I've had two suggested edits rejected by the author, which attempted to make an answer more accessible by amending its condescending opening paragraph.

The use of words such as "simply", "just", "easy", "ridiculously easy" or, in this case, "amazingly easy" can serve to make the reader embarrassed that they find it more difficult, and annoyed at the inference of superiority, even if that is not the intention of the answerer. This can limit the usefulness and accessibility of an answer because the reader has to first overcome their irritation and possible shame.

Stack Overflow (and other SE sites) wouldn't be needed if folks thought the solution to their problem was "amazingly easy". It seems out of place to use language that suggests users are stupid. Is there a style guide which can be referenced to avoid this unfortunate effect?

  • 6
    Isn't that covered by the be nice policy already? Though I'd not consider a term like "amazingly easy" really as offensive or belitteling. – user0042 Dec 16 '17 at 10:41
  • 6
    If I had the ability to review edits, I would likely have rejected that edit as making no improvement. – Sonic the Masked Werehog Dec 16 '17 at 10:49
  • @user0042 people play very fast & loose with the whole "be nice" concept. I don't think a little clarification would be remiss. – user343082 Mar 20 '18 at 21:03

What you tried to edit is not condescending to the reader.

The first post, about Git, is encouraging. It says "once you know how", and then goes on to explain how. It promises the reader that she has the ability to accomplish this feat despite the fact that it's "scary". This is the verbiage of someone who wants the person being instructed to succeed and is literally telling her that the thing she wants to do is not as hard as it first appears.

A condescending version would be

Undoing a commit wouldn't be scary if you had any idea what you're doing. It's so easy that it's amazing you don't know how it works.

This is attacking the reader; it is castigating her for her lack of knowledge. The original version recognizes the lack as a natural state that can easily be remedied and then helps to remedy it.

Your second edit is even further out of line. The subject of the sentence "Python makes this ridiculously easy." is not the reader. It's the language. There's nothing to fix here; no person is being talked down to.

Would you really take offense if you were told "Here, use my hammer, it'll make that ridiculously easy" when you asked how to pound a nail? That's exactly what you asked for!

| improve this answer | |
  • 10
    Thanks for your answer. A careful, literal reading supports your argument. But we are considering tone, and context, here. Imagine the scenario: you've been battling for a while with Git, you've gone way off piste and you're afraid you've really screwed up. By the time you ask your question, you've been thinking about this question for a few hours, you're worried, tired and and feeling out of your depth. And then someone tells you it's easy? You're assuming that one explanation of git will bring immediate enlightenment. Come on: it's Git. It won't. – snowangel Dec 16 '17 at 15:45
  • 4
    If I'm frustrated or scared of something, then yes, I would love it for someone to tell me it's easy and then explain why. There's no other way to say it: this is constructive encouragement. I'm afraid of heights and about to do a zipline. Which is better? "It's scary, but it's amazingly easy after you do it once", or (your edit) "It's scary, just jump." I want the person who says the first. – jscs Dec 16 '17 at 15:53
  • 3
    Hm, it's so interesting that we have such a different take on it. Thanks for the engagement, anyway. For you it's constructive encouragement. For me it's adding insult to injury: not only do I not get it, but I'm meant to find it easy. – snowangel Dec 16 '17 at 15:56
  • 9
    I can't deny, I am having a really hard time understanding why you're reading these posts that way. You're only meant to find it easy after the answer helps you to do so. (And if you don't, then perhaps the answer's just not a good explanation and you should comment, downvote, or ignore.) – jscs Dec 16 '17 at 16:04
  • 3
    Maybe the fact that you've got 20k rep aka a lot of programming experience inures you to how less practised people feel? – snowangel Dec 16 '17 at 17:31
  • 7
    I don't think this is about (programming) experience, @snowangel. There's tons of things I don't know (especially about Git! nobody understands Git) and I certainly don't enjoy being talked down to any more than anyone else. But when I wrote this, I took some time to mentally place myself in an analogous situation that wasn't programming (the zip line, I actually imagined that because I'm actually afraid of heights) and I simply could not find myself upset by these words. If you are, then I accept that, but, apologies, I do not understand it. – jscs Dec 16 '17 at 22:52
  • 5
    I read the original and found it condescending. It unnecessarily highlighted the questioner's lack of knowledge. I don't find it encouraging at all when people talk about how easy something is when I'm struggling with it. If it becomes easy, great. But what if it doesn't? Then I'll feel even worse because I was just told it would become easy. I would prefer we err on the side of empathy with and compassion for the reader by not making assumptions about what they will experience or feel. – Mark Lapierre Apr 21 '18 at 23:15
  • It is both empathetic and compassionate to encourage someone when explaining a difficult thing to them. – jscs Sep 1 '18 at 19:22
  • 2
    This debate is so interesting. I can see both why OP saw the statement as potentially condescending, and why @JoshCaswell doesn't. I think the risk is that it's a bit ambiguous, and opens the door to someone to interpret it as condescending--even if on a closer read, it doesn't end up being that way. I'd rather err on the side of making it less easy to accidentally interpret as condescending. I can see an intermediate edit here, something like "There's a simple/straightforward way! Blah blah etc." – Mark McKenna Feb 11 '19 at 16:45

I don’t see anything but upside in these edits. You haven’t changed the meanings of the answers. By bringing a different perspective, you’ve made them accessible to a larger audience, which likely means the authors would have benefited from more upvotes and rep. Most of all, it’s great feedback that the authors could use to learn to communicate more effectively.

If they won’t use it, I will. Thank you for the lesson in empathy. And please keep it up. We need more people with your skill set in this community.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate that, very much indeed. – snowangel Mar 18 '18 at 14:25
  • 2
    I want to add my thanks too, @snowangel. It's a good reminder to me to be more considerate when I sometimes let my frustrations affect how I treat others who are struggling. – Mark Lapierre Apr 21 '18 at 23:24
  • 1
    Having thought about this a lot, I think some of the problem is that we all fall into the trap of being so justifiably jubilant when we finally crack something difficult that we want to share that exuberant delight with others. And that comes out as "wow, it's easy! [subtext: I get it! I never thought I would but I get it! Go me!]" It's a completely natural impulse and people deserve to have their achievements celebrated. But then it's about the answerer, not the questioner. Those who haven't got it yet can't share that jubilance because it's not yet theirs to share, so feel irritation. – snowangel Apr 22 '18 at 15:37

I don't think saying "this is really easy to do once you know it" is patronizing or rude.

Better spend the time fixing actual issues with posts (e.g. grammar, formatting) and leave those alone, especially in answers which were posted many years ago.

| improve this answer | |

In most cases - I do believe the intent of the writer (and their style) ought to be respected to a certain level.

I do believe that the seeming contracending tone is really "Yanno, this looks scary until you do it! You can do it! Its easy!" in fewer words. As such, the goal of the author seems to be to point out its no great mystery, and much like my dog, git's bark can be worse than its bite.

In my experience, as someone who basically got thrown head first into git - making a mistake and reverting is scary and pointing out that its not kind of helps the pedagogical goals of answering.

Admittedly, sometimes people are a little precious about their personal writing style (I was, back in the day) but in this case, I really do feel the edit didn't really add to the post at all.

If you had been a high enough rep user to do it yourself, the likely result would have been a reversal of your edit anyway.

There's no style guide. We write as we do, and if you feel there's a broader issue - you comment, or bring it up to meta as you've done. At the same time, its worth also considering picking the edits that do the most good, or remove the most annoyance for the most - technical ones, rather than "feel good" edits of that sort, except in the most egregarious situations (but then you want to flag it when someone is clearly not being nice).

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Hm, interesting, and thanks for taking the time to respond. This may be unresolvable since we are in subjective territory. You feel it's not condescending, and I do. There is a problem, here, however, whether you agree or not. The primary goal of knowledge transfer is to ensure the student understands. It's an impediment to say how easy the teacher finds something, and it's irrelevant to the student's learning. Thanks again for engaging. (And, honestly: one should be scared of git!) – snowangel Dec 16 '17 at 12:02
  • One eventually needs to take the git by the horns too - and stop fearing it. And to an extent, enforcing a style guide kind of takes away the unique voice a user might have in writing. – Journeyman Geek Dec 16 '17 at 13:14
  • 1
    You know that's a really condescending answer, right? – snowangel Mar 17 '18 at 18:56
  • 2
    Pointing out that something isn't scary when it actually is scary has the effect of belittling the person for being afraid. Asserting that something will be easy for someone who is struggling places unreasonable expectations on that person - if they don't find it easy it suggests there's something wrong with them. So it's more considerate to not make those kinds of assertions. – Mark Lapierre Apr 21 '18 at 23:22
  • 1
    You should post this as an answer – Journeyman Geek Apr 22 '18 at 1:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .