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Here on Stack Exchange we're encouraged to be nice, but I feel like the canned messages from mods and from the system aren't setting a good example in this regard.

Example 1

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

This message is direct and impersonal to the point of rudeness. It isn't really an explanation; it's a rebuke.

Example 2

closed as primarily opinion-based by [users] [date] at [time]

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This isn't as rude as the comment message, but it's pretty impersonal, especially with the passive voice in the last sentence. It could be more polite.

Maybe there are better examples than the above two. I'm proposing we have the discussion. Are we encouraging politeness with mod messages and system messages? Can we do better?

EDIT

A good example of a company choosing friendliness over, we might say, succinct communication, is the Slack release notes. They could say

Improved look and feel of HTML notifications.

Instead, they say

We've changed the look, feel and texture of our new HTML notifications. Give them a try! They're delicious.

The second is longer, to be sure. It's also friendlier and more entertaining to read, and I'll bet a lot more people read the release notes of Slack than the release notes of software that uses the first style. These release notes have a personality.

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    Sorry, but I find neither of those 'rude'. We should stay away from sugarcoating when it comes to a situation that actually required a mod to intervene, and the closure banner is already confusing to some people without all the superfluous pleasantries. – M.A.R. May 9 at 15:07
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    As a start let's flag the comments as rude/abusive to see if we can get a moderator suspended, then we can talk. – rene May 9 at 15:07
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    This is a continuation of comment policing that, honestly, won't really lead anywhere. Not everything needs to be couched in flowery terms in the hope that nobody will be offended. It is a simple statement of fact, and I'm seriously disliking this focus on giving greater weight to potential hurt than conveying information concisely. – fbueckert May 9 at 15:11
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    Those messages are not rude. The tone is terse, and they are to the point, and even link to where someone who's interested can read more about how to fix their question, but they certainly are not rude in any sense whatsoever. What happened to trying to be clear and concise? – fbueckert May 9 at 15:24
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    I think the suggestions here are a bit too conversational for system messages but that doesn't mean the current phrasing can't be improved. It's also worth remembering that system messages like close reasons are network wide and can't be customized, so making them overly descriptive may cause problems... they need to be kinda bland but still helpful. – Catija May 9 at 15:28
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog I mean... technically that first example is left by a moderator... or that's how it seems to everyone viewing it. That it's a default message is unclear to many. Plus, mods can edit those messages if they wish. – Catija May 9 at 15:31
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    Anyway, let's focus on the question up for discussion rather than the specific solutions suggested. @Kyralessa you might find a better reception if you avoid proposing a solution but instead focus on the content that you think might be better written and why you find it to be problematic. Save solutions for answers. ;) – Catija May 9 at 15:32
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    Your Slack example isn't really the same thing. You see that message once so it's cute once and then you dismiss it and it goes away. These messages you're suggesting be changed appear numerous times everywhere on the site... seeing the same text over and over when it's cutesy like that just gets annoying (to me, at least). Again, it's about balance. – Catija May 9 at 15:49
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    I personally really love the idea of making all our messages more approachable. Sad that this got so many down votes. – Sara Chipps May 9 at 16:54
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    Well @SaraChipps I also love those ideas but let's start there then, not with two examples and the claim that those don't comply with the be nice policy. If this is taken on then it should start with taking message, intent and audience into account. And I'm not sure if the Meta audience is the best crowd to try this on, as I for sure are kind of exhausted by be-nicer claims that lacks evidence that this wording is indeed the problem and the proposed wording will indeed be better. Are those comments and those close notices the real problem? I have doubts, hence my down vote. – rene May 9 at 17:21
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    Hi @rene, I don't love your tone but I'm going to go ahead and answer anyway in the spirit of teaching. We have done extensive research here at Stack Overflow that has shown tone of the site and interactions with other users is one of the main reasons new users don't participate. At every point we should approach our users with a welcoming voice, that means everything from our "Ask a Question" page to, yes, system messages. – Sara Chipps May 9 at 17:54
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    @MartinJames This is SE Meta, which has to do with every Stack Exchange board. There are many, many SE boards that have nothing to do with programming. If the assumption is being made that every SE user is a programmer, perhaps that explains all the downvotes for the notion of friendlier SE messages. – anon May 9 at 18:51
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    @SaraChipps yes, I'm a bit blunt but let's try to see if we can find common ground between the extensive research already done and the opinion of a seasoned user. I do think tone is important for the type of users you want to bind to your platform, new and existing. And I'm not suggesting this will be easy but I simply do not believe that a welcoming voice at every point is the way forward to retain those new users once they settled in. And when we no longer grow we risk of losing what we've build together so far. I'm not there yet that I want that to happen. .. (cont.) – rene May 9 at 18:52
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    I think a far better focus would be on setting expectations up front, @SaraChipps. I have lost count of how many don't understand the purpose of the network, and come off frustrated when they run into the bits that don't work like forums or help desks. Easing that disconnect would pay far better dividends, I feel, and is likely the root of why so many people feel SE is hostile. A discussion about tone only helps once those users have already run into the disconnect, so that's more patching a problem than solving the root cause. – fbueckert May 9 at 19:13
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    I think conveying important information of a negative nature (i.E "You failed at this thing we need you to get right") in a way that doesn't alienate and doesn't sugarcoat is an art, and the current iteration isn't anywhere near perfect, so there's probably some room for improvement – Magisch May 10 at 6:20
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We can and probably should make system messages easier to parse. In many places, making them easier to parse also means making an obvious effort to say look, you didn't do anything wrong, we're just different than most things you've probably encountered. A more light-hearted, encouraging tone does help that, and there are plenty of places where we can be more invested in how the system is making users (especially new users) feel.

Then there's also a whole lot of stuff that basically translates to this:

We really value you, and we want you to be happy. There are a large number of incredibly sharp and invisible nails all over the floor, and it's totally not your fault if you step on one and get hurt, it's not you - it's us.

We can make language better and improve just-in-time help and tests show that this does cut down on puncture wounds, but it's .. not a solution. The solution is to completely re-work the entire new user experience all the way to 500 rep and fix a whole lot of pain points and places where rules that aren't really advertised in the UI are unexpectedly (and, perceptively, often rudely) enforced. That's of course not the intent here, the intent is just to keep things curated and maintained and that alone is an amazing task, but the fact that we've been bolting things on since 2008 is really starting to show.

One of the things our UX designers and researchers have done is come up with a more unified product "voice" that we'll use to convey these strings, once we've gotten rid of certain pitfalls instead of papering over them with better words. If we've come up with 5 different ways to make people's feelings feel more valued, then there's got to be a more optimal way the system could behave in order to accomplish certain things it needs to stay healthy.

Anyway, probably more long-winded than needed but you're definitely right on many points -- I just don't want to paper over gaping UX pitfalls with better language and call it done, I want to fix the pitfalls. There will be more about that this year.

But we do (as you suggested) have a better product voice that is going to start making itself shown in areas where the gears appear to be in all the right places, just some more consistent and friendlier language is needed.

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One of the big problems with enacting a conversational tone in these automatically generated messages is that, by doing so, we suggest that a conversational tone is what we want on the site.

It isn't.

If an automatic message begins with "Hi", then that gives the impression that a user-created post should be able to begin with "Hi" too. Since that's not a thing we want, we should not provide messages that give that impression.

These utilitarian, direct, impersonal messages give the sense that we want utilitarian, direct, impersonal content. Which we do.

  • I find that understandable in questions and answers. I'm less inclined to agree when it comes to comments, because a comment is a dialogue with the question or answer, and so it's going to be personal, whether someone words their comment personably or not. And if they don't, then the comment comes off as rude instead of helpful. Which is obviously not something SE wants to encourage, as evidenced by the "Be nice" policy. It seems like it should be possible to make comments polite just from the wording, as opposed to having to, say, litter them with emojis. – anon May 9 at 16:32
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    @Kyralessa: "And if they don't, then the comment comes off as rude instead of helpful." I don't buy into this "if it's not personal, then it's rude" dichotomy you've set up here. Rude things are rude; the space of "not rude" is much larger than "cloyingly polite". – Nicol Bolas May 9 at 16:38
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    As long as the definition of rude is a higher bar than, "I take offense to this comment and it should be removed". Something closer to, "This is a personal attack and/or wasn't made in good faith" I'd be far more comfortable with. – fbueckert May 9 at 16:51
  • I didn't say "if it's not personal, then it's rude." What I said is that a comment is going to be personal by its nature, whether or not it's rude. – anon May 9 at 18:37
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    @Kyralessa: But you said "if they don't [word their comment personally], then the comment comes off as rude instead of helpful." That's the dichotomy I don't buy. That is a poor and decidedly unuseful definition of what it means to be "rude". – Nicol Bolas May 9 at 18:52
  • @NicolBolas, what I said was personably, not personally. By which I mean, "in a friendly way." My argument is that a comment is going to be personal one way or the other. It's not going to be taken as disinterested. So if the comment isn't going to be polite, then it's going to be rude. That dichotomy I stand by, because after decades of the Internet, it's common knowledge that text on a screen is far more difficult to take politely due to the absence of tone of voice, body language, etc. One has to make more of an effort for pure text to sound polite. – anon May 9 at 20:36
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    @Kyralessa: "One has to make more of an effort for pure text to sound polite." Or the reader could make an effort to not assume that one is being rude unless proven otherwise. It's called "assuming good faith," and it's not optional here. Even on the Internet, the world is not divided into "polite" and "rude", and we should not encourage the belief in such a thing. – Nicol Bolas May 9 at 20:43
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Language is everything.

In the interest of the “Be nice” policy, can we make the mod and system messages more polite?

Even more polite? If it is polite already then why bother. But the actual question tries to address a serious concern.

Comment case

This message is direct and impersonal to the point of rudeness. It isn't really an explanation; it's a rebuke.

Yes, it is a rebuke. Why exactly is that a tone of voice that should be evicted from all messages? The message is factual correct and conveying an important cornerstone of what set SE sites apart from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other fora across the internet. On SE you don't discuss matters endlessly. And the community has elected moderators to enforce that. And with enforcement comes a tone that is appropriate when rules are to be followed.

Close notice case

This isn't as rude as the comment message, but it's pretty impersonal, especially with the passive voice in the last sentence. It could be more polite.

Closing is one of the core principles for moderation by each community. How each close reason is used can vary per community. So I would be very, very careful to change the wording so it no longer can be usefully applied by all communities. I'm one of the users that cares about content and with that care less about users. And I have the feeling the current wording describes what is wrong with the content. It might fall short at doing that effectively and efficiently but it leaves the user out of the equation. That makes it impersonal and that is how it is intended.

I think I'm in for an A/B test where these close reasons are changed to address the OP instead of the content and then see if the result is that more questions get edited and re-opened. Maybe some OP's abandon ship because they feel they are not the ones addressed in the close notice. Who knows.

Final thoughts

While looking at the examples presented here (and this is just the tip of the iceberg) I can't rule out that some of the sentiments (from users, visitors and Twitter) caused by these messages are due to the state the system is in. Users reading those message don't like that system state. They don't like it their question is closed. They don't like it the discussion moved to chat because they wanted to bicker on right under the post. Due to that negative emotion they don't value the actual message on their true merit. I don't know how big this problem is but it might make the challenge for a better text more difficult. Maybe less text? No text? Only symbols?

It will be interesting times to find the right words, blunt and not loved, for the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Not an easy solution but maybe looking at the current system messages we could try to find common patterns that fail in being in line with "be nice".

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    "Even more polite? If it is polite already then why bother." Well, I suppose one could argue that politeness and rudeness rest along a continuum. It's not as if the current messages actually swear at the users or insult their parentage, for instance. But of course I meant "more polite" as opposed to their current state of "not very polite at all." – anon May 9 at 20:32
  • I don't disagree that user comments are more of an issue. But what I'm pointing out here is that messages from mods and from the system set an example which users are likely to follow. At least, users are unlikely to be more polite than the example set. – anon May 10 at 8:19
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I've always been a fan of handwriting comments, though at some point it simply dosen't scale. In this case though, you're conflating 'official'/'system generated' messages meant to correct behaviour with... release notes.

Its worth remembering each of these comments is a different thing and covers a different role, and polite does not mean sugarcoating.

Even if we make these more approachable, we need to keep in mind why these messages get generated.

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

Is pretty much a system generated message. Its the water spray of moderation. We would really want people to know we're serious about not using the comments for conversation. Its worth remembering that moderators are free to edit these posts, and we rarely do.

Its terse, and to the point. Its not conversational since its literally the big hulking gentleman in a suit going "Scuse me sir. Could you kindly take this conversation outside?". Its meant to be an invitation to a cessation of conversation and movement to a more appropriate venue.

Despite the serious, terse, tone of this, it still gets ignored a lot 😒

closed as primarily opinion-based by [users] [date] at [time]

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question

Uses what I refer to as the "Imperial We" tone of voice. Its meant to be impersonal and authoritative, and not about the user, but about the question. The stock mod messages use the same tone. They're rather neutral on purpose. We don't want people misinterpreting these things, and some folks end up doing so any way.

We've changed the look, feel and texture of our new HTML notifications. Give them a try! They're delicious.

While official, is a developer showing off the new and shiny thing they have created. They're free to be informal - and since they are not correcting unwanted behavior, unlikely to be misinterpreted. They're free to not sound authoritative and to be informal

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