#102: No worries if not
A couple months ago I learned something from a random internet thread that I’ve recounted to several people since. Today I finally decided to write about it!
No worries if not
Last week I advised my sister to remove two exclamation points from a text message she was crafting. They made her seem happy that someone was flaking on her, I told her, and I thought it was okay if she seemed disappointed, which she was. This made her sweat. “But I don’t want him to think I’m upset,” she said. But you are, I replied. “But I don’t know if I have the right to be,” she said. “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough with him last week when we started the conversation.” We went on like this for a while, before compromising on one exclamation point and one period. We were laughing by then, because the entire exchange—ours, theirs—was overwrought and ridiculous. This is communication when you’re neurotic: icebergs of meaning lurking beneath quick turns of phrase or single exclamation points.
My sister is a dyed-in-the-wool non-confrontationist, but she also has high expectations. This makes her a model subject of the “no worries if not” meme—a running joke on Twitter that pokes fun at people who use the verbal tick in inappropriate situations and a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As in: “Any chance you could treat me with decency and respect? No worries if not!” Almost always the tweets are self-deprecating: Everyone’s making fun of themselves for being so accommodating, so socially anxious, so unable to ask for what they need. Last year, the viral phrase inspired a Daily Shouts column: “Hiya!” greeted a cartoon woman dangling from a ledge. “I’m currently holding on for dear life and surely moments away from a gruesome death, so I will need confirmation on this ASAP as my demise is imminent. No worries if not, though!”
“No worries if not” has lost its meaning to the point of signaling its opposite, which is why the joke is funny, or was once funny (sorry to explain it). If originally the expression was used to clarify the stakes of a question, now it’s used to manipulate them. “Any chance you can feed the cat while I’m out? No worries if not!” By pretending the stakes are lower than they are, we inoculate ourselves against the embarrassment of having needs, or appearing to care if we’re rejected. It’s a pressure valve, but a palliative one; after all, the stakes haven’t actually changed. I think this is a pretty good metaphor for what happens when we become socialized to the point of incoherence: everyone neurotic, everything symbolic. I’ve been referring to this casually as oversocialization. Unfortunately, I recently realized I picked that term up from the Unabomber Manifesto. I think it tracks though.
A few months ago, while reading an old MetaFiler thread on what it actually means to be “earnest,” which I was considering writing about, a user named Stacey name-checked something called “Ask/Guess culture” as if the reference were widely known. “I don't think earnestness generally actually maps onto good-old Ask/Guess culture in a direct way,” she wrote, “but to an extent with my specific friends, earnestness and ask-ness seem to have some overlap.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I Googled it. The results returned a spate of media coverage from 2010 (The Atlantic, The Guardian), all of which linked back to a different MetaFilter comment by a user named Andrea Donderi. It was in response to a question about how to get out of hosting an out-of-towner who’d asked to stay over, and her reply had briefly gone viral:
Reading it, I was surprised the terms “asker” and “guesser” weren’t more widely known or used today, seeing as social nomenclature has hit peak interest. But no one I mentioned Ask/Guess culture to had heard of it, and everyone was intrigued as I was. The dichotomy explained a lot. Namely, to us, that we were guessers (mostly), which was making communication more complicated than it needed to be. Wouldn’t it be nice, we agreed, to simply ask for what we wanted in a straightforward way, and accept the answer without expectation? The sales pitch for Guess culture is that it’s more conscientious and considerate, but isn’t it equally true that by padding everything with caveats and easy outs, we assume people aren’t capable of asking or answering a yes or no question, of handling or expressing the truth?
Still, it’s hard to unlearn that sort of thing. Etiquette embeds in your psyche until it resembles logic. To a guesser, it may seem necessarily and universally true that, say, asking to borrow a friend’s new car is putting them in an awkward position. But these ideas are defined by culture, by cohort. Per The Atlantic piece, “Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it's a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they're diehard Askers.” Americans aren’t a monolith either. A rich white woman from the Upper East Side will communicate her desires differently from a black working class guy from the Bronx, and they’re nearly neighbors. Neurodivergence is relevant here, too: People on the Autism spectrum, for example, are generally more direct, and in Guess cultures, are often deemed “anti-social” as a result. In different environments, they may not be.
The limits of Guess culture are perfectly illustrated by the “no worries if not” meme. Like “no pressure,” or “I’m fine either way,” the phrase is an indirect attempt to harness the freedom of Ask culture. We want to ask questions without knowing the answers, like askers, only without the incumbent risk. This loophole works fine enough until the question isn’t actually low-stakes—try to avert risk then and you just sound ridiculous, stumbling through so many qualifiers your needs are doubly obscured, sometimes even to yourself. When directness is scandalized to this extent—when “no worries if not” means, literally, “worries if not”—communication becomes opaque and lawless, like a foreign language composed entirely of irregular verbs.
As a guesser actively trying to learn to be an asker, or somewhere in-between, I’ve been surprised by how many social interactions I’ve observed that seem to hinge on the Ask/Guess framework, whether they concern a favor or not. To return to the texts, my sister was irritated with her friend, but she didn’t want him to know just in case he had a valid case against her irritation, which might irritate him, which could make her feel bad or cause conflict. The prize for her guesswork was keeping the peace. The cost was mutual understanding. The process was debating over an exclamation point, repressing everything else. I recognized what she was doing because I’ve done it myself. (I wrote about this a little bit in #95: Are you a baby? A litmus test.)
I still think there’s merit to Guess culture. My sister’s affinity for it is part of why I see her as an incredibly thoughtful person. Some conflicts actually are worth avoiding, and some feelings are worth tending to. But I think it’s also useful to understand how guessing can be a buffer against vulnerability, infringing on human connection and understanding, infantilizing us. As self-awareness and social performance become supercharged by mass media, the risk of keeping the peace this way is that we become detached from our own fates. It’s easy to rebrand these complicated social dances as consideration or even politeness, but probably more honest to recognize how often they concern the self: perception, protection.
It makes sense to me that “no worries if not” is largely a millennial refrain. It’s a cowed expression. In many ways, we’ve been cowed by orthodoxy, by decorum, by the way things have always been done, even if they don’t actually work for anyone anymore. This is the darker comedy of the meme, and possibly the optimism of it.
My favorite article I read last week was “‘Severance,’ ‘Severance,’ and the Dissociative Demands of Office Labor,” by Rebecca Ackerman for Electric Literature, about the common thread between the book Severance by Ling Ma, the show Severance on Apple TV+, and the dystopian state of modern work (warning lots of spoilers). Last week’s 15 things also included my new favorite swimsuit, some photos from my time away, and the discovery of my favorite movie villain. The rec of the week was water bottles, and now I have a big decision to make…
Also last week: I held a discussion thread about relationship doubts and got so many smart and thoughtful comments. If you’re interested in that topic, I recommend reading through them. (My Tuesday threads/podcasts are paid-only, but I will unlock a selection soon. Feels wrong to gatekeep doubt discourse!!)
Hope you have a nice Sunday,