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"questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions — should be closed as subjective"

That's what Good Subjective, Bad Subjective says. And then it goes on to give us 6 guidelines about what makes a great subjective question:

  1. inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”
  2. tend to have long, not short, answers
  3. have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone
  4. invite sharing experiences over opinions
  5. insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references
  6. are more than just mindless social fun

The Trap

Four of six of these talk about the quality of the answers and not the question. But if we focus on the quality of the answers we end up falling in to a horrible trap -- the root issue is not the answers, it is that the question itself probably wasn't a great subjective question to begin with.

Since becoming a mod, I have been handling flags. As a normal user, I gravitated toward posts that seemed like they would interest me in one way or the other. When you become a mod, you get a feed of places where the community sees problems -- a lot of these are focused on answers.

Thanks to the 'privilege' of being able to focus on a stream of potentially problematic posts, I have a much better grasp on how to avoid the trap that Good Subjective, Bad Subjective can lead users to.

Identifying Bad Subjective Questions

"There are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that."
- Tom Lehrer

Questions that focus on people are usually bad subjective. They are not answerable, they do not have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone, because they focus on the person the issue is with rather than solving the actual issue itself.

There are two major variations on these questions:

  1. How do I deal with the fact that I'm awesome and everyone around me sucks?
  2. How do I deal with this person I work with that I don't like very much/agree with/want to deal with at all?

Both of these types of questions are "questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions" and they "should be closed as subjective". They are not asking about how to solve a problem. They are looking for a self-help group for commiserating, not a practical, answerable question based on actual problems that you face. They are asking for validation.

Both types of questions tend to ask a question of "How do I get X to do Y?" While this can be a good helpful question to others, often times it is not (1 (10k+ only), 2, 3, 4, etc.). The good questions focus on solving a problem that stems from working with other people in general, while the problematic ones focus on a problematic person in specific. The former are usually lighter on the he said she said explanations, and are easy (for me personally) to relate to my workplace experiences.

In the best interest of the Workplace's value as a resource for people seeking practical answers to answerable questions involving workplace problems, I think these problematic questions ('agony aunt' questions looking for commiseration rather than solutions) need to be discouraged.

The Right Tool for the Job

The closest thing we have to a tool for dealing with these questions is the primarily opinion-based close reason:

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.

Now in an ideal world, people would connect the dots and figure out that this is exactly the problem with this sort of question. And perhaps in the future it will. But as we grow, we should clearly label this specific type of question as problematic, as it is the biggest source of bad subjective questions right now.

I would like your input to help come up with a method to describe this type of questions to make it clear to both the people asking them, and the people browsing our site, that questions relating to problems with individuals that can't be solved or applied to other situations in other workplaces are not a good fit for our site. My previous attempt (which was not clear enough and not well-received) was as follows:

Questions about how to handle specific interpersonal conflicts are not practical answerable questions. Interpersonal problems should be brought up with your manager or HR department who can actually do something about the person(s) causing them. Please ask questions about solving a practical problem rather than the person causing the problem.

How can we do a better job of expressing this type of problematic question?

Primarily opinion-based would continue to be used for questions that poll for opinion or ask for recommendations, like:

  • What is the best font to use in a resume?
  • What is the normal amount of vacation days for an IT worker?
  • What is the normal per diem for overseas business trips? (etc.)

For clarity, the most up to date revision of this close reason is here.

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    I really like the idea of this new close reason. It helps clarify further what bad subjective is and is a bit more tailor-fit to Workplace SE than primarily opinion based. – jmort253 May 15 '14 at 3:04
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    along with another recently proposed reason (company-specific) and reasons that are there already (legal and job/skill advice), this makes one too much reason than system allows us. One should be dismissed. I tend to think the reason proposed here would better be added even at the expense of company-specific not getting in – gnat May 15 '14 at 4:28
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    @gnat - I've been spending a lot of time in flags when I'm on the site lately, so I don't see all the questions. Do you see an inordinate amount of company-specific questions? I feel like my Aunt Agony comes around a lot more in comparison to company specific questions, but I may just be missing them. – jmort253 May 15 '14 at 5:28
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    We can create a list of custom close reasons we want and see what the community thinks the most useful to have would be (and which to leave custom reasons for). Having too many well-defined close reasons is definitely a good problem to have as it means we have a good grasp of our scope! – jmac May 15 '14 at 5:55
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    @jmort253 you're maybe right, my observations seem to match yours. Agony aunt feels more frequent... and harder to moderate (company-specific questions seems to be less attractive for troublesome just-quit "answers") – gnat May 15 '14 at 7:26
  • Suffice it to say, I'm VERY happy with TWP moderation right now, because each moderator sees the larger picture and thinks deeply about relevant issues. This post is just the latest example of this. – Jim G. May 15 '14 at 16:27
  • Your three example questions are actually very objectively answerable questions. I don't know if there is public data sets that could be mined, but they're conceptually very objective questions. – corsiKa May 15 '14 at 17:09
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    @corsiKa, they are answerable, but the answer won't help anyone. Ever gone to your boss and said, "Well, golly gee, this isn't normal in the industry so I shouldn't be blamed for doing it the normal way" or contacting a hiring manager after a rejection and saying, "I don't care if you said to use a fixed-width font, the best font is clearly Helvetica, review my application"? It doesn't work. Because normal doesn't matter, and questions asking about normal won't solve a problem. That's the goal of questions here. The questions should be practical -- 'normal' in a vacuum is not practical. – jmac May 16 '14 at 2:52
  • That's a straw-man argument. You make it sound like every decision that could possibly be made is out of your hands. I see it more "My boss is giving us X per diem for overseas trips. At my last job, for roughly the same location, we were given Y. Are there any industry standards or accepted formulas that he might not be aware of? Or is it more adhoc?" or "I'm looking to get as many advantages on my resume as I can. Is there any research I can review regarding font elements that might give me an edge over the other candidates? The answers would be very helpful to OP and future visitors. – corsiKa May 16 '14 at 14:37
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    @corsiKa The latter question is good as it is asking why and how to pick a font rather than getting a recommendation for a single font. The former question is still pointless -- it doesn't matter why your boss doesn't give you a similar per diem to your last job, or what the industry standard is (and whether or not we think he's aware of it or not). What matters is why your boss picked that per diem, and whether it can be negotiated (hint: you won't find the answer to that here). We want to solve problems, not answer polls, or give comfort to the unfortunate. – jmac May 16 '14 at 14:53
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    (so for the former question, "I was hired for a job where I didn't expect to have trips, and didn't pay attention to the per diem. If I have already signed an employment contract with an excessively low per diem, what are my options?" would potentially be a decent question depending on how it was scoped) – jmac May 16 '14 at 14:55
  • that can't be solved or applied to other situations in other workplaces Here is the thing many of these can be solved or applied to other places but the suggested close reason would catch them anyway. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 28 '14 at 17:19
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Here is the most up to date revision of the rant question close reason: (taken from jmac's answer and posted here for clarity)

Real questions have answers. Rather than explaining why your situation is terrible, or why your boss/coworker makes you unhappy, explain what you want to do to make it better. See the help center for more information.

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    I love this close reason – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 10 '14 at 13:13
  • @Chad - Thanks for all your help in finding the right wording to make this both concise and useful. – jmort253 Jun 11 '14 at 2:13
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    +1 this is to the point and focuses on making questions better. – mxyzplk Jun 15 '14 at 3:12
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I am new to Workplace S/E but have contributed to several other S/E sites, and I am also an employer. What I am noticing in questions here is something I also notice in the workplace, which is that a lot of people don't understand how work works. They are new to work or they are new to a particular work environment. They don't get how teams work, how heirarchy works, how negotiations work, how "playing well with others" works, how hiring works, and how conflicts should be resolved. Additionally, many of them are new to S/E, and they don't understand how S/E works. The result is subjective questions or questions that don't fit scope, an issue in every S/E site I have been on (all non-tech).

I wonder how we help the new user acclimate. A number of questions I have looked at are written by people for whom English does not appear to be the first language. These are people who may have a different cultural outlook than the predominant US focus, who are trying to figure out how work works, and now we are asking them to figure out how S/E works as well before we will answer their question.

The suggested close reason in this post assumes that the questioner has a clue how to solve interpersonal problems, and the fact that they are are asking the questions says to me they don't. Our goal, I think, is to help them translate their very specific situation into a question that is more general and could apply to others. So for example, if a questioner is telling us about a run-in with a coworker and asks what to do about it, we would like to see that question generalized into "What is the professional way to handle a situation where a coworker is misrepresenting your work to clients?" (with the questioner's example provided).

I am not sure the suggested close reason is going to help a new user, particularly one from a non-US culture, figure out how to make his question better. I am not sure I have a better idea, however! Here's an attempt:

Your question is very specific to your work situation. In order to make the answers provided here more useful to other readers, please reword the question in your post to be more general. See examples here.

The "here" would be samples that show it is fine to describe your specific situation, but show a before and after sample of how to generalize the actual question.

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    Hey MJ, thanks for the response. We definitely want to help new users acclimate, and I am a huge fan of productive edits when community members see a good question. To clarify though, no matter how much the community can do, the ultimate responsibility for reading the rules lies with the asker who is requesting our time. The close reason as I put it is not only for the asker (who would realize that is off-topic if they read our tour page or help center), but also to educate other members who read the question. Hope this helps! – jmac May 18 '14 at 23:26
  • (I understand a lot of people may be new to the working environment, and not know some of the basics that I take for granted due to my experience. We should try to educate them, but that education should not come at the expense of the content quality on our site. If you can think of good ways to communicate this information, be it through guidance faqs on meta with good resources, or otherwise, I would love you to share those thoughts with us -- I just want to make sure that the close reason makes clear why the question is problematic rather than imply that the problem is specificity) – jmac May 18 '14 at 23:31
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I'm not sure I agree with this close reason. It seems to contradict two items that I think are more important.

  1. Workplace dynamics/interactions should be on topic, in fact one might say that's one of the primary topics of interest to this SE (given that legal/policy stuff is somewhat undesirable and ends up with "go see a lawyer or your HR rep").

  2. SE philosophy is strongly "Ask about your problem" - not "generalize it to some generic state." so "How do I convince a generic manager about something about promotions" isn't actually a good SE question, it should be about your particular situation to a reasonable degree.

Remember that Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and the Back It Up! guidelines were developed for Parenting, which is very, very similar. "My kid is talking back to me at age 5, how do I get them to quit it?" Pretty much every Parenting question focuses on a person (a child) by their nature. These rules made the SE format work for questions of that form, which are of the same nature as interpersonal workplace questions.

Sure, psychology, sociology, initiative, empowerment, etc. are not objectively answerable because there are too many variables and "it depends" - but that's why GS/BS exists, per the post on it!

"How do I convince X of Y" is an OK question. People who have relevant experience doing something similar should answer with what they did and what worked/didn't work for them. It can certainly be answered in a subjective, but not speculative, manner.

You seem to be stating a priori that these questions are negative and polluting the site, but the ones that are well formed and coherent don't detract from my POV.

I'm a mod on RPG Stack Exchange and we have similar group dynamics questions - what to do about an annoying player or domineering game master - I feel like by strongly enforcing the GS/BS rules these are largely good questions that help people. (https://rpg.stackexchange.com/search?tab=votes&q=how%20convince%20is%3aquestion, or even more on point our group-dynamics tag, problem-players tag, problem-gm tag. Of course, some have answers that start with "make sure you're not the problem because it sounds like you may be," but you can see how questions like How does a player correct a GM mistake without being a rules lawyer or pushover? are basically identical to Workplace.SE questions if you replace "GM" with "boss" and "player" with "employee."


Some more post question edit.

I see where you're going now - you're referring to questions that are too much up in the grill of "no, this ONE specific dude." I think that can be thought of as "too localized" but there's a fine line between, again, posting your problem and posting a hypothetical problem, and the refinement of info on the former is usually better - one of the reasons "too localized" was removed as a close reason network-wide (Closing changes: on hold, unclear, too broad, opinion-based, off-topic reasons, bye-bye to Too Localized, Responding to your "too localized" concerns).

Because, in the end, if you are following the primary SE rule of asking questions:

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.

Then it's going to be about a specific person, or specific situation, or specific job application, or whatever. Can you separate "person" and "issue" when the issue is interpersonal relations? I don't think so, not completely.

Now, having said that, we do have people "go down the rabbit hole" too much on the specific situation on RPG.SE at times. What we generally say is "use this as a specific example of the issue at hand" - because if you are really answering according to GS/BS you're going to cite similar experiences you've had - going too much into the person/situation at hand is usually moving to speculation (guessing about them) as opposed to good subjective (sharing experience from yourself). Over time we've simply encouraged the community to reward answers that cover the underlying issue well (even with bits that may not be directly relevant to the specific incident) but if you ask "generic" questions not tied to a specific incident, then all anyone can do is speculate - Bad Subjective.

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    Thanks for taking the time to write this. You are (of course) spot on, and I did a horrible job of expressing it in the first iteration. I heavily edited the top post (specifically the definition of the problem, and the solution), and would love to have your input on whether this feels more on-target to you, and if you have any suggestion on how to better explain these sorts of questions if you think they are problematic too. Thanks in advance! – jmac May 28 '14 at 5:25
  • @jmac Wow! That was a pretty encouraging and welcoming comment. I'll take inspiration. – Bleeding Fingers May 28 '14 at 10:12
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    Definitely, thanks for being open to the discussion - have added some more thoughts based on your edit. We get "Someone was mean to me I'm right, right?" questions as well, we usually put them on hold to get them stated more clearly (rant deletion, etc.) but it serves as a starting point for explanation about the issues surrounding situations like that, we don't consider it off topic. – mxyzplk May 28 '14 at 12:42
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    Thanks @Bleeding, the goal isn't to impose my will on the community, but to try to find where our common ground is and create information for the community that tries to express that clearly so that our standards are easier to understand. I think we're all on the same page (or close to it), I just had a hamfisted way of expressing it that resulted in a few issues. As mxyzplk points out, we want to prevent questions that aren't about solving a problem, but rather solving a person, with a helpful close reason that points folks to why. Hope that helps! – jmac May 28 '14 at 13:18
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    Workplace dynamics/interactions should be on topic Exactly what I have been trying to say. Thank you. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 28 '14 at 17:34
  • We made some tweaks based on the feedback, and we'd like to get your thoughts on this revision of the close reason. We feel we've clarified the problem as well as provided a link to the help center, and provided tips on what to do to fix the problem with the post. In short, we feel we've worded it to where we're targeting the most common types of questions that don't fit the six subjective guidelines. Thanks for your feedback thus far! – jmort253 Jun 10 '14 at 5:46
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Let me be a bit more blunt. Agony Aunt questions:

  • Complain about a person and their actions as the problem
  • Do not set specific goals for resolving the issue
  • Usually can be described of as a rant

Let's take a sample question: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/24089/my-boss-being-very-unreasonable-and-demanding

I trust that nobody in the community thinks this is a valuable question that will benefit having as a resource in the future. And that's why it was closed. There are many undeleted questions which fit this mold. And there are many more which have been since-deleted. But these questions are closed for various reasons which can be confusing if the actual reason we're closing (that they are Agony Aunt 'questions' better classified as rants) is expressed differently by different users.

We do not want Agony Aunt questions. We want to be clear that the entire type of question that caused Joel to call us "a self-help group for commiserating". We want to provide practical advice to solve problems.

I want a close reason that clearly identifies these types of questions, and labels them as off-topic without taking legitimate questions about workplace relationships that can be solved, and can scale to other people in similar situations.

My original suggestion was:

Questions about how to handle specific interpersonal conflicts are not practical answerable questions. Interpersonal problems should be brought up with your manager or HR department who can actually do something about the person(s) causing them.

This is striking people as too broad, and will take good with the bad. jmort suggested:

Questions about solving interpersonal conflicts should be clear as to exactly what the problem is and what you hope to achieve as a goal. Posts without a clear goal are not practical answerable questions. Please see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective for guidance on how to reword this post to make it more clear, constructive, fair, and/or impartial.

I think this is close, but suggests that if you rant about your boss (like in the previous question) and tack on, "I want my boss to stop treating me poorly" that it would be on topic (even though it still is neither practical nor answerable).

Monica suggested:

Questions about how to handle interpersonal conflicts are not practical answerable questions. Interpersonal problems should be brought up with your manager or HR department. Please ask questions about solving a practical problem rather than the person causing the problem.

I really like this one, but apparently the community isn't 100% behind it because they are afraid that mentioning 'interpersonal conflicts' will have it applied to other useful questions.

My revised suggestion will be blunt and it will be as clear as possible about what I want to limit. Hopefully someone here can suggest a tweak to make it more diplomatic yet still clear:

Real questions have answers. Rather than explaining why your situation is terrible, or why your boss/coworker makes you unhappy, explain what you want to do to make it better. See the help center for more information.

For clarity, the most up to date revision of this close reason is here.

  • So basically you want to bring back the NARQ close reason... I am all for that I thought it should have been left as a close reason before. My only concern here is that again its not that it is off topic but there is no question to help with. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 2 '14 at 14:00
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    @Chad - I think the way to think of this is it's "off-topic as worded" but not "off-topic as a general rule". The off-topic custom reasons are the only areas where we can put custom close reasons, but we can always tweak them to be sure it's understood what edits need to be made to make it on-topic. I think that as long as we're clear how to fix the problem, the close reason is less likely to be misunderstood. – jmort253 Jun 10 '14 at 5:34
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You should really abandon the pretense at knowing what is "primarily opinion based". Almost everything in The Workplace is about opinions! Unless the question is about some regulation, procedure or technical issue, it will invoke opinions. Ironically, i once had a question that had a strong technical component and you and others closed it for being "primarily opinion based".

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    Looking back at the question, looks like I was the first close-voter too. If you want to discuss that question separately, feel free to ask a separate question and I'll respond directly. For 'primarily opinion-based', a lot of the thinking is outlined in the good subjective, bad subjective article, and at the end of the day it's a judgment call. Sometimes we get it wrong (everyone does), so feel free to call foul when you feel someone screwed up so we can discuss. – jmac May 29 '14 at 23:39
  • Thanks for that response, @jmac – Martin F May 30 '14 at 15:57

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