(crossposted from malcolmocean.com; originally published June 2015)
I have things to say about the Ask/Guess/Tell Cultures model, and an addition/amendment to propose: Reveal Culture. Shifting cultures is hard, so what you’re about to read is not going to have a quality of “let’s all go do this!” I do think it’s worth talking about a lot more, and working on gradually and creatively with others who are game to experiment with culture-crafting.
This post is going to assume that you’re familiar with the Ask/Guess Culture model at the very least. I don’t want to have to explain the whole concept from scratch. The post is written with a Tell Culture familiar audience in mind, although I think it would be worth reading without it. I will talk about each in turn and my understanding of how they work, so you understanding them well is not a prerequisite for this post.
I do want to note that I think it makes more sense to talk about “ask cultures” or even “Guess-based cultures” though, rather than in the singular. This is helpful for keeping salient the fact that there are many very different cultures built upon the platform of Ask or of Guess.
So I’m going to use Majuscule Singular to talk about the platforms and lowercase (usually plural) to talk about the cultures themselves. I think this is just good thinking practice.
Why am I using a new term?
I want to talk about a new cultural platform: Reveal Culture.
It has similarities to Tell Culture, but I’m choosing a new name for three reasons:
- because I think that people read a lot into the names (for example assuming that if you ask a question then it must not be Guess Culture) (more on this as a general issue)
- I think the name “Reveal Culture” suits this particular thing better than “Tell” (For what it’s worth, I think that “Infer” probably suits Guess a lot better than “Guess” does.)
- I don’t want people to associate what I’m putting out with those who are trying to do Tell Culture with everybody just based on reading Brienne’s post. A culture doesn’t shift overnight: the Reveal-based culture that I have experience with has been working at this for over a decade (I’ve been involved for 3 years) and it’s still very much a work in progress.
I’ll talk later about why I’ve chosen the name “Reveal”. Right now I want to talk about the structure of the models.
Why are they called “cultures” and not just “styles” or “strategies”?
In internet discussions, there have been proposals to refer to Ask/Guess/Tell as (variably) styles, strategies, skills, techniques, habits or something else (rather than “cultures”). In some cases, I think that this suggestion arises out of an oversimplification of how they actually work, although Brienne pointed out to me that there’s at least one good reason to avoid the term ‘culture’: “because ‘culture’ is way too close to ‘tribe’, and it makes people focus on cheering or defense.”
Unfortunately, those other terms aren’t sufficiently complex to model the dynamics. There are indeed skills and techniques associated with these different cultures, but it’s not enough to have skills. Or even rules. Cultures are built on shared underlying assumptions.
Ask cultures don’t work if you’re missing the part that says “it’s totally 100% okay to say no.” The conversational strategies associated with ask cultures require that shared assumption. All guess cultures, too, have shared assumptions at their core (although perhaps very different norms about how specific information is communicated). As do reveal cultures.
These assumptions, laid out below, have to do with what you can trust in the other person. To the extent possible, #1 in each case has to do with the other person’s needs/wants, and #2 has to do with your own needs.
Ask Culture assumptions of trust
- “If you need or want something, I trust you to ask for it.”
- “If I make a request that doesn’t make sense for you, I trust you to refuse it.”
Guess Culture assumptions of trust
- “I trust that you will give me appropriate hints about your needs and wants and I trust myself to notice & interpret them.”
- “I trust you to notice my subtle cues (indirect language and nonverbals) to what I may need or what, and to provide or offer it if possible.”
(Many Guess-based cultures perhaps have other assumptions that are founded in part on the above two, such as “if you ask me directly for something, I assume that it’s either of grave importance or that you’re expecting that the answer is an easy ‘yes’.”)
Reveal Culture assumptions of trust
- “When you share information with me, I trust that you’re doing so sincerely and because you think it will be helpful for my model of you as a person and/or my ability to navigate this situation.”
- “When I share information with you, I am trusting that even if it is difficult for you to hear, it won’t overwhelm you—that you’ll be able to process it and make sense of it, possibly with help from me or others in our community.”
I think that if you can’t non-naively make these assumptions a decent amount of the time, then you don’t have a foundation for a Reveal-based culture. If, in a given situation, for a given piece of information, you can’t actually trust the #2 thing, then you don’t share that information.
So what about Tell Culture?
You may have noticed that the aforementioned Tell Culture wasn’t included in my list of assumptions of trust. I think that its assumptions are in theory about the same as Reveal. But in practice, most people who think they’re “doing Tell Culture” have been holding assumptions that look much more like Ask Culture.
…which does not work very well. But that’s what happening, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
“Tell culture is a variant on ask culture where instead of just making a request, you express the strength and exact nature of your preference, so other people can respond to your needs cooperatively, balancing your interest against theirs, and suggesting better alternatives for you to get what you want.”
In case you missed it, let me repeat the first 8 words of that:
“Tell culture is a variant on ask culture”
I expect that nobody would say that my assumptions written above for Ask and Reveal sound like Reveal is just a variant on Ask.
But this is a common perception that people have come to have about Tell Culture. And honestly, I think that if you’re observing what lots of people are doing, it’s a fairly accurate assessment. If you take a bunch of asky people and you propose they try “Tell Culture” as described, you’ll basically get a culture that is still fundamentally operating on Ask Culture assumptions, except where people use statements instead of questions, and are a lot more blunt about their own perceived needs. (I'm not sure what would happen with guessy people, but I'd be curious to find out!)
So I’m going to use “Tell Culture” to refer to this thing where people are doing Ask Culture but differently. Which, after all, is basically what the word already refers to for most people who are familiar with it in practice. Which is maybe a thousand people at most. (More like 10k-100k have read the LessWrong post, but I’m thinking only of people who have actually had interactions that were seriously guided by the TC post)
Anyway, based on careful reading of the original article, as well as what Brienne has published elsewhere and my personal conversations with her, I’m confident that that’s not how she is understanding Tell Culture. But that’s the experience that a lot of people are having.
What experience are people having of Tell Culture?
After the original Tell Culture article went up, a lot of people in my circles in the SF Bay Area became attracted to the idea of Tell Culture as a mode of communication, and began trying to use it. And I’m all for trying new things! But as I’ve said above, you need to have the corresponding assumptions in place for it to work. And the assumptions are about trust, which has to be created, not taken for granted.
Yet people are presuming that they can use the communication style and in some cases expecting it to be reciprocated, even though the trust isn’t there. A mutual friend of ours wrote:
As Tell Culture was becoming more popular in Berkeley, due to people mostly being excited about the bit in the name, it felt a good deal like I’d had Crocker’s Rules declared upon me at all times without my opt in.
You can declare yourself to be operating by certain rules. Crocker’s Rules means declaring “don’t worry about offending me, just give it to me straight.” You can’t declare trust.
(Aside: if someone you knew to be really sensitive, insecure & reactive announced that they wanted blunt feedback because Crocker’s Rules, you might still not actually trust them to effectively handle blunt feedback, and therefore you might not give it, depending on your prediction of the impact. This is sane. If possible, you'd probably at least try to get out of the double bind by giving them the probably-challenging feedback that you don't feel able to take them up on their declaration of Crocker's Rules in general. See also my article on Crocker's Rules as a hack for simulating deep trust.)
To compare, imagine if a bunch of Guess Culture people decided they wanted to switch to predominantly ask-style communication. So they start asking each other for things more often, and they start saying no more often. Sometimes. But if some people are still carrying guess-assumptions, then either they won’t really be able to refuse requests, or they won’t be able to comfortably allow others to refuse. And this, naturally, breaks Ask Culture. Because if you can’t actually trust that people will ask for what they need and refuse requests that don’t work for them, then you need to start inferring/guessing again.
So what about the Reveal Culture assumptions? Can we adopt those? Some of us, perhaps, with some people we know. It can take as much inference skill as is needed to flourish in a guess culture to know what actually makes sense to say, to a given person, at a given moment.
But not everybody. The topvoted comment on the Tell Culture LW article says:
Tragedy of the commons, the shared resource being mutual trust. The first one to defect reaps the rewards of his faux signals being taken at face value, […] degrading the network of trust a “tell culture” relies upon.
The assumptions that that commenter is making are incompatible with the Reveal Culture assumptions. The main issue that stands out to me is that they are assuming that that the system operates primarily with a zero- or negative-sum payoff matrix, and that it is therefore possible to “defect” and achieve personal gain at the expense of the group. This is true in lots of contexts, and arguably Reveal Culture therefore doesn’t totally work there. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work somewhere.
Ben Hoffman agrees with me that Reveal Culture assumptions imply a positively-correlated model of interpersonal engagement—your benefit is a benefit for me, and vice versa. Given that, of course I want to give you more information, and true information. Not all information, because that’s obviously impossible, so I’m going to end up choosing. Factors that affect the decision-making would include:
- what is the point of the interaction?
- how relevant is that information to the situation at hand?
- how much time do we have?
- what is our relationship like?
- what kind of state are each of us in?
- how much emotional capacity do you appear to have to handle what I might say?
…and I think that in a lot of cases, you end up realizing that it actually doesn’t make sense to reveal something. I’ve written about what it’s like to get over fear-of-revealing though so that you can actually assess that question more rationally. And building deeper trust between people—not just you and the particular person you’re talking to, but the whole community/context within which your relationship exists—helps to make it possible to safely err on the side of revealing too much. But if you don’t have that trust, then it won’t work.
In closing: Why “Reveal” Culture?
Because the relevant information is internal.
Because “reveal” speaks to the vulnerability that is involved, even if you’re in a positive-sum context.
Because you can tell someone to do something, but you can’t reveal someone to do something.
Because rather than throwing something at someone and putting the burden on them to deal with what they’ve just been told, “reveal” evokes an image of someone sharing something carefully, while holding it close to themselves, letting the other person look at it only as much as they want to.