You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them ask for a glass
August 18, 2022 7:45 PM   Subscribe

So I have a terrible awkwardness when it comes to people leaving room for me to ask what I see as personal follow up questions. For example if a friend says, "I cannot take that (covid) risk. I have a bunch of comorbidities" I will say, That's totally understandable, not, Do you want to talk about it? Or, What comorbidities? I figure they would have told me if they wanted me to know and it might be rude to pry. But then, maybe this was their way of inviting me to ask?

Beyond a sense of discomfort with being possibly intrusive, I also get annoyed from being led on this game. If we are friends why do you need to test my trustworthiness with this poking and suggesting and this and that. Just tell me already

Sometimes the statements are soo obviously the person angling for me to follow up but my own sense of propriety (or shock) prevents me from asking. E.g. "It's going to get really dark in here when they shut off my electricity". And I'll be freaked out and say something neutral like "maybe the power company has a program", not, Can I help? Or, What's going on?

So the friend is not directly seeking support, more like seeking permission to seek support, but I don't have the bandwidth to run their hints through an emotional translator and ask the follow up questions.

How many conversational turns would it take a hinting type person to get to "My power is being shut off and I don't know what to do" and what would those turns look like?

This is probably an ask vs guess culture situation, but I am confused as to whether I am an asker or a guesser , because if I'm not asked, I don't guess.

Insights, parables, and direct instructions welcome.
posted by jello to Human Relations (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know whether this addresses your question, but my wife is often disappointed by people who don't ask her questions in conversation. She feels that if her conversation partners don't ask her questions, they aren't showing any interest in her and are focused only on themselves.
posted by NotLost at 7:52 PM on August 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

Oh gosh, this sounds hard. To me, you sound polite and respectful of people's boundaries, assuming it's better to be less intrusive. It's something I've grown to appreciate and try to do, too. I feel like your response of "That's totally understandable" leaves room for the other person to share more details or end the conversation, and that's a good thing.

However, as you said, due to ask versus tell differences, you're looking for strategies on how to keep the conversation going. I guess maybe the best approach would be to ask another question that's related but not too personal, like "That's totally understandable. Do you think there'll be a new variant this fall?" or "That's totally understandable. It's important that we feel safe! What do you think keeps us safest these days?" Etc. Opinion questions allow people to give a vague answer or share personal details if they like. If people want more than that, it's hard because you're not a mind reader -- none of us are. There's nothing wrong with having different approaches to this but I, too, am not a fan of this. I tend to stick to small talk in these situations and focus my conversational energy on people who are better matches.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:08 PM on August 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

You don't know, and you can't know, what people are wanting. Please be at peace with this idea, and embrace it.
posted by amtho at 8:15 PM on August 18, 2022 [19 favorites]

I'm going to disagree with others a bit here. Maybe it's the example you chose, but:

For example if a friend says, "I cannot take that (covid) risk. I have a bunch of comorbidities" I will say, That's totally understandable, not, Do you want to talk about it? Or, What comorbidities? I figure they would have told me if they wanted me to know and it might be rude to pry. But then, maybe this was their way of inviting me to ask?

I....don't think that this particular case is, and I think assuming "they'd tell me if they wanted to get into it" is actually the right assumption to make. So - again, maybe this is just this particular example, but its making me wonder whether people really are sitting there expectantly waiting for you to say something as often as you fear they may be. It could be totally the opposite - they may have said "I have a bunch of co-morbidities" because they were too embarrassed to say something like "I'm overweight and I have high blood pressure and...." or whatever. And as for the "It'll get dark in here when they shut off my electricity," I don't see anything wrong with suggesting "Maybe the power company has some kind of program" at all.

So....I'm not as convinced that your friends are dropping hints and getting mad that you're not picking them up in the first place, at least not as much as you fear. And - if any of them are, I think it's more a reflection on them than on you. You, I think, sound like you're doing fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 PM on August 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

Oh man I feel this. When I start asking questions it’s easy to feel like I’m interrogating someone, and a lot of times people who don’t know me very well will try to make conversation with me by asking me questions I honestly am not interested in answering.

So anyway, realizing that some people do tend to communicate more the way you’re describing, I’m trying to get better at accommodating that communication style, but it’s really on an individual basis. These are people who will drop little hints that they want me to pick up on in order to keep the conversation going, rather than just saying what they want to say. Some people really want to be an open book but they’ll kind of wait for you to turn the page, if you will.

All the friends I have tend to communicate more like how I do, so it’s less of an issue with close friends.
posted by wondermouse at 8:21 PM on August 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

My response to these moments is

- If I don’t want to get into it, I take it at face value and just make a neutral comment “ahh that makes sense” and let the moment pass.

- if I’m curious or think they do want to talk, I might say something really honest, basically: “I don’t want to pry, but I am curious about what you just said if you want to talk more about that it! But I don’t want to ask about anything too personal, so we can change the subject too.”

- if I want to express support but maybe the moment isn’t ideal for a full convo, (maybe your COVID convo falls into this category) I might say, “Ah, I didn’t know that. I don’t want to be nosey so I won’t ask questions, but that sounds hard. I care about what’s going on with you. Thanks for sharing that info, and if you ever want to talk, you can trust me.”
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:23 PM on August 18, 2022 [15 favorites]

For example if a friend says, "I cannot take that (covid) risk. I have a bunch of comorbidities" I will say, That's totally understandable, not, Do you want to talk about it? Or, What comorbidities?

This is a difficult example because it involves deeply personal medical information. Wanting to help is great, in a situation like this, but delving further into the question is invasive and in my opinion kind of gross.

“What would help?” is a reasonably generic way to continue the conversation with an expression of good intention that doesn’t overcommit you to anything, and gives the speaker more room.
posted by mhoye at 8:24 PM on August 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

This is really situational, but I think you can derive some useful clues by asking yourself why you think this person is sharing this information.

If someone says "I cannot take that (covid) risk. I have a bunch of comorbidities," my assumption is that they want to quickly communicate information about their risk tolerance as it relates to your conversation about making plans, and it would almost always be inappropriate to follow up by asking about their personal medical information. The reason they shared the information about comorbidities was to tell you about what activities they feel safe doing, not to shift the conversation to their health. So in this situation, it makes perfect sense for you to say "that's totally understandable" and move on with making other lower-risk plans or whatever, and it would be rude to pry (they might also think you're trying to challenge their COVID risk assessment, which would also be rude). If they wanted to tell you, they would have said "diabetes" or whatever instead of the more generic "comorbidities."

But why would someone tell you "It's going to get really dark in here when they shut off my electricity" unless they wanted to talk about that situation? In most contexts, it would be rude to just move on from that once they've introduced it into the conversation; they presumably didn't just bring up the electricity shut-off for no reason at all. So a response like "wow, wait, what's going on?" might be more appropriate there.

If you're in doubt, you can always go for a more neutral response that still leaves the door open for them to say more if they want. You can share something about yourself (e.g. "that's totally understandable. I still haven't done X since the pandemic started") or ask a question that doesn't call for as much personal information in the response. And you can always use explicit phrases like "if you want to talk about it" or "if you ever need to vent about SITUATION, I'm always happy to listen" to give them more of an out for personal questions.
posted by zachlipton at 8:39 PM on August 18, 2022 [16 favorites]

I almost never enjoy being asked personal questions in casual conversation. I know it's considered by some to be a way to show interest, but I hate it. I would never want someone to ask me about my health stuff unless it was a close friend. Like, close enough that they'd be the person I was going to for comfort or support.

I basically follow this for other people too. If it was a close friend, they'd have told me about the electricity situation, and I'd ask them if I could loan them the money to tide them over, and I'd mean it. If someone's distant enough to me that they're not confiding in me but just dancing around in conversation, then I'm probably not the person who needs the information. I'm not a huge fan of folks oversharing, and don't need to encourage it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:03 PM on August 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

This is personal and situational, and your question suggests to me that you already know the answer but don’t like it. You communicate in a certain way and encounter people who communicate differently. There is no one answer or solution to this, apart from continuing to develop sensitivity to these situations and persons. If people who behave like this bug you, perhaps you may wish to endeavor to avoid them, but this isn’t a good/bad thing or a true friend/not true friend thing. It is a people are different thing.
posted by cupcakeninja at 9:09 PM on August 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Often you don't even really need to ask a question. Just count to 10 in your head, make "mm hmm" sounds, and look interested and engaged. Those who want to share will take that as encouragement to go on.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:16 PM on August 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm getting a bit suspicious of the whole "ask vs guess" culture idea. It's kind of neat, and feels intuitively right in many situations, but it does not really stand up to much examination.

For one thing, it's presented sometimes as a personal communication style, and sometimes as a cultural thing (as in, people from x culture behave this way, people from y culture don't)

I find it much more useful to look at these differences between the way people communicate through the lense of neurodivergence.

For example, it's extremely common for an autistic person (like myself) to be uncomfortable with the "ask a question to signal interest" style of conversation.

People like me are much more likely to respond to "this happened to me" with a validation statement, very often "a similar thing happened to me" or simply "that must have been tough" rather than questions for more information.

Asking questions feels risky, as if I might intrude on the other person's space.

I don't know whether this is because of difficulty in processing the social cues has taught me to be extra careful about being too intrusive? A sort of low key trauma response?

There's also an aspect of Demand Avoidance (talking only about myself, utterly not attempting to diagnose you, OP) when I feel like someone is expecting a certain kind of response from me in a conversation. When I notice that expectation, I instinctively resist it.

Definitely feels like "just be straight and clear with your communication rather than playing this round about game where I'm supposed to respond in a certain way."

For me, that's definitely a neurodivergent thing, where I resist any perceived attempt to control me. It's not rational, and not something I choose, and I can work my way around it if I'm aware it's happening.

I don't know if this helps at all, OP, and I don't know if you are neurodivergent, but this exact problem you describe is one that keeps coming up in the neurodivergent spaces I'm in. It might be helpful to explore neurodivergent communication styles, even if you are not neurodivergent yourself.
posted by Zumbador at 10:13 PM on August 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

I have a specific friend who will constantly give leading and fishing statements in conversations. For example, friend will start a (typically text) conversation with things along the lines of “headed to the hospital” or “well this day just blew up” instead of coming right out and giving the obvious (to me) and pertinent details - like “just got thrown off my horse and I think I broke my arm. Headed to the hospital” or “my day just blew up. I got called into the boss’s office to talk about my work performance. I ended up quitting.”

It honestly feels like clickbait to me. For the longest time I would play the game and ask follow up questions. Friend: “Headed to the hospital”. Me: “Oh no! What’s going on? Are you ok??” But, recently I’ve stopped doing that. I just don’t have the energy to dig and ask the right follow up questions to her alarming statements. Lately I’m saying things like “hope it works out!” Or generically “sucks to have a bad day!” She’s not necessarily doing anything wrong in approaching her communications with me in this way, but it is energy sucking and I have little patience or energy for it. I’ve noticed our interactions overall have really fizzled out lately due to my new approach. And honestly, while she may not be doing anything wrong, to me it feels manipulative for some reason. She’s trying to hook me with an alarming or fishing statement. But I ain’t biting anymore.

I guess this is a long way of saying that if this type of conversation just doesn’t do it for you, you don’t have to engage. You can be generic in your replies. If they really want you to know something, they can divulge it, but you shouldn’t have to go on a hunt figuring out what follow up questions to ask to get them to give the relevant details on some vague statement they initiated.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:16 PM on August 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I have been on the other side of both those statements. I do think you are right to see that there is a gulf you could be crossing here, because poverty - of health, of money - is isolating. Being invited to a shared intimacy instead of having someone distance with the sorts of phrases you mention above - which I associate with white middle classness, right or wrong - is a profound kindness.

So, what would I like for someone to say when I have been brave enough to be vulnerable? I would like them to meet me in that bravery and vulnerability.

“I can’t take that covid risk.” (Probably not a bid for you to ask about health problems but more like): If I bring a boombox to your backyard can we sit distanced with masks and pretend we’re at a concert? Do you want to play Jackbox games this weekend instead? If I have dinner delivered can we share a meal over zoom? Whatever risk you were asking them to take, replace with a safe activity that is similar. YOU come up with it.

“I don’t know what I’ll do about my food when the power goes out.” - Can I bring a cooler and ice? Would it help if I stored some food? Is it temporary or would it help if I kept them from shutting off? I had an unexpected windfall that I was wanting to help a friend with, can I do that for you? It’s important to me that my friends be safe, way more than this weird check from my dad/bonus from work I wasn’t expecting.


I think what I’m trying to say is you are phrasing this as hinting turns to get to their ask. What I am seeing is vulnerability being offered and you having a shock reaction - likely because most people are trained that vulnerability is bad and should be covered up - instead of being receptive to that vulnerability. I would just take a minute with your kneejerk reaction and see how you can meet that vulnerability in a place of shared vulnerability. Even if you have already said the fumbling thing that came out your mouth first, just reverse and have a go at it again. “Oh shit, you know what? You don’t need the electricity company to have a program! I got this weird check in the mail today that I wanted to put to good use and I can’t think of a better use for it. What’s your venmo?”

That opportunity is never gone. Even a couple days later. “I honestly didn’t realize that you were still needing to take covid precautions and it threw me off. I want to be a good friend to you, let’s talk soon about getting together in a safe way for you.”

You don’t have to catch this in the moment. It’s always possible to go back and be vulnerable about having had it pass you by unremarked and that you want to do better. People proactively doing this bring me to the best kind of “cared for” tears.

Showing up a little late is better than not showing up. And that intimacy and vulnerability builds real deep lasting relationships and friendships that will see you through many storms.
posted by Bottlecap at 10:22 PM on August 18, 2022 [12 favorites]

It's perfectly ok to take people at their word and not follow up, especially on topics where it might be perceived as intrusive to ask.

As for the electric being shut off example... That is just plain manipulation on their part. They WANT you to pick it up and feel sorry for them and take care of their problem for them. You don't have to do that.

If they respectfully ask for your advice or help (financial or otherwise), that's one thing, and you can participate or decline as you wish. But absolutely nothing requires you to play their manipulative guilting games.
posted by stormyteal at 10:27 PM on August 18, 2022

Not to abuse the edit window: I think it’s up to you how much give and take you want in your relationships. But I think it’s generous to feel like this is genuine intimacy being floated as a test balloon instead of viewing it through a lens of playing games. It’s fair not to have emotional bandwidth for vulnerable conversations, but I also think that’s how people end up very isolated. Being vulnerable with people who are also vulnerable with you builds up emotional resilience and bandwidth. Being jaded and embittered, I have observed, comes with a lifetime of turning down bids for emotional intimacy and ending up quite brittle because of it. I think it is a worthwhile skill to learn how to understand these things not as veiled asks - maybe you have monetary nothing to offer! (I made assumptions based on what you said) - but that doesn’t mean you can’t meet someone in vulnerable places. “Fuck I am sorry you are still in hardcore lockdown, do you want to talk about it or do you want to get your mind totally off it and share some memes/watch a movie together.”

You can acknowledge and be in that place without viewing it as an ASK. Just as like friends being brave enough to be real with you and offering them Real back.
posted by Bottlecap at 10:32 PM on August 18, 2022 [13 favorites]

Is this something you find happening generally, or are there a few specific people who (sticking with your examples) seem to want things from you (attention, maybe money)?
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:32 AM on August 19, 2022

if i'm understanding your question, here's a quick/immediate solution (provided you actually do want to keep the conversation going): in that mental space where you're reflexively in shock, practice the automatic reply, "oh man, what's up?"

that's it. you don't have to think on how to workshop an array of statements. if they want to get into it, they will, and in their elaboration you can pick up points to follow up. if they don't, they'll demurr and just dismiss the offer to elaborate. then you can let it go, unless you really think you have the wherewithal to help, then just end on your part, "well, i'm here if you want to talk about it or figure something out".

it really is a matter of practice. everyone, neurodivergent or not, has scripts, it's just your mental aptitude plus ubpringing may make the practice so frictionless it feels invisible.

finally, it's best for your own peace of mind to not take it personally, it could just be their conversation pattern.
posted by cendawanita at 1:14 AM on August 19, 2022 [6 favorites]

Hehe, I think this is a thing my friends and I do a lot via text. We write teaser messages and then wait for that delicious "what?? Why?" before spilling the beans.

"So I almost adopted a dog today."
"Ugh, my neighbour's going to kill me."

I enjoy these kinds of messages, and feel they lead to livelier exchanges than just...infodumping. But of course I don't feel my friends are making a veiled bid for anything - it's just teasering. I might feel a bit different if it seemed they were always wanting something from me without admitting it, and waiting for me to offer.

At this point, I feel a little disappointed if I get all the relevant data in the first text, like my husband's family does.

I think maybe in some cases you could view this type of message as a request for a certain type of exchange - a rapid back and forth with you actively asking for more and commiserating. As opposed to a straightforward presenting of all relevant information with a chance to respond tacked on. I think some people feel more cared for and engaged, when they have a more...gossipy? kind of exchange. Regardless of the content.

Maybe the problem is also that the balance is off between you and your friends? Like, do you feel they are asking-not-asking more from you than they are giving? And more broadly, do you feel that, in your life, you are getting the support and care you need? If you're overextended and lack emotional support, it's natural to get irritated at more bids for attention. Instead of seeing an opportunity for your bonds to deepen, you feel like it's one more thing people expect you to provide.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:29 AM on August 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: this is genuine intimacy being floated as a test balloon instead

Another vote for this. There are a few different ways I can see this coming about, but often it's social lubricant, for them and for you:

They feel a little nervous about talking about a serious subject so they're letting themselves build up to it; they also don't know if you feel up for talking about it. So they're taking a gentle entry that gives them the chance to signal to you that there's something more serious they want to talk about, while also giving you the option to nope out if you don't feel up for that conversation right now (though if you never, ever feel up for those deeper conversations, that will obviously set the tone of your relationship over time).

Yes, they could just say: "Did I tell you, my electricity is getting cut off? I'm so worried..." but I feel like the style you mention is often used by people who just don't feel comfortable landing a serious conversation right on you out of the blue - it's just a natural, gentle segue for them, not a way of trapping you into asking about them.

In other instances, especially if it happens a lot, I agree that it can spill over into feeling a little attention-seeky, like the facebook posts that say just enough to invite a slew of "U OK hun?" comments beneath. In those cases, I think it's a question of how often it happens with the same person and you deciding your own tolerance for it.

And sometimes the person is just assuming they've already told you that their electricity is getting cut off because they're so worried about it that it's all they're thinking of and honestly, once you get past a certain age your memory is such that you just can't remember what you've told to who.

In terms of how to deal with it, I think if one of those moments passes and later in the conversation you're thinking "Ah I think they wanted me to ask about that" and you feel you should/want to ask about it, it's no problem to back up and say: "Sorry, back there you said your electricity was getting cut off and it's taken me a minute to register. I'm sorry, that's awful, how did that happen?"
posted by penguin pie at 3:26 AM on August 19, 2022 [5 favorites]

This comes down to your preferred communication style. Do you want to be as sensitive to avoiding inferring others' sensibilities as possible? THen don't change. Do you want to be as involved as possible and apologize later if you cross someone's lines? Then make more assumptions and ask more questions.

Those are both ends of a spectrum. There's no right or wrong, but there are situational reasons for moving from one end to the other. I trend toward the latter end and am often reigning my tendencies in in interpersonal-professional settings, but in personal settings it seems to be a calling card. You do you.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:15 AM on August 19, 2022

In the example you give concerning comorbidities, I think it's not an invitation for you to ask, but if you asking a question would upset them, they shouldn't/wouldn't have brought it up.

One way to handle situations like that is to ask an oblique question, or maybe reflect back on yourself. So, without asking about that person's situation, you could if there is a way to assess the risk from comorbidities, or a list to see if you have a comorbidity that you don't recognize.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:17 AM on August 19, 2022

The examples you give both remind me of the kinds of things that a certain narcissistic relative of mine would say in order to put themself, and keep themself, at the centre of attention.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:30 AM on August 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

hmm, maybe someone else said this, but.. you can always ask if folks want to be asked , in real time convo. A thing I notice is we all tend to do unto others as we like to have done to us, so I like a really engaged, occasionally question-y, chatty but not interrupt-y sort of listening, that's what helps me feel witnessed... if my audience is *really* quiet, I can find it a bit hard to continue self-disclosing. Of course there's a lot of middle ground and "really quiet" is a pretty uncommon extreme. Anyway, so since that's kind of what makes me feel seen, it's also my go to when I'm on the other side, but... clearly some folks would prefer a less interactive style and would rather quieter affirmation and validation .. so I wonder lately if the thing for it is to ..ask folks what they like and not assume they like what I like.

Separately, the situation you describe with the leading questions seems almost impossible for us to really pass judgement on without more context.. sometimes that sort of thing is irritating and sometimes it's more of a feeling out move; then tone of your post describing, especially the note about feeling tested, makes me think that particular situation could be exceptional and about the sort of communicator the "tester" is and how mutual (or, not, as the case sounds like it may be?) your relationship with them is feeling lately..

idk.. feel free to disregard all this as I'm just a stranger on the internet, obvs.
posted by elgee at 8:35 AM on August 19, 2022

You’re an “ask” 100%

This is the perfect position for a neutral but open “oh?” And a pause. If they want to say more they can continue. Your other responses shut down / direct the conversation too much.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:46 AM on August 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (It’s clear you’re an ask because you’re annoyed at what you perceive to be hints and vagueness whereas guessers find this to be the meat of where relationships and intimacy is built. Just fyi)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:55 AM on August 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've really loved all the answers here and some have have straight up floored me like Bottlecap's on vulnerability, and Zumbador's on demand avoidance. St.Peepsburg and Bottlecap gave me some clarity on how the vagueness can be about building intimacy and how I can recover and go back and choose to build that intimacy if I want to but missed the bid in the moment.

I think I can tell when I am rejecting bids for intimacy from a friend vs when I am refusing conversational "bait" from an acquaintance. The first makes me feel guilty. The second makes me either annoyed or embarrassed for having missed a social cue.

Thanks all
posted by jello at 11:47 AM on August 19, 2022 [5 favorites]

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