meetups/whatever - just because they usually use the same predominant style.
posted by Wolfster at 12:23 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can only speak to the deadlines as I switched employers not long ago and my new workflow is much more flexible than I am used to. I'm very process- and deadline-oriented and not having firm interim or even final deadlines made it harder to do my job, not easier. So I had to retrain my brain to set firm personal deadlines.

So you have a report to write and your boss won't tell you when it's due? Well today's the 23rd - complete your first draft by close of business Friday the 26th; give yourself Monday morning the 29th to re-read it with fresh eyes and make any final corrections; and submit it to your boss by noon.

(If it's true what others are saying about the situation overall, that you just have to roll with it and get used to an unplanned, unclear personal & professional life, then you have my sympathies.)
posted by headnsouth at 12:26 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

My understanding of Ask Culture is that you don't necessarily care about answers, Ask'ers just externalize their myriad desires. You do care about answers, so it's not an Ask/Guess thing.
posted by rhizome at 12:34 PM on February 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

If there's any chance you're in England, I've been told (by English people) that this book (which I haven't read) offers reasonably fair insights into that culture. (If true, it would have helped me a lot when I was there.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:36 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks to metafilter, I know that I'm a pretty guess culture person! But your boss would annoy me too. That sounds more like an organizational issue than a communication clash. I would create deadlines and tell him the schedule. Do you have co-workers who can suggest solutions?
#2 Do your friends also have family obligations? I also don't like last-minute plans. The best way I've found to work around this kind of thing is to set semi-regular activities. I have a friend who I have lunch with every two weeks (we actually schedule it as we're leaving the restaurant. Like how I schedule haircuts!) Another friend and I take a weekly yoga class together and go shopping or out for a drink after. Some friends and I have playdates with our kids when there is a day off of their school. That kind of thing. It sounds like you may have to be the planner of these activities, but that's the way it is sometimes when you're the busy person.
#3: I think I understand how this situation could be an ask/guess situation. My husband is a very "ask culture" person and I am... not at all. We definitely clashed when we first met, largely when I thought he was being insensitive and he thought I was not being direct enough. I think the main thing that helps our communication is that I know he has an underlying respect for me and the area we live in (an area that seems much more "guess" than where he's from). He has explicitly told me that he loves living here. So even when I used to annoy him, I didn't feel like he was disrespecting me or treating me like a simpleton. This is directly different from other people I've encountered who seem offended by guess culture. I remember one colleague who used to say, "I'm not from here! I say what I mean!" She'd live here 20+ years and she still came across as really hostile to the culture. I did learn to adjust my style to match hers somewhat. Largely, this worked best when we communicated via email. But it would have been easier if she had made more of an effort to understand that I'm not trying to be insincere or unhelpful, in the same way she wasn't necessarily trying to be pushy or rude.
posted by areaperson at 12:45 PM on February 23, 2016

My personal experience is that guess culture want to avoid saying no, or avoid having people say no to them.

Acquaintances example: They're saying, "We might become friends, but we're not there yet." And making it a last minute invite gives you an easy way to say, "No, I don't want to hang out with you" without actually having to say that. If you similarly reach out to them, and they always decline and never reciprocate, then take that as a hint. (And this is also what you can do, if you don't want to become friends with someone. Or you might have already accidentally done this, because you don't feel comfortable asking people to hang out last minute.)

Personal trainer example: If you ask him directly to do something, that's uncomfortable for him because he might have to say no. In his "meandering conversation", he was trying to say no without saying no.

Work example: This would annoy me, too, and he just doesn't sound like a very good manager. But yes, you can also understand it as he doesn't want to give you a deadline and force you to say, "No, that's not possible".

Basically, in order to thrive in guess-culture, assume it's a "no" unless it's an enthusiastic "yes." Avoid making other people potentially having to say "no" as much as possible. (Also, avoid saying "no" if you want to keep others comfortable.)
posted by ethidda at 1:05 PM on February 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm an American mostly Ask Culture person with limited experience living in a Guess Culture country (technically probably not really Guess Culture, just a more casual culture, which in this case amounts to the same thing) and a fair bit of experience with moving from a more Ask-y to a more Guess-y region of the U.S. (And back.)

For your work, observe your colleagues (if you have any) and see how they respond to requests from your boss. Try to be a little bit more conscientious than the others, like you would at any new job, but watch to see how they react to what he says and pattern your behavior after theirs. (Depending on the situation and personalities involved, you might even ask them, in light of being new and wanting to do well, if they think boss would prefer X or Y.) If you're working for him directly, and can't observe anyone else, I'd try to get actual assignments done as quick as is reasonably possible (better to have him reveal in 6 months that you could have been more relaxed than the reverse) and just smile and nod re: assignments that so far only live in his head.

Socially, I would just wait and see if you're invited by others, then try to show up if at all possible. If you're feeling bold, maybe invite one or two people to do something with you, after work or tomorrow or next weekend, and see what happens. If you end up doing more things alone, fine, you have a new country to explore after all, and hopefully over time you'll learn their ways. It's probably a YMMV situation, but I have found that Guess-type people might seem enthusiastic when they're really just "not that into you" as a new friend; it sucks, but you'll quickly figure it out if that's the case.

With your trainer, and similar situations, I'd just suck it up for the time being and agree to 3x a week. In my Ask-y world that would equal not sticking up for myself and I'd try harder to make my point, but in another culture, maybe just work with it. Could it be that 3x/week is actually ok, at least to start with? This is hard because it will feel like you're being weak and letting people walk all over you, but try it for a while and see how it goes. If it doesn't work out, make some excuse like you have to quit training because of other commitments. Again, this will probably feel dishonest to you, but that probably won't matter to him.

In short, just let other people take the lead and follow their example for now (I know, super hard if you're an Ask-type person.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:08 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you actually get deadlines from your boss, and you're just asking them to clarify how flexible those deadlines are? In which case:
"Our deadlines are flexible, but not completely flexible" in my opinion means "I don't want you to give you the impression that you'll get fired for being late once, but I also don't want you to feel like you can totally ignore deadlines. I don't know you well enough to explain / haven't decided for myself yet the exact degree of flexibility this entails, and I don't want to discuss that now, so I'm covering the bases with a bit of humour."

The other stuff sounds more like a clash between people who are well scheduled and those who aren't.
posted by lucidium at 1:32 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is there a business-type book with information and advice about working in this country?

A few years ago, I happened to read back-to-back books about foreigners working in a certain country. One was about a fellow who was recruited to start up a branch of his very successful business who was floundering because he couldn't understand the work culture in the new one and in the end he gave up. The next was a well-regarded book written by an expat of many years which explained that work culture and happened to describe many of the puzzling situations he found himself in. The two books, written years apart, meshed very well. It was fascinating.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:54 PM on February 23, 2016

1. To a boss who won't commit: I'll turn in the assignment on Monday, unless I hear from you
2. To friends who drop in uninvited / unexpected: sure, let's go grab that coffee!
3. To the personal trainer: I'm only availble twice a week, but I'll pay for 3 sessions
posted by Kwadeng at 1:46 AM on February 24, 2016

As a guess person, here's a few tips I'll pass on:

• You can help people express personal opinions by letting them pretend they're talking about a general trend. For example, a fellow guesser once asked me, "Do people in your state tend to vote Democratic or Republican?" I knew immediately that he was really asking me about my personal political beliefs, but he was giving me the opportunity to evade the question if I considered it too personal. So, instead of asking your boss "How urgent is this deadline?" you might ask, "Do people in this office tend to turn things in within a week?"

• When someone speaks to you, the words are one channel of communication -- but so is body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. In Ask culture, the words themselves are usually the crucial channel, and when they are modified by tone, there is usually a BIG shift in tone. (Think of the difference between a sarcastic voice and a sincere voice.) In a guess culture, you'll have to train yourself to pay a lot more attention to the non-verbal channels, and these non-verbal cues may be fairly subtle.

You mentioned that you speak the language of this country, but in a crucial sense, that's wrong. Even if you are a native speaker in the verbal language of this country, you must learn to speak the non-verbal language from scratch. It may help to imagine that you are actually speaking a tone-based language like Chinese, where the intonation can change the meaning of the word. On the plus side, if you pay attention, you will probably find that certain tones of voices or facial expressions have a consistent meaning across this culture, so once you've decoded them for one person, you will find it easier to pick them up in others.

• If you ask a question, people will always answer it. ALWAYS. It's just that the answer may lie between the lines, rather than in the words themselves. Your trainer thought he was being perfectly clear that he didn't want to do two sessions a week; your boss thinks he was answering your questions perfectly clearly. So, if you ask a question and get what seems like an evasive answer, don't waste energy trying to get a more conclusive answer. Instead, spend your energy on looking at the answer you've already gotten, and trying to read between the lines.

• Once you've gotten good at reading body language and intonation, you'll find reading between the lines much easier. But until then, as a rough general rule, if somebody offers an opinion about what you should do, imagine they are expressing it about 10 times more vehemently than they actually are. If somebody offers an opinion about what they should do, imagine it is 10 times less enthusiastic.

"Ziggy500, I wonder if you might possibly consider stopping by my office this afternoon" actually means "Ziggy500, you better stop by my office this afternoon."

"Ziggy500, I would love to have lunch with you very soon" actually means "Ziggy500, perhaps we could get together at some unspecified point, but probably not."

(Again, this is a very rough rule, and eventually you'll be able to pick up on the non-verbal clues people are giving you about the distance between their words and their actual meaning.)
posted by yankeefog at 6:14 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

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