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ampersand Nevertheless

The tea or coffee situation

A German and a Norwegian meet in a Torshov kitchen... Or: How different communication styles lead to asymmetries and misunderstandings.

We have a code for conversations where our communication styles clash in our house. We call it the tea or coffee situation.

It stems from that one time we had just started dating and were hanging out in my kitchen after dinner. The conversation went like this.

“I'm going to put on the kettle. Do you want coffee or tea?”
“I can have what you want.”
“Okay, what would you like, though?”
“I don’t mind either way. What do you want?”
“I am asking you. It makes no difference.”
“No, really, I'll just take whatever you prefer.”
“You must know if you'd rather have a cup of coffee or tea!”
“Well… I mean… I'd probably rather have a cup of coffee if you have some…”
“Would I offer coffee if I had none? I'll get your coffee ready then.”
“But really… I don’t mind drinking tea if coffee is too much hassle…”

We probably went back and forth for a few more rounds until the water boiled, and I could pour one half of it into a teapot and the other half into a French press. It was the first of many conversations of this kind.

I was utterly confused by this dynamic until I learned about ask and guess cultures from Katherine Wu's presentation in 2014.

Germans ask, Norwegians guess permalink

I am German; I come from an ask culture. I go through life assuming that I can ask for what I need and that people will either agree or tell me “no” in polite but no uncertain terms. In Germany, there is little ambiguity here. That's why I expect asking someone if they want tea or coffee to be a straightforward conversation.

My partner is Norwegian; he is very much from a guess culture. When he hears the question, a whole different scene plays out in his head. For one, he cannot know for sure that I have coffee in the house even though I offer it. Then, if he replies that he wants coffee, I might make some even though I had personally prefered tea. He would feel bad for effectively forcing his preference on me, so in an attempt to resolve this awkward situation, he tries to tease the necessary information out of me. Then he can avoid asking for something I do not also want in the first place.

Life can be pretty complicated sometimes.

We don’t always hear each other permalink

I was reminded of this today at work when a coworker told me about how hard it can be for them to make their opinions heard and to have their needs acknowledged by their teammates. They are the only “guesser” among “askers”.

As the current trend for remote work in our industry is unlikely to slow down anytime soon, our teams are becoming more and more culturally diverse. It makes our work environment a lot more exciting and challenging at the same time.

When we collaborate with people with communication styles different from our own, we should be aware of these differences. We “askers” need to be more mindful of what we might be missing when the “guessers” around us are trying to tell us something, and we need to pay attention to the “guessers” inclination to comply with every request we may throw at them.

Because there is a risk of implicit power asymmetries when we as “askers” work with “guessers”, I believe it’s up to us from asking cultures to make the first step and give space to those from guessing cultures. We will all be happier for it.

Epilogue permalink

After almost 15 years in Norway, I have finally learned to pad everything I ask for with disclaimers that make it very clear that it is okay to say no, but I am still struggling with the subtle hints and non-answers – often resounding nos – that go straight over my head.

The coffee or tea situation is so common in Norway that the national broadcaster even made a skit about it.