Sometimes I leave a comment like "Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant," but am accused of being rude. How can I craft a comment that is seen as civil to the community and instructive to the OP?

  • What tone should I strike in comments?
  • What are some examples of bad comments and their better replacements?
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Related, I posted this up on Arqade:… –  Ben Brocka Jul 11 '12 at 19:57
But SO/SE is a research assistant. –  martin f Apr 7 at 4:31
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7 Answers

What tone should I strike in comments?

Comments should always be civil and informative. Take the time and effort to make them so, or refrain from commenting and let the closing system and the FAQ do the work for you.

When writing a comment, be sure to explain why a user should do something. Saying "make your question more specific", for example, does not explain why someone should do that. If a quick explanation was added to that comment, people would understand why you said what you said, and they will understand more about stack exchange and be less likely to do that again.

Remember that everyone who reaches the page can read your comment, not just the person you are addressing. The only thing more discouraging than reaching the site via Google and not finding an answer to your question is seeing curt, brusque, or uncivil chatter in the comments.

Examples of good and bad comments


  • Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant. <-- because it is snarky.

  • Improve your accept rate. <-- Because it doesn't explain anything.


  • What output did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?

  • Could you add more details about X?

  • Do you have a link, citation, or reference for the claim you are making in this post?

  • Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs.

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So you can't say thanks in comments, either, now? –  Daniel δ Jun 29 '12 at 17:59
I didn't say that you can't. Anyway, that's always been the case. –  Robert Harvey Jun 29 '12 at 17:59
@daniel Etiquette. Not rules. –  Manishearth Jun 29 '12 at 18:03
"Don't engage in off-topic conversation, or get involved in lengthy discussions with other community members. That's what Chat is for." In that case, can I donate some rep to a deserving new person to make it easy to chat? –  Remou Jun 29 '12 at 18:22
@Remou: That's a separate problem, and one which I believe has at least one feature request posted here. I personally think that, if you have a certain amount of rep, you should be able to invite anyone to chat, regardless of their rep. –  Robert Harvey Jun 29 '12 at 18:24
-1: IMO "Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant" is not, in any way, a bad comment. It gets the point across, and if it links to elaborative text, it helps users we want to retain learn how to participate. It's not all warm-fuzzy like the alternative you've suggested, but not-warm-fuzzy != rude. Banning terse comments would only serve to make SO an overly-sensitive wasteland of political correctness. –  John Dibling Jun 29 '12 at 18:28
@RobertHarvey: Then I'll state it plainly. The powers that be are wrong. All this will do is create a site where the worst, most trite questions are the ones that are asked and answered. The experts who spend many hours a day trying to help this site grow, people like me, will be driven away by the lack of quality signal and their inability to make a direct impact on the signal quality. This will diminish SO's ability to answer the hardest, most interesting questions, and ultimately make it less relevant in the world. –  John Dibling Jun 29 '12 at 18:40
@John: "SO is not your personal research assistant" isn't just bad - it's a straight-up lie. SO has been my research assistant for approaching four years, and I rarely even ask questions. Oh, I know, the emphasis is on "personal" and the linked answer explained it all in great detail... But seriously, WTF? If you're posting a comment to effectively say, "Show your research" then cut the crap and write "show your research". It's shorter, to the point, and doesn't play games with links that let you argue you weren't being intentionally obtuse because someone else explained it. –  Shog9 Jun 29 '12 at 18:54
No, @Shog9. You're way off base here. You assume that I make these 1-line link comments in an attempt to be passive-aggressive, and lay the blame for the bad message on someone else who wrote those words. I don't. First off, they aren't someone else's words -- I helped edit that post, and one of the answers in WSOiN that I most frequently linked to was mine. Second, I made the conscious decision to contribute to this site under my own name, not some handle. I take full responsibility for every word I write, and I know that sometimes people don't like what I say. (Like now, for ex.) –  John Dibling Jun 29 '12 at 19:10
SO has been my research assistant for approaching 4 years, too. And I, like you, rarely ask questions. But there is a big difference between searching on SO for an answer and posting a question asking SO to do the work for them. In the latter case, when someone posts a question that boils down to "plz to send teh codez" that asker needs to be educated how to use the site. If they don't want to use the site that way, they should be encouraged to leave. –  John Dibling Jun 29 '12 at 19:12
Not to put too fine a point on it, but users should leave because they are unwilling to reform, not because SO is a hostile place. –  Robert Harvey Jun 29 '12 at 19:17
@Shog9: I thought that one was tag-specific. –  Robert Harvey Jun 29 '12 at 19:42
@Robert: no, although tag-specific stuff is welcome. And btw - thanks again for your patience with this. You're doing a lot to try and solve some really sticky problems, and I appreciate it. –  Shog9 Jun 29 '12 at 19:43
Why is there an assumption that Chat is an alternative? I hate it and won't use it. This is partly explained by the fact that I'm mostly active in less-common tags. The only way to have a sustained chat in some of those tags would be to disrupt other chat communities to try to draw their members in, but that's likely to just make people angry. I don't want to do that; many of them are my friends. –  Donal Fellows Jun 30 '12 at 0:50
@Grunch There's a difference between Politically Correct (PCBS), and courtesy. "SO is not your personal research assistant. [Link]" is a little harsh and obtuse. It's easy enough to say, "Please clarify question, there's not enough initial research. [Link]". –  Lee Louviere Jul 24 '12 at 16:13
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Anything you can say in comments can be phrased in a friendly way, an unfriendly way, and a neutral way.

Neutral, short responses can sometimes come across as unfriendly. That's because on the Internet, nobody can see your facial expressions.

In fact, no matter what you write, it's going to be interpreted by different people at different points on the friendly/unfriendly spectrum. You're not likely to score 100% on the friendly-meter no matter what you say, but we can try to improve where we land on the spectrum.

Taking the common case of someone who hasn't provided enough information...

Question: "I'm trying to xxx and it's not working."

  1. Fairly unfriendly comment: "Look, we're not mind readers here. What do you mean it's not working?"

  2. Relatively neutral comment: "What did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?"

  3. Fairly friendly comment: "Sorry to hear that... I hope we can help you! But we need a bit more information. What did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?"

These are all just different wordings of the same question, meant to evoke the same response, although (1) and (3) carry with them additional emotional content. Think of it as a CSS page that adds friendliness or unfriendliness without changing the semantic content on the HTML page...

Some things to note about this situation.

  • Friendliness almost always takes more words. If that bothers you, maybe you would be happier moving on to another question and letting someone else answer this one right now. There's nothing wrong with that.

  • You may argue that certain new users need to be educated on the proper way to ask, and if they refuse to be educated, we don't want or need them around -- the site has plenty of questions without them! But this misses two important points.

    • First, the friendly comment (#3) is far more likely to help educate someone the proper way to ask. You get more flies with honey, sugar. That's just the way of the human species.

    • Second, the snarky comment (#1) is seen by dozens or hundreds of people who did not ask a question the wrong way. All those "innocent bystanders" are going to think that Stack Overflow is an unfriendly community and could be reluctant to contribute in the future.

An important thing to remember is that asking incomplete questions is actually the way human beings normally operate in real life.


"Hey Joe, something's wrong here..."

"What is it?"

"Well, this function I'm calling isn't working..."

"Looks OK to me. What were you expecting?"

That is a normal, In Real Life(TM) human conversation.


"Hey Joe, I'm calling this function, and I expected a 27.5, but I got 29.5. Now according to Google..."

"Whoa horsey... slow down!"

The fact is that people are bringing their HUMAN style of asking questions to Stack Overflow, where we expect a non-human, "all the info up front" style, and this is why they get in trouble. And all that means is that they're just acting like human beings--there's no reason to torture them for it. This is exactly why we have comments... so you can ask follow-up questions and drill down to a good repro case.

Usually friendliness can be added to anything by adding a few friendly words.

"Welcome to Stack Overflow! ..."

"Thanks for asking! ..."

"I hope that was helpful! ..."

"I'm glad you asked! ..."

"Could you do me a favor? ..."

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What is this In Real Life™ thing you speak of? Sounds deep. –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Jun 30 '12 at 0:12
I think it is useful to recall that these are global sites, serving users from many different cultures. What's "friendly" or "respectful" to one may be seen negatively by another. My reaction to your #3 would be to wonder what you're selling, and to make sure my wallet was still in my pocket. –  John Saunders Jun 30 '12 at 0:17
Hmm I think you may be exaggerating a tiny bit! I'm pretty sure friendliness translates pretty well from culture to culture. But I do agree that not everyone in the world will respond in the same way to a given message. You start at a certain point on the "friendliness spectrum," and people misunderstand you 10 degrees to the left and 10 degrees to the right, but the more friendly you start out, the happier people are. –  Joel Spolsky Jun 30 '12 at 0:23
@John - I always try and phrase my comments to be polite to Americans and hugely offensive to the British. They got so close with Cromwell, but nooooo.... (Try as I might I suspect that's only offensive to British stereotypes). –  Kevin Montrose Jun 30 '12 at 3:35
Civility is always required, but big cities are less overtly friendly than small towns for a reason. There are certain realities about the scale of the population and amounts of time available. Don't be rude, but get to the point quickly so we can service as many people as possible. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '12 at 18:54
@Kevin that's more likely to be offensive to the Irish, of whom Cromwell murdered tens of thousands... (I'm British). You'll have to try again ;). –  ben is uǝq backwards Jul 20 '12 at 21:30
-1 Ok, you're asking too much. If people expect customer service friendliness, they need to find another site. Customer service friendliness is there to offset any damage done by a product malfunctioning. We're not responsible for whatever problem they're having and shouldn't express guilt. That's being politically correct. Tone Neutral is good enough. –  Lee Louviere Jul 24 '12 at 16:15
Also, being friendly is more 'positive'. People get defensive when addressed in a less friendly or 'negative' way. That will either shut the conversation down, or start a war... –  GUI Junkie Jul 24 '12 at 17:39
(my own 'cognitive trap' question comes to mind, but it has already 15 downvotes, so I'd better not mention it) –  GUI Junkie Jul 24 '12 at 17:45
So why is verbiage like "Sorry to hear that... I hope we can help you! But we need a bit more information." a good idea in a comment, but noise in a question or answer body? I say it's noise everywhere. Not to mention that it takes up a good chunk of the limited characters that could be used for, I don't know, asking for specific clarifications. –  Josh Caswell Jul 28 '12 at 17:48
Apparently you can be too friendly: tried to help a new user by being friendly, got called out as being over-the-top polite and exceedingly condescending. –  user149432 Aug 3 '12 at 1:53
@MarkTrapp interesting; internet users have grown so accustomed to snark and irony that genuinely nice posts are assumed to be "condescending." I think that user was a little bit oversensitive but the whole tone of that exchange was far nicer than average when it could have easily descended into the usual flamewar –  Joel Spolsky Aug 3 '12 at 14:36
"Sorry to hear that... I hope we can help you" really sounds a bit over the top, even when genuine. The problem would already be solved if everyone were only half as friendly. :) –  Pëkka Aug 15 '12 at 21:08
The only comment here I'd find rude or irritating is the 'fairly friendly' one; the over-the-top niceness would make me think that the commenter was either afraid I would react angrily to anything less servile, or that he was making a point of being kind and gentle because he thought I was a lackwit. The other two seem roughly equally polite to me, although the neutral one contains more detailed advice and so is potentially more useful, and I can see how the 'fairly unfriendly' one - now that I've been told that it's unfriendly - could be read as having a snappy, irritated tone. –  Mark Amery Feb 3 at 22:13
I suppose, on more thought, that I feel like the 'fairly friendly' version lacks some quality I might call professional respect, which (I feel) is conveyed well by blunt, succinct, functional communication yet conveyed poorly by servility. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to gauge whether my perceptions of the relative appropriateness of the tones here matches that which is typical, or is way out of whack from it. –  Mark Amery Feb 3 at 22:17
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The other two answers are quite good, so this is more of a clarification than a complete answer.

Considering the example:

Question: "I'm trying to xxx and it's not working."

unfriendly: "Look, we're not mind readers here. What do you mean it's not working?"

neutral: "What did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?"

friendly: "Sorry to hear that... I hope we can help you! But we need a bit more information. What did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?"

I think one thing that's being missed here is the sheer scale of Stack Overflow. Civility is always required when commenting, but big cities are less overtly friendly than small towns because there are certain realities about the scale of the population and amounts of time available. Would you rather write one baroque, florid ultra-friendly comment to a single user, or three civil-but-direct comments to three different users? Which choice best achieves the goals of Stack Exchange?

I can't recommend frequently adding a bunch of noisy, unnecessary, non-content "friendly" words to a comment, words that everyone on the Internet has to read through and parse before getting to the actual information in the comment. This isn't what Stack Exchange is about.*

Therefore, favor the short neutral comment response. Never be rude, but get to the point quickly and efficiently so we can help as many people as possible get answers to their questions. That's what we are here to do.

* Now, if we could pare it down to one additional word instead of the seventeen in the above example, perhaps that'd work.

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Something else here... The unfriendly response also takes more effort than the neutral response. And all three take more effort than saying nothing, which should be the default when, y'know, you've nothing to say. –  Shog9 Jul 11 '12 at 19:41
Although, if you really wanted the 200-word florid ultra-friendly comment, having the "default comment selection dialog" would do wonders as guidance. We keep circling back to that... –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '12 at 19:46
@JeffAtwood I don't see how a blatantly generic "friendly" message is actually more friendly than a to the point personalized message. especially not the second time you see the same message...or the 50th –  Ben Brocka Jul 11 '12 at 20:06
@ben well, aren't all "friendly" words kind of generic anyway? When people say, "Hi, how are you doing" do they actually want to know? –  Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '12 at 20:28
I disagree with Jeff. Non-content friendly words are social lubricant, in real life and online. The idea that they are just an annoying waste of time is an almost autistic perspective. –  Joel Spolsky Jul 20 '12 at 15:24
@joel well, this is like arguing that a computer desktop should mirror a real world desktop with papers and folders, because that's what you're familiar with. We're trying to improve on the physical world, not recreate its every tic and quirk. That said, if you can come up with a way of being friendly that doesn't add seventeen words to comments -- which are themselves limited to 600 characters for a reason -- then it's certainly more tolerable. We do fun size units of work here, remember? Typing seventeen extra words every time you address another user is not fun. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 20 '12 at 17:40
@joel how about "Welcome back! What did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?" –  Jeff Atwood Jul 20 '12 at 18:35
You don't have to be long and wordy to be nice too. A simple "Hi @JeffAtwood, what did you expect to see, and what did you see instead?" at the beginning of your comment goes a long way towards making a brief concise comment sound much friendlier –  Rachel Jul 20 '12 at 20:33
What Jeff says is true for StackOverflow - but on smaller SE sites with <20 questions a day, being curt and brusque like this is a bit like a city boy impatiently barging past the only other person on a quiet country street. It's ruder than intended and can be comically inappropriate. I sometimes see SO veterans dishing out "Don't waste my time!" type attitude and snark on a SE site that only gets ~5 questions a day... I'm like, seriously guys? That's the only question asked in the last 5 hours, how can you act like it's straining your patience? –  user568458 Jul 21 '12 at 10:40
If we're talking standard messages, why not save user's time and make this a feature request? Most common comments map to an existing close reason. How about site-specific configurable, friendly, clear standard comments with links to FAQ, Q&As where Q is on-topic, etc plus a "How could this be improved?" field for question-specific details. e.g. instead of "Not your personal research assistant", a friendly standard explanation of "too localised", instead of "...what did you see?", a friendly "not clear" explanation with "what did you see and...expect?" in the q-specific "How improve?" field) –  user568458 Jul 21 '12 at 11:03
@user568458 sure, I agree -- on smaller Stack Exchange sites there is much more time for individual hand holding, and it is appropriate. What's amusing to me is that whenever Joel brings this up he is invariably talking about Stack Overflow which gets almost 6k questions per day now, and is the least appropriate site for this kind of "go for baroque and florid in your comments at all times" advice. (fun experiment: count the number of SE sites that SO would be larger than in a single day, based on incoming Q count alone.) –  Jeff Atwood Jul 21 '12 at 18:17
@JeffAtwood Standard messages would be like the "your call is important to us" recording while on hold. Which is why excellent customer service operations hire more reps instead of providing a better recording. We don't want to provide tools for people to pretend to be civil. We want people to actually be civil. –  JohnMcG Jul 30 '12 at 20:41
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Another way to make a comment more friendly is, when possible, to cast it as a question rather than a statement. Consider the difference between:

  • (Answer) doesn't work because of X.


  • When you do that, how do you account for the problem of X?

It could well be that X isn't a problem -- your assumption is wrong. If you assert it you look bad; if you raise the question the poster isn't put on the defensive, and if it's a problem he can fix it (and thank you for the help).

I used to leave comments like the following that I thought were friendly and helpful:

  • This question/answer could be improved by adding (details/a source).

I realized that comments like the following got better results and also that I preferred them when on the receiving end:

  • Could you add more details about X?

  • Do you have a source?

This approach doesn't always work (e.g. for site policy). It's also most important for the initial comment, before you and the other person are engaged in a dialogue.

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Would questions work when you are just clarifying site policy? –  Robert Harvey Jul 20 '12 at 18:05
@RobertHarvey I think the idea is that this is one thing in your "bag of tricks" for making an potentially unsavory comment be well accepted. It isn't always appropriate, but it's still useful often enough. –  Servy Jul 20 '12 at 18:11
@RobertHarvey, this doesn't always work (I did say "when possible" but maybe I should have been more explicit?). It's meant to be one tool in the toolbox, as Servy said. –  Monica Cellio Jul 20 '12 at 18:14
Ha. Very funny, moderator who just edited my comment to change it to a question. –  Robert Harvey Jul 20 '12 at 18:16
Oh, I thought you did that! (I saw it change while I was typing mine.) –  Monica Cellio Jul 20 '12 at 18:17
This is a great suggestion, particularly for "read the documentation" comments I'm constantly seeing. Instead of commenting "read the documentation", use "did you read the documentation?". The first sounds like you just want to get rid of the user. The second sounds like you're actually interested in hearing back from them and helping out (even if you aren't) ;). This can be made to sound even friendly by adding "Hi @username" to the front of it. "Hi @username, did you read the documentation?" –  Rachel Jul 23 '12 at 13:52
@Rachel, a form of that that I sometimes use on EL&U (when someone is asking about what a word means or the difference between two words) is "What in the definition was confusing?" -- the presumption being that the person tried a dictionary first but it didn't help, even if that might not be true. –  Monica Cellio Jul 23 '12 at 14:07
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Assume that the person you are replying to is not intentionally clueless/lazy.

Answer them the way you'd want someone to answer you if you accidentally posted something that sounded clueless/lazy (even though you know you're not like that IRL).

Assume the best of them, not the worst.

Civillity = respect + benefit of doubt

So you don't have to get florid, just refrain from answering as though the OP is annoying you on purpose.

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Sometimes I leave a comment like "Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant," but am accused of being rude.

In these boiler-plate types of comment situations a better solution would be for a flag system to be introduced. If a question has issues it could be flagged by the community according to some half dozen options (based on common issues like "not enough info", "show some code", "SO helps those who help themselves" etc. All politely presented). If someone still wished to enter a comment, perhaps asking for specific details or content, they could.

These flags would be visible to anyone who visits the question and would also trigger a notification to the OP with a link to an appropriate FAQ/What To Do Now explanation (one without "Question Closed - You Suck" type verbiage). If the OP improves the question then the flag(s) would be removed. Perhaps a notification is sent to who ever flagged the question so they can unflag it.

Such a system would lessen the use and need for down-votes which, as a form of user feedback, are a rather blunt and opaque metric (as are up-votes but that's another topic). It would facilitate providing concise, standardized feedback for problem questions without inadvertent snark being introduced due to question burnout or comment "shorthand." Also displaying these flags to the community would indicate more clearly than down-votes the community standards concerning questions.

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What tone should I strike in comments?

The tone should be the similar to the tone you would strike toward a relatively new co-worker who stopped by your desk with a similar question. You shouldn't assume "tribal knowledge" about how SO works, or what type of questions we like to see here. The goal should be to help the questioner improve this and future questions. Your comments should be ordered toward getting the information necessary to help the questioner solve his/her problem.

What are some examples of bad comments and their better replacements?

In my mind, this is the wrong question. For many "bad comments," it would most likely be better to not comment at all, and simply use the voting and moderation tools.

Ultimately, the answer isn't some sort of awk or perl script that will turn a rude comment into a constructive comment, but to change our attitudes from dealing with questions as efficiently as possible to dealing with human beings with questions.

The only thing more frustrating than a rude comment is a "polite" comment given through gritted teeth, or belied by every other aspect of the person's behavior. A 30 minute hold time is not soothed by the recorded reminder that "your call is very important to us" every 20 seconds.

The challenge isn't about how to fake civility, it's to actually be civil. To consider the questioner or answerer to be an actual human person with an actual problem rather than one more thing we have to deal with today.

If this is too high a bar for you to clear in responding, then maybe it's best for you to take this pitch and leave it for somebody else.

Having said that, there is some validity to "fake it until you make it." That by going through the motions of active listening, civil phrasing, etc., that we can become more genuinely compassionate to others, and the other answers offer some tools to help us do that. It's just important to remember that moving to more civil wording is a step in the journey, not the destination.

It's also the case that human relationships include snark and flashes of anger, and this includes SO. But hopefully, this is not the exception rather than the rule.

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This "answer" appears not to address the question itself, but the other answers instead. –  Robert Harvey Jul 30 '12 at 20:55
@RobertHarvey The answer is a change of attitude, or heart, to actually see the questioners as people and potential valuable members of the community, not content to be processed. –  JohnMcG Jul 30 '12 at 21:02
So in other words, you consider the question invalid. Note that it does have the [faq-proposed] tag on it. –  Robert Harvey Jul 30 '12 at 21:03
Anyway, I'll address the specific answer you've posted: when a new user to the site flagrantly disrespects the site by wantonly disregarding or ignoring the rules (cf., sometimes the best you can reasonably expect from the community is to refrain from responding with comments, and cast close votes, downvotes and moderator flags instead. –  Robert Harvey Jul 30 '12 at 21:09
@RobertHarvey I'll edit to more explicitly address the bulleted questions, though it probably still won't be an ideal fit for the FAQ answer. –  JohnMcG Jul 30 '12 at 21:15
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