Tag Archives: the ask

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

What Do Women Want? What They’re Asking For

Sasha Galbraith has a piece on Forbes today about Megan Brown, who launched a company called HatchedIt — a social calendar app, for planning, managing and coordinating events with friends and family. Much of it reads like a press release, a fluff piece about an entrepreneurial Mommy blogger, ripe for the kind of satire that Paul Rudnick dished out in The New Yorker last week. (But not, I should note, before Ruth Fowler beat him to the punch.)

What caught my eye was the title (“Lesson From a Woman of Wall Street: Ask For What You Want”), which promised to say something about asking; and what redeemed the article and kept it from being all fluff was Brown’s account of her rise through the male-dominated ranks of finance and her mockery of the “empty suits” with whom she used to work: “they all use a bevy of analogies like, ‘We all need to be rowing in the same direction’ and ‘picking the low-hanging fruit.’ You can’t understand anything they’re saying, but all the other men think they sound brilliant.” So here, I thought, is a woman schooled in the workings of power and language in the world of business.

For Brown, asking is something men expect; but it’s not something women do:

I also think there is a different way to manage men than you manage women… Men respond differently. I have to remind myself when dealing with a man, you need to be direct; you need to ask for what you need upfront; and you need to not be embarrassed or apologize. It’s a skill set that took me a long time to really understand in finance and I had to learn quickly to ramp up my career. But if not for those experiences, I don’t think I would understand that now, especially as we are looking for funding and partnerships, you really need to ask for what you want. And for a lot of women [in any industry or situation], that’s challenging.”

The trouble with this advice is that it rehearses stereotypes Brown probably learned from hanging around those empty suits. As research from the organization Catalyst shows, “it’s simply untrue” that women don’t ask.

For example, by looking at the career paths of over 4000 MBA grads from around the world, Catalyst found that women were more likely than men to ask for a variety of skill-building experiences and to proactively seek training opportunities. And we also found that women and men negotiated for a higher level position or greater compensation during the hiring process for their current job at equal rates.

Women do ask –but get little in return. Equally skilled men advance farther and more quickly than their female peers. In fact, we found that the $4600 pay gap that starts from day one grew to more than $31,000 several years down the track—even when women asked.

The Catalyst study concedes that “women who toot their own horn do get ahead –and are happier at work too,” but tooting your own horn is not really the same as asking. The issue is that when women ask, their requests are not being met. In a Washington Post article, Catalyst researchers Nancy Carter and Christine Silva point out that “people routinely take a tougher stance against women in negotiations than they do against men” and that talent management systems can be biased against women.

If entrenched sexism in the business environment affects everything from how women are received when they ask, to what they think they can ask for, as well as ideas of what power looks like, how it’s created and how it’s shared, then it might conceivably prevent some women from asking for what they want, or make it seem “challenging” to do so, as Megan Brown says. But I’m afraid that merely advising women “to ask for what you need upfront” is a bit like telling them they just have to lean in.

Maddening Jargon, Jargon Madness: Another Note on “The Ask”

I recently had a brief exchange with Deborah Mills-Scofield about a blog post she’d written on HBR.org entitled “The Power of Your Network Is the Ask.” I didn’t take issue with her argument in that post. I focused, instead, on her use of the phrase “the ask,” an insidious piece of corporate jargon I’ve written about before.

Mills-Scofield was gracious and good-humored about the whole thing. Our exchange on HBR.org and on Twitter sent me back to some of the ideas I’d entertained in my original post – about asking, taking initiative and action – and I decided it would be a good idea to find some more examples of business people using “the ask.” I thought some new attestations might help me think a little more about this locution: What does it express? What does it keep from being expressed? How does it change the request? The relationship? The results?

Forbes.com seemed like a good place to start looking for examples. I expected to find CEOs and managers quoted by the magazine’s writers, and my plan, such as it was, was to start skewering and lambasting and mocking them and calling them barbarians – or something along those lines, I wasn’t exactly sure. Instead, I found something puzzling: Forbes writers themselves were pushing the word.

For instance, a contributing writer offers this advice on seeking a promotion: “The most important part of asking for a promotion is preparing ahead of time. When you make the ask, you’ll need to prove (with specifics) that you’re ready for the next step” [italics mine].

Seeing the word used in this way, I wonder if this nominative use of “ask” has roots in Wall Street jargon, which sometimes designates the lowest price of a stock offer as “the ask price,” and if the person asking for the promotion here would be surprised to discover that she had represented herself in these dehumanizing terms. In any case, it appears that the editors at Forbes are not too worried about these ugly metaphors, and not very scrupulous when it comes to what’s a noun and what’s a verb.

Examples abound. Here’s Meghan Casserly, a Forbes staff writer, in an article that promises to disclose “The Five Secrets of Successful Silicon Valley Women.” Watch what happens to the verb “ask” in the space of two short paragraphs (emphasis mine):

“We know too surely that women ask for too little money when seeking funding for their businesses,” says [Deborah] Perry Piscione, but she’s seen the women of Silicon Valley start to self-correct when they approach the investors of Sand Hill Road. “The strategy is asking for twice as much as you believe you’ll need.”
But it isn’t just in fundraising that Perry Piscione says Silicon Valley women excel in the “ask.” Several years ago friend and venture capitalist Heidi Roizen mentioned she was having trouble adding another corporate board seat to her resume. “I sort of shyly asked her if she’d be okay admitting this to the women at an Alley to the Valley event,” she says, thinking Roizen might be embarrassed to share that she was struggling. Roizen’s response was the opposite. “She said ‘Of course I want to talk about it!’”

Maybe one of the things that makes “serial entrepreneur” Deborah Perry Piscione so successful is that she uses verbs as verbs. Hard to say, but it’s clear who’s doing the reifying here: it’s Casserly, not Perry Piscione. I suppose it counts for something that Casserly puts “the ask” in quotation marks: she’s quoting, or thinks she’s quoting, the lingua franca of the Valley. Maybe so, or maybe the only people who talk that way in the Valley are those who see human interactions as mere transactions.

That’s really the point. It’s worse than annoying: this kind of jargon grates on the ear because it offends the soul. Words matter – in magazine articles, in negotiations, in every day relationships; people are not indifferent to the words you use. “Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee,” wrote Ben Jonson. And “the ask,” as I suggested in my first post on the topic, shows among other things that you don’t have much interest in asking, or in the true power of asking, at all.

Sure, we slip and we are lazy, or we try to talk like we belong to the club, but it’s important to to catch ourselves. To their credit, the editors of Forbes themselves nominated “the ask” for the magazine’s Jargon Madness 2013, a bracket elimination of “head-splitting corporate speak”. “Ask (n.)” was eliminated in the first round, losing out to “Rock Star.” I guess some things are more annoying and more offensive than others.