There's a concept (inspired by a Metafilter blog post) of ask culture vs. guess culture.  In "ask culture," it's socially acceptable to ask for a favor -- staying over at a friend's house, requesting a raise or a letter of recommendation -- and equally acceptable to refuse a favor.  Asking is literally just inquiring if the request will be granted, and it's never wrong to ask, provided you know you might be refused.  In "guess culture," however, you're expected to guess if your request is appropriate, and you are rude if you accidentally make a request that's judged excessive or inappropriate.  You can develop a reputation as greedy or thoughtless if you make inappropriate requests.

When an asker and a guesser collide, the results are awful.  I've seen it in marriages, for example.

Husband: "Could you iron my shirt?  I have a meeting today."

Wife: "Can't you see I'm packing lunches and I'm not even dressed yet?  You're so insensitive!"

Husband: "But I just asked.  You could have just said no if you were too busy -- you don't have to yell at me!"

Wife: "But you should pay enough attention to me to know when you shouldn't ask!"

It's not clear how how the asking vs. guessing divide works.  Some individual people are more comfortable asking than guessing, and vice versa.  It's also possible that some families, and some cultures, are more "ask-based" than "guess-based."  (Apparently East Asia is more "guess-based" than the US.)  It also varies from situation to situation: "Will you marry me?" is a question you should only ask if you know the answer is yes, but "Would you like to get coffee with me?" is the kind of question you should ask freely and not worry too much about rejection.  

There's a lot of scope for rationality in deciding when to ask and when to guess.  I'm a guesser, myself.  But that means I often pass up the opportunity to get what I want, because I'm afraid of being judged as "greedy" if I make an inappropriate request.  If you're a systematic "asker" or a systematic "guesser," then you're systematically biased, liable to guess when you should ask and vice versa.  

In my experience, there are a few situations in which you should experiment with asking even if you're a guesser: in a situation where failure/rejection is so common as to not be shameful (i.e. dating), in a situation where it's someone's job to handle requests, and requests are common (e.g. applying for jobs or awards, academic administration), in a situation where granting or refusing a request is ridiculously easy (most internet communication.)  Most of the time when I've tried this out I've gotten my requests granted. I'm still much more afraid of being judged as greedy than I am of not getting what I want, so I'll probably always stay on the "guessing" end of the spectrum, but I'd like to get more flexible about it, and more willing to ask when I'm in situations that call for it.

Anyone else have a systematic bias, one way or another?  Anybody trying to overcome it?

(relevant: The Daily Ask, a website full of examples of ways you can make requests.  Some of these shock me -- I wouldn't believe it's acceptable to bargain over store prices like that. But, then again, I'm running on corrupted hardware and I wouldn't know what works and what doesn't until I make the experiment.)

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
66 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:50 PM

I was raised in a strong Guess culture, then went to a tech university where Askers predominated, and it took me some years to come to terms with the fact that these are simply incompatible conversational styles and the most effective thing for me to do is understand which style my interlocutor is expecting and use that.

This, amusingly, often leads me to ask people whether they are using Ask rules or Guess rules. Except, of course, in situations where I intuit that asking them would be inappropriate, and I have to guess instead.

Bringing college friends home for dinner was the most wearing version of this. On one occasion I had to explicitly explain to a friend that, for her purposes, it was best to assume that the last piece of chicken was simply unavailable to be eaten, ever, by anyone. (There actually was a method for getting it, but it was an Advanced Guess Culture technique, not readily taught in one session.)

Incidentally, my own experience is that Ask and Guess are sometimes misleading labels for the styles they refer to (though they are conventional).

For example, "Ask" culture is often OK with "So, I'm assuming here that A, B, and C are true; based on that yadda yadda" with the implicit expectation is that someone will correct me if I'm wrong. In "Guess" culture this sort of thing carries the equally implicit expectation that nobody will correct me. Here both groups are guessing, but they guess differently.

"Guess" culture also has an implicit expectation in some cases that you do ask, but that an honest answer is not actually permitted... the answer is constrained by the social rules. For example, growing up if a guest says "Well, we should get going." the host is obligated to reply "Oh, but we're having such a good time!" and none of that actually lets you know whether the guest is still welcome or not (or, indeed, whether the guest has any desire to stay or go). (On one occasion, when highly motivated to have a departing guest take leftovers home with her if and only if she actually wanted leftovers, but not knowing her default rules, I ended up saying "So, among your tribe, how many times do I have to repeat an offer to have it count as a genuine offer?")

And "Guess" culture has all kinds of rules for how you communicate to someone exactly what it is you want them to do without being asked.

(On one occasion, when highly motivated to have a departing guest take leftovers home with her if and only if she actually wanted leftovers, but not knowing her default rules, I ended up saying "So, among your tribe, how many times do I have to repeat an offer to have it count as a genuine offer?")

I once saw a friend ask our host, upon leaving a party, if he would like her to leave the rest of the cake she brought, which we'd eaten some of but hadn't finished. She's very asky, he's very guessy. However, she knows this, and immediately followed up with: "Please don't feel you need to take it--we'll happily eat it at home. I know I don't like it when people foist leftovers on me that I don't really want." He considered, and said since there was so much of it, he'd take a couple of pieces for himself and his roommate and let her take the rest home. Very asky question, very guessy answer, all parties satisfied.

What field do you go into if you want to study this stuff? Anthropology of some flavor? I find it fascinating.

Sociologists and sociolinguists study this sort of thing a lot. In particular, there's a lot of work in sociolinguistics on registers of politeness, and how different cultures construct and interpret questions.

My husband and I took over a decade to evolve a pattern where I can answer "What do you want to do for dinner?" with "Well, left to my own devices I would probably just heat up some soup, but if you want to go out that's OK with me too, but I don't feel like cooking anything."

On one occasion I had to explicitly explain to a friend that, for her purposes, it was best to assume that the last piece of chicken was simply unavailable to be eaten, ever, by anyone

Thinking about how this works in my household, I realized why this doesn't come up: if there is a last piece of chicken then the host has made a mistake. In my culture there should always be enough food that everyone feels comfortable to eat as much as they would enjoy without worrying that this will limit other's consumption. The host cooks sufficient food to ensure this, with the expectation that there will be leftovers. And then leftovers provide lunches, and occasionally dinners if they accumulate sufficiently. Of course this requires being rich enough to have enough food for everyone to have what they want, but (a) food is much cheaper relative to the rest of life than it used to be and (b) if the cost would be an issue you deal with this by having larger quantities of cheaper food.

In the rare occasions when the host miscalculates, because extra people showed up, people ate more than expected, or something else, my culture's general askiness means we talk about it pretty explicitly ("who else would like more chicken?") and generally divide what's left equally among everyone who wants it.

(There actually was a method for getting it, but it was an Advanced Guess Culture technique, not readily taught in one session.)

I'd love an explanation of the technique.

Ferd's method works, assuming you can actually manage to help with the dishes (the trick to that is to just start doing it, rather than ask... if you ask, the host is obligated to say "no, of course not," since it is understood that you don't actually want to help with the dishes), but the one I had in mind is you take a serving implement, pick up the last piece of chicken, catch the eye of someone else at the table, and offer it to them. They, of course, are obligated to say "No, you take it" (as are you, if someone offers it to you). If you are a guest, or the youngest person at the table, it's OK to accept at that point. Otherwise, you can look around to the table -- with the chicken still on the serving implement in your hand -- and ask if anyone else wants it. They all say "no," of course. Then you can serve yourself.

Which was all way too complicated to explain to someone who was having trouble with the idea that "Oh, can I have the last piece?" was rude by local standards.

Volunteer to help with the dishes, then ask whether you can take away the plate the chicken is sitting on. If nobody else claims it, it's yours.

Clear another plate before you touch the one with the chicken on it. Clear something else after. Clear your plate when you're done eating.

Don't do more work than your hosts. You're being helpful, not trying to work off the price of dinner.

FWIW, among my friends--whom I might describe as "polite askers" or "assertive guessers"--it's common to ask "does anybody want to split this with me?" That way, you're both asking for what you want (more of the thing) and making an offer in a guess-culture-compatible way. It's easy for other people to accept, because now by taking it they're not preventing you from having it. If no one does, you can be reasonably confident no one else actually wanted it.

A variant on the same thing is: "Would anyone else like this?" which is a shorter version of the offering ritual that TheOtherDave described. Because it's skipping most of the ceremony, it's much askier, but it's still not polite to say "yes" and take the thing, because you'd be taking it out of the hands of someone who clearly wanted it. (An exception might be made if you hadn't actually had any of the thing yet, and said so.) But you can say "I'll split it with you," achieving the same result as the above.

Of course, this only works for plausibly divisible things. I've had a friend laugh at me--good-naturedly--for offering to split something bite-sized. Surprise, surprise: he's much askier, I'm much guessier.

it was best to assume that the last piece of chicken was simply unavailable to be eaten, ever, by anyone

In situations where I suspect multiple people want something but will also all politely say "no, you take it" if asked explicitly I've tried something like "how many ways should we split this piece of cake?" This makes it clear you expect multiple people to indicate they want some, releasing them of some of the politeness burden of hiding their preferences. Chicken, at least chicken on the bone, is indivisible, so this wouldn't work as well here.

That's interesting... what kind of results do you get? I think my Guess-culture roots would insist that the proper response to that question is "oh, I'm fine, no cake for me," much as it is to "would you like the last piece?" but I can see how others might react differently, even given the same upbringing.

I've only tried it maybe twice, but I remember it working. As in, I ended up splitting the last piece with multiple people. But maybe I just ended up splitting with the askier people while the guessier people stayed quiet and thought we were being pushy?

(nods) That makes sense. And sure, that's a possible failure mode.

From field experience as a Korean-American and thus someone closer in many situations to Ask, (or even TELL!) I have found a lot of success on just pretending to be endearingly forthright: making a big show of asking all the other people whether they want the last dumpling a couple of times, asking whether they're sure, etc. The fact that my uncle, my mother, and I are similar in this and that they will often take me up on this to split/outright take the dumpling, showing clearly that I am, indeed, serious about my ask, helps too.

Umeshism: "If nobody ever says no to you, you're not asking for enough."

Converse Umeshism: "If you never miss an opportunity to get something by asking, you're asking too much."

Second-order Umeshism: "If nobody ever says no to you and you never miss an opportunity to get something by asking, you're worrying too much about when to ask for things."

Converse Umeshism: "If you never miss an opportunity to get something by asking, you're asking too much."

Possible more colorful version: "If you've never missed out on something you needed because you didn't ask, people find you too greedy."

Overlapping Umeshisms: If you don't ask for enough, people will still think you're greedy. If you ask for too much, you'll still neglect to ask for things you could've gotten.


Converse Umeshism: "If you never miss an opportunity to get something by asking, you're asking too much."

Second-order Umeshism: "If nobody ever says no to you and you never miss an opportunity to get something by asking, you're worrying too much about when to ask for things."

Reminds me of The Screwtape Letters, which seems to come down hard on guess culture (not so much rejecting it as not considering it in those terms to begin with, which seems to be common on both sides):

Later on you can venture on what may be called the Generous Conflict Illusion. This game is best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children for example. Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of "Unselfishness". The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their "Unselfishness", but really because they don't want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing "what the others want". They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying "Very well then, I won't have any tea at all!", and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides. You see how it is done? If each side had been frankly contending for its own real wish, they would all have kept within the bounds of reason and courtesy; but just because the contention is reversed and each side is fighting the other side's battle, all the bitterness which really flows from thwarted self-righteousness and obstinacy and the accumulated grudges of the last ten years is concealed from them by the nominal or official "Unselfishness" of what they are doing or, at least, held to be excused by it.

I've tried to keep that generally in mind as a reason to be as direct as possible; it's only recently that I've been aware enough of the dichotomy in popular advice to start collecting quotes about it.

Also possibly related:

If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you're trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you're even considering the other is laziness.

...from Paul Graham via EY. I usually think of asking for something as being harder than trying to find it myself or doing without; for one thing, it's an action now versus a possible action later.

Wow. The "Generous Conflict Illusion" describes so many of my interactions with my in-laws. And I'm in the wrong.

I voted you up for simply quoting The Screwtape Letters. I read it over the summer, and despite its assumptions of Christian theology, I don't think I've found a better work of fiction on the topic of human psychology.

That seems vaguely related to the Abilene paradox.

I have a bias in that I really, really don't understand the "guess" mentality. Or rather, I see how it could develop but I don't understand how people once they are aware of the breakdown don't immediately say "hey! Ask is more efficient and less likely to lead to misunderstandings." While a culture that is a mix of Askers and Guessers will have a lot of misunderstandings (and likely more than a pure Ask or pure Guess culture), it seems that Guessers frequently have more serious misunderstandings due to poor guessing even when interacting with other Guessers. In contrast, Askers rarely have a problem interacting with other Askers in the same way. So it seems that utility is maximized with Askers. There's likely some biases coming into play in constructing this argument in that I'm heavily an Asker, and I've tried in areas I was more of a Guesser to move towards being more of an Asker because it just seems to work better. I'd be enlightened if someone could point out where my logic about ideal cultures breaks down.

Consider an "ask culture" where employees consider themselves totally allowed to say "no" without repercussions. The boss would prefer people work unpaid overtime so ey gets more work done without having to pay anything, so ey asks everyone. Most people say no, because they hate unpaid overtime. The only people who agree will be those who really love the company or their job - they end up looking really good. More and more workers realize the value of lying and agreeing to work unpaid overtime so the boss thinks they really love the company. Eventually, the few workers who continue refusing look really bad, like they're the only ones who aren't team players, and they grudgingly accept.

Only now the boss notices that the employees hate their jobs and hate the boss. The boss decides to only ask employees if they will work unpaid overtime when it's absolutely necessary. The ask culture has become a guess culture.

Is this a concrete example? Or based on one or many? I am having trouble considering it. (Walmart perhaps?)

Guesser culture affords much more signaling of how well you understand people. People who correctly guess will come off as more intelligent, observant and understanding. It's like the difference between offering money and offering carefully chosen presents; money may be more efficient, but efficiency isn't the only factor coming into account.

Interestingly, Chinese culture seems much more guess-based than American culture, but in China gifts are usually in cash, not in presents. Maybe societies all need a way to signal understanding and social suaveness, but choose different mechanisms.

Guesser culture affords much more signaling of how well you understand people.

Bingo. Furthermore, asking in certain contexts makes you look unsocialized or under-confident. For instance, "would you like to come to my party on Friday?" sounds strange. Instead, it's more common to say "come to my party on Friday." This way is both "asking" an implicit question, and making a "guess" about the answer.

"Would you like to come to my party on Friday?" = "I am requesting that you come to my party but I only believe that there is a <50% chance that you will want to come"

"Come to my party on Friday" = "I am requesting that you come to my party but I believe that there is a >50% chance that you will want to come"

If/how you ask/guess signals your belief about your legitimacy in desiring a certain outcome, and also signals your estimated probability that the other person will also desire that outcome.

This is because sheer confidence and pushiness also work, to an extent. Just behaving enough like a leader is enough to get people to follow you. To encourage repeat following, be sure to deliver.

Upside: people do in fact go along more often than not. It's somewhat disquieting how well it can work. Downside: you get a reputation as a pushy sod, which may be problematic later.

(I have specifically warned the staff at my daughter's nursery to keep an eye out for her dominating the other kids too much and directly encouraging her to play cooperatively where feasible. She's 3 1/2 and she successfully pushes the 5yo's around and makes them play her games with her. Her pantomime theatresports variation of hide and seek - where you pretend to hide and pretend to seek, and the game is to be as creatively theatrical in the hiding and seeking as possible - particularly confuses them.)

pantomime theatresports variation of hide and seek - where you pretend to hide and pretend to seek, and the game is to be as creatively theatrical in the hiding and seeking as possible


She invented the pretending bit, I blatantly encouraged the creatively theatrical bit. I want her to learn what truth and pretend are, because I like Henson's "whopper" theory. She's doing okay I think at discerning truth, fiction and falsity.

Her mother plays too. It's possible we just like having an appreciative audience, even if the audience is three years old.

I wonder if the other kids will take to pretend hide and seek.

Yeah, I think that's true. Among communities that identify as smart, for example, I find it's common to obfuscate speech or explicitly set out puzzles for one another, and I think that serves a similar role... even though such communities (like most communities whose membership changes quickly) tend to be "Ask" subcultures.

I really like Yvain's answer!

But I'll add to it that Guess cultures mostly don't involve guesswork. They involve inferring likely conditions based on evidence that isn't explicitly articulated.

More precisely: Culture A is an Ask culture relative to Culture B with respect to a subject if A explicitly articulates things about that subject that B doesn't articulate.

So I think your question is isomorphic to "Why would anyone prefer not to explicitly articulate all their evidence?"... that is, "Why are some things rude to talk about?"

Not that that answers your question, but it might provide some useful directions.

I've seen it suggested that "Guess" is an unfair portrayal-- it's how Infer cultures look to people who don't know the rules.

Yup. This became particularly clear to me when I dated someone in college who was from an equally "Guess" but different culture than the one I was raised in (1). I understood perfectly well what was going on, but I didn't know the cues.

It would not surprise me too much to discover that the whole idea of "a Guess culture" is actually an illusion, similar to the idea that one's own native language is inherently easier to understand than other people's, and that all cultures are equally opaque to outsiders. (I don't think that's likely, but it's not impossible.)

(1) I came from a Hispanic immigrant background, she came from an upper-class New England background. Together, we fought crime.

That's an awesome comment. I'm interested which specific cues came up that you realised each other didn't get :)

Heh. It was twenty years ago, I'm probably confabulating more than I'm recalling.

To pick an example... I remember observing that both my family and hers had highly specific ways of communicating the difference between a demand, a request, and a question, but the mechanisms had almost nothing in common. In my family, if it was phrased as an interrogative it was either a question or a demand, but never a request. and I was expected to recognize demands by context. In her family, it seemed everything was an interrogative; whatever the cue was, I never really figured it out.

Sorry for the necromancy - I'd call Guess cultures Hint, Subtle, or Infer/Imply/Implicit cultures, and Ask cultures Blurt, Overt, or Explicit cultures, for the full range of connotation.

There are some things which it's impolite to say, in any words, because the sentiment is impolite--for example, "I don't want you to come to my party." Guess culture, applied well, allows you to avoid having to say those things or cause the attendant hurt feelings. (Guess culture applied poorly avoids the hurt feelings but puts you in the awkward position where they're at the party anyway because you felt compelled to invite them.) The same situation in ask culture requires you come out with it.

This may sound like a good thing in the long run--especially if you are yourself asky--but sometimes there are valid reasons both that you don't want someone at the party (they smell bad) and that you don't want to hurt their feelings (they're your boss/family member/other person you'll be spending more time around, especially in a position of authority).

Another thing guess culture is good at is keeping secrets. In ask culture, if someone asks you something you've promised not to tell, it's certainly valid to say "Sorry, I can't tell you." But then they know there's a secret, and sometimes that alone is enough to cause harm--through speculation and deduction, or asking someone else, for example. (You could also lie, but that might cause its own problems.) In guess culture, there are things you don't ask about. This is part of why.

It may be worth observing that being a good Guesser in an Ask culture is a minor superpower.

In all human cultures, being able to read people accurately is advantageous.

(I recall reading a hypothesis or theory that our huge brains were quite specifically evolved by pressure of dealing with each other, and that this was intense enough to require even more social acuity than our otherwise politically similar chimpanzee brethren have. These things on our necks are peacocks' tails. I can't find the link, however. Anyone?)


Why should you ever be a guesser? Because guessers exist, and sometimes it's not in your interest to offend them.

I think what makes people tend towards guessing is a combination of personal temperament, childhood upbringing, and current environment. If you're sensitive to criticism and rejection, and you're good at picking up emotional cues (or at least if you tend to read emotional states into people; you may be wrong about those states), then you'll really want to avoid upsetting people with your requests. If you were brought up to believe asking is rude, you won't ask much.

In Guess cultures, how much estimation of other people's desires goes on, and how much is following rules about how desires can be expressed? This may vary from one culture to another, and it may be very hard to get an answer to the question.

Do Guess cultures tend to have etiquette creep, where, if going through a ritual is equivalent to making a request (demand), then the ritual must be made more ambiguous?

Does the Euphemism Treadmill fit your idea of etiquette creep? It refers to the process of euphemisms gradually coming to be perceived as no less rude than the expressions they originally replaced, leading to the adoption of shiny new euphemisms to replace them.

It's plausible that etiquette creep is the mechanism by which such cultures became Guess cultures in the first place. The other mechanism I can think of is etiquette arms race: basically, mastery of etiquette is how you signal your social acuity, and if it comes to pass that everyone in your culture knows the rules it becomes neccesary to make them even more complicated so that the signal doesn't lose it's value.

I'm definitely an asker, and this - as I see now in retrospect thanks to this post - caused me a lot of grief with a friend with whom I was otherwise closely mentally aligned. She insisted on "reading" people and playing "guess my intent", often accusing me of things that I never even thought of, and complaining that I was difficult to read. When I asked her why she couldn't just ask me about my thoughts instead of trying to infer them, she said it was not culturally common in her country (Holland). I have no way of verifying that last assertion, though.

I think "ask culture vs. guess culture" would be a better title.

I've trained myself to be an Asker - I consider it one of life's cheat codes. It does lead to friction with my wife who's more into Guessing.

See also Rejection Therapy.

I don't think it makes a very effective cheat code when it can lead to accidental defections.

If you offend people by making requests or asking questions that they respond poorly to, you stand to lose social capital. It's advantageous not to be offended by others' requests or questions, but not necessarily to assume that others will be receptive to yours.

So you're suggesting one should always use ask culture in response to questions, but being careful about which culture you use when asking questions? That sounds like a decent strategy overall. However, from the descriptions people have been giving it seems to me that you aren't supposed to refuse requests in guess culture (that's why it's offensive to make a request someone doesn't want to agree to).

Now, I'm probably both biased personally against guess culture and being influenced by other people who are more on the ask side describing it here, but it seems to me that guess culture is sustained solely by forcing all participants to participate in all phases. Rather like the hypothetical society where one rule is that everyone has to cooperate to kill anyone who breaks a rule, including this one. As far as I can tell the only way to contribute to breaking it would be to either think carefully about which one you're in at all times, or explain the concept to everyone who you interact with so you can ask them about it.

I'm not seeing how that relates to "accidental defections".

From my perspective the gains I've obtained by asking for what I wanted, instead of waiting for others to guess what I wanted (and losing through not asking), have largely outweighed the social losses (that I've been able to perceive) from the occasions where my request was received poorly.

A guesser is not limited to waiting for others to guess what they want, but they will not ask until they have guessed that the request would be well received.

The relative advantages of each depend on the culture in which they're operating. If you're in a strongly guess-oriented culture, being an asker would be very disadvantageous, whereas in an ask-oriented culture, it would be disadvantageous to be a guesser.

in an ask-oriented culture, it would be disadvantageous to be a guesser.

It would be disadvantageous to "be a guesser" in the sense of feeling obligated to guess instead of ask, but applying some guessing can be advantageous in an ask culture. By avoiding asking people questions when the answers would make them uncomfortable (no I don't want to pick you up at the airport, no you can't come to the party) you are more pleasant to be around.

I remember reading tangerine's* ask_metafilter answer when it was posted and got hundreds of upvotes (favorites in their jargon) and I thought it was a brilliant few paragraphs.

A couple years later it got some publicity in The Guardian and there was a complete thread on the single topic of the ask versus guess thing.

I am interested but I am not at all convinced. Anthropologists have been writing about gifts and exchange and reciprocity since as long as anthropology has existed. It is very complex. After family and clan relations, it is perhaps the second most studied topic in the field. I suppose the most likely explanation is the ask versus guess thing (tangerine later updated it by describing it more accurately as ask versus hint) is that we have a false dichotomy of folk psychology here, which may be useful in spots but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are a number of professional anthropologists and sociologists who regularly post there on any number of topics, and if they commented on this one, I missed it. I looked closely for exactly such a comment when the original threads were active.

*tangerine is the author's metafilter user I D.


Thinking about this game-theoretically: Let's say you get awarded points for getting what you want (+10), subtracted points when a Guesser refuses your request and is miffed that you even asked (-10) and you get no points (+0) if you don't ask, or if you get a friendly refusal from an Asker.

Askers always ask; guessers decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether or not to ask. In principle, this means guessing ought to dominate as a strategy.

On the other hand, in real life, Askers probably are less upset than Guessers by rejection in general. Even when an Asker asks a Guesser and gets an angry refusal, he's probably less bothered by it than he would be if he were a Guesser. So it's probably in your best interest to cultivate the flexibility of a Guesser but the unflappability of an Asker.

Also, obviously, a world full of Guessers is riskier than a world full of Askers -- every time you ask a favor, you risk that (-10) disaster. So, in a world full of guessers, if they're risk-averse, nobody ever asks for anything. The expected value for everyone is zero. In a world full of askers, the expected value is positive. I'd rather live there!

The ideal world is where everyone is an asker; however, in a world with some guessers, it may be optimal to be a guesser.

I believe to be an asker asking with innuendo is always ideal.

You can ask normally or with innuendo. The other person can accept or not. If getting rejected is bad then you get 50% to have a bad output when simply asking(-10). When you use innuendo, then there is no real rejection, hence no bad feelings (0). The rest of the time, you get what you asked for (+10).

It's probably worth mentioning that Guessers also have negative utility from refusing others requests, coming from a culture where requests are generally accepted. If the actors are ethical, then this gives a preference towards guessing. In particular, you can imagine strategy where an unethical Asker is skilled at pitching requests such that the cost to a Guesser is greater than the gain for the Asker, but less than the Guessers penalty for refusing. By doing this the Asker "coerces" Guessers into agreeing. Recognising this, an ethical agent in a society of mostly Guessers will likely also take a Guessing strategy.

I've always preferred an ask culture for its efficiency. However, as Yavin pointed out, someone in a position of authority or influence can't expect to ask with no consequence because people aren't free to refuse. I'd expect a boss to understand that, but if you're a guest of someone from a hospitality culture, you might have trouble because the rules of hospitality mean that if you give the slightest indication of a desire or preference, they're obligated to fulfill it. Unfortunately, this means that the more "hospitable" someone is, the less comfortable I am as their guest because I have to make sure I don't accidentally demand things I don't especially care about or even don't want.

Does anyone know how to safely express desires or preferences, especially when they are implicit in a question, in a guess culture?

This is one of those contexts in which it helps to understand that "Guess" culture is a very Ask-culture way of describing Hint culture. As a guest/subordinate in a Hint culture you don't express desires or preferences unsolicited. It's the responsibility of the host/boss to indirectly convey to you what the range of appropriate choices are, and you select from those. (Which of course requires being able to recognize that this is what's going on in the first place.)

Hinting is just ambiguous and inefficient asking. If you don't believe that, try ignoring the hints and see if they get mad.

Yes, a hint is an ambiguous request, agreed.
As to whether it's efficient or not, that depends a lot on what outputs we're measuring.
Ambiguity is often valuable.

So, I'm an ask person. Oftentimes, I don't even sing "Happy Birthday" to people unless I know they appreciate it, because my experience is people seem to find the burst of concentrated attention more offputting than they enjoy the well-wishing, and thus I have little desire to take part.

One consequence is that I generally don't give people gifts on occasions. That doesn't mean I don't give gifts- just that I don't give something to someone unless they have a readily identifiable need that I can fill. And so my parents, who have gotten me something without fail every Christmas and birthday, have only received one return gift, which they immensely enjoyed.*

But, for various reasons I'm trying to become better at traditional social things, and so last night while thinking about this and my impending vacation home, I thought "I ought to get my parents gifts." Of course, there's nothing they need at the moment- their planning has beat out their bad luck so far, leading to them being rather well off, and their wants are moderate enough to be satisfied- but when I rephrased the question from "what can I buy to genuinely improve my parent's lives" to "what can I buy to signal I know their tastes" I immediately came up with answers for both of them. It was sort of shocking how quick it was. Finding suitable instances of those imaginary gifts may not happen soon enough to act on those thoughts, but beyond that I'm not sure I want to change my dynamic; we're practical enough to be holding our Thanksgiving celebration a week late to beat the traffic, do we really need to signal our affection expensively? But it's worth trying at least once.

*After the switch to digital TV, they were no longer able to watch Scrubs reruns, a cherished nightly ritual, and so I bought them the season DVDs. The opportunity presented itself only because I knew they wouldn't be willing to buy it for themselves.

Guessy: Etiquette. Fashion. Religion. Favor trading & extent of trust. Social status. The attitudes, abilities and intentions of others. Taboos.

Asky: Monetary economic transactions. Contracts. Science. Engineering. Medicine. War. Philosophy class.

Guessy suggests small groups and the exclusion mechanisms to maintain them in a populous world. Asky just looks modern.

Things women and men tend to do in unmixed groups, respectively.

Other ideas?

Things women and men tend to do in unmixed groups, respectively.

[Citation needed]!

Having different levels of ask cultures makes so much sense to me now that I've heard about it. It explains why I felt creeped out the first couple of time I heard a woman say, "There's nothing less sexy that a man who asks to kiss you."

If rationalists should win, then we should have a secret signal that lets others know whether we want to be asked or guessed at. So the older I get the more I want some of Yvain's Rakiovik status beads to tell people, "Ask me anything, please criticize me, and don't worry about offending me." On the Internet, maybe those 'how to treat me' labels go in my profile?