It’s a little understood, but surprisingly common condition that afflicts women from all walks of life. The main symptom of Asker’s Syndrome is that you’re incapable of asking for what you want.
I was alerted to Asker’s Syndrome during a recent visit from my mother and mother-in-law. Both of them are incapable of articulating something as simple as what they would like for dinner.
For example, asking my mum which frozen meal she would like goes something like this:
Me: Which dinner do you want?
Her: You choose.
Me: No. You choose, you’re the one who’s going to eat it.
Her: Whichever one you don’t want.
Her: Just open the fridge and the first one you pull out will do.
Similarly, when I asked my mother-in-law to select which meals she’d like me to order from the home-delivery menu she only chose the ones her husband would like. I asked her what she would like and she said, ‘I’ll just have whichever one is left over’.
This goes way beyond politeness. After pushing both of them at length to state a preference — and failing — it would seem that they are actually incapable of voicing what they want.
And it’s not just older women who have a ‘this is good enough for me,’ mentality. A friend who works in marketing told me about a focus group she ran with thirty-something women. The express purpose of the group was to find out these women’s preferences.
But they were only able to articulate their preferences through their children or partner. Rather than saying what they liked, they would answer ‘My son would like this,’ or ‘My husband would enjoy that.’
And Asker’s Syndrome can strike young. At five years old my daughter Violet is showing the early stages of Asker’s Syndrome. She’s learned that women don’t ask, but rather drop hints.
She’ll say, ‘Mummy I saw yoghurt in the fridge,’ rather than, ‘Can I have a yoghurt please?’ or ‘Remember last Sunday afternoon we went to the park?’ rather than ‘Can we go to the park?’
These examples are mostly about food and so could be explained away as one more example of women and girls’ problematic relationship with appetite and food. But, it’s not just meal times when we content ourselves with the scraps or defer to somebody else to choose for us.
It’s widely documented that women are less likely than men to ask for pay rises and promotions. Instead they beaver away without fuss, hoping that somebody else will decide they are worthy and bestow one upon them.
No doubt, many women develop Asker’s Syndrome as a defensive measure because they’ve been labeled as pushy or rude for simply asking for what they want. But in the long term, stunting our ability to express our desires doesn’t serve us well.
I have married friends who leave product catalogues around the house when it’s their birthday and are inevitably disappointed when their hints fly under their husband’s radar. And I have single friends who won’t ask a man out on a date because they fear being considered ‘too forward’. Whatever than means in 2014.
Even men’s magazines are aware that women are reluctant to articulate their preferences and desires, giving sex advice such as ‘follow the moans.’ Why don’t you just ask her? Probably because she wouldn’t feel entitled to express want she wants through actual words.
If Colleen Hoover’s breakout YA novel Hopeless is anything to go by, the younger generation of women will be expressing their sexual desires in moans and hints as well. When protagonist Sky spends half a day agonising over when a boy will kiss her, I want to reach through the pages and scream, ‘Just ask him!’.
I was raised with the mantra of ‘All good things come to those who wait.’ Thirty-eight years on, I know that at best that advice is insanely optimistic, and at worst, a symptom of chronic low self-esteem.
It’s time to cure ourselves and our girls of Asker’s Syndrome. I don’t want to raise a future ‘burnt chop mother’ who denies her appetite for food, sex, power and success and anything else. I want my daughter’s mantra to be ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get’ so I now insist that she asks for what she wants directly.
For women in our culture, asking is a skill that we need to learn and practice. And if we all do it, then women asking will become the norm rather than the exception.