First off, I'm going to say that I'm not going to advocate being a jerk towards anyone. There is never a cause to be rude or abusive in our responses.

While we obviously shouldn't be rude or abusive, I don't think we should walk on eggshells either. Sometimes a topic is about bad behavior on the part of querent. Any question starting with "Was I unprofessional when I..." is going to have answers that are a resounding "Yes" as at least one answer.

If someone is engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as in case:
I've killed my colleagues' characters during RPG session, now they won't talk to me

Or if the OP was just asking a question on how to engage in bad behavior such as in this case:
How can I deal with troublesome Professional Engineer?

IMO, both of these cases, the querents simply acted badly.

so, I was wondering:

How careful do we need to be to avoid making a poster feel bad when a querent is asking about their own bad behavior?

  • What prompted this question? Was someone criticizing you for being rude?
    – David K
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:19
  • 15
    Saying "Yes, I think that action was unprofessional. {and here is why...}" when specifically asked is perfectly appropriate. "Truth vs Sparing Feelings" isn't a binary choice. You can do both at the same time if you try. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:29
  • 2
    @DavidK A number of comments about the OP in the RPG question said that the people answering shouldn't make the OP feel bad. The answers were blunt, but IMO not rude or intended to make the OP look bad. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:34
  • 1
    Telling the truth often runs foul of the "Be Nice" policy. It is "not nice" to tell people the truth.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 18:14
  • I'm not sure I see a good reason for "I don't think we should walk on eggshells", so I ask, why not? Is that an un-due burden on the answerer?
    – user30031
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 22:53
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    @MaskedMan Calling someone's behavior unprofessional doesn't run afoul of the "Be Nice" policy. Being belittling or hostile does. Some people are able to do the first without doing the second however that's a big hurdle for others.
    – Myles
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 20:55
  • @MaskedMan For the record I think you do a good job riding this line when standing up for Indian employment practices.
    – Myles
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 20:58
  • @Myles I am sorry I don't understand that expression "riding this line". (I am sure the definition I found on Urban Dictionary is not what you had in mind.) Do you mean I am hostile or rude? (I plan to contest the next moderator election, and want to improve upon all problematic behaviours by then, so your feedback would certainly help.)
    – Masked Man
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 3:37
  • Also I don't "stand up" for Indian work practices per se, but just try to explain why things are the way they are. Too often people from a different background criticize a solution because things work differently at their place, without realizing that the underlying problem is also different. I just try to make people realize that it is unfair to criticize a solution without understanding the problem it was trying to solve. There are several problems with Indian work practices, but painting the whole country with a broad brush doesn't help, that is usually my point.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 3:40
  • 1
    That was nothing compared to this question. workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/85145/… OP was questioned for her choice of not wanting to go to lunch with the guys.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 16:01
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    @MaskedMan "Riding the line/riding this line" means holding a position between two undesirable states/attitudes. In this context I mean you could say nothing and let the prejudices go unchallenged or you could strongly challenge these prejudices to the point of rudeness but you ride the line (or sit at a point in between). With respect to the "Be Nice" policy you call out ignorant statements without being hostile or belittling.
    – Myles
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 14:18
  • 2
    @Myles Thanks for explaining that, and for the feedback. Glad to hear that. :)
    – Masked Man
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 14:20
  • @Paparazzi The OP in that question made it about gender, which is a lightning rod for criticism. could you imagine the fury that would have erupted about a man not wanting to do lunch with women. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 14:32
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    "How careful do we need to be to avoid making a poster feel bad when a querent is asking about their own bad behavior?" - In my opinion in the case of the RPG question the best way forward requires the OP to feel bad (about their behaviour) so that they are motivated to honestly apologise and say they won't do that again. The trick is not avoiding them feeling bad, the trick is avoiding them not listening to advice because it contains insults. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 12:15

5 Answers 5


My personal opinion is this:

Address the actions, not the person. Address the attitude, not the person. Do whatever you can to address everything except the person.

The bottom line is that the person may be stupid (by your own definition) but he's still worthy of respect and I think that's the key.

A lot of it is word choice. "ill-advised" versus "dumb" decisions and so forth.

In other words, address the behavior and treat it as though it's a hypothetical exercise insofar as is possible.

To directly answer your question, I think we do need to be careful to avoid making them feel bad, very careful. And I think the tactic to use is to address actions and not the person.

We want the person to feel free to come back and ask more questions without feeling like he wandered into a room of insufferable know-it-alls who can't wait to level an attack.

  • 2
    Good points. I think it's important to allow a person to save face. For questions such as the RPG one, I didn't even answer because there was no way I could think of that wouldn't be seen as rude. I'll take your advice to address everything except the person, to heart. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:38
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    @RichardU I think that advice can be applied universally in most cases. Nobody liked to feel like they're being attacked personally. Even as a parent, I try to correct based on what they've done. "You're grounded because you got an F" vs "You're grounded because you failed."
    – Chris E
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 17:03
  • +1 Awesome answer, especially for the second paragraph!
    – Artery
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 17:47
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    A lot of it is word choice Especially you did instead of you are.
    – user8036
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:07
  • And remember that you telling them the truth is exactly what they need to answer their question. If I ask a question that is strongly based on my own behaviour, then this is part of the picture and I must be ready to be criticised... for my own good.
    – skymningen
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:57
  • Furthermore adressing the actions instead of the person is more constructive. And in the professional world where the general advise is to not taking things personnally, addressing the actions instead of the persons fits perfectly.
    – Walfrat
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 9:35

Valid points. On the other hand, sometimes you need to use a big hammer to drive home the idea that an apology really is called for because it matters to the other person, whether or not you think it should.

But this is also one reason we encourage people to keep questions short and to the point rather than posting the back story in depth. If this question had been simply focused on how to apologise to co-workers after badly embarrassing yourself in an after-hours game, that would have gotten a less emphatic set of answers. If it had been "how do I apologise for being an over-enthusiastic newbie and killing a bunch of player characters", we would have directed it to a gaming discussion (where the answers would probably have been emphatic, but would go into more depth about why this was a mistake and how to be a better player). Combining the two, and posing a long enough question that it sounded like it was looking for justification, was not the best move in our playing field.


Being intentionally rude or abusive is bad. But quite often I see innocuous enough answers twisted until they are seen to be rude by some, probably for a bit of drama.

Truth and rudeness are not mutually inclusive in any case. It's just a matter of wording and perception. However clarity can suffer when one tries to be overly PC about things, so there is a fine balance which will never be achieved given the diversity of people here.

Personally I make an attempt to omit rudeness on everyone's terms. But at the end of the day I'll straight out say what I want for the sake of clarity if I can't find a better way without jumping around the point too much. I communicate in more than one language, my English is reasonable, but in other languages if someone didn't come straight out and clearly state what they're on about, I could get a totally different idea of their answer.

So when I answer I keep that in mind because where I live now it's a necessary way of communicating since my poor English is a lot better than the people around me most of the time. And I appreciate it when I'm using languages I'm less conversant in.


Sometimes a person digs themselves into a hole. And then they post for advice how to get out of that whole. It is often essential to know how deep that hole is in order to understand answers to the question properly.

Being told about the depth of the hole will not make the poster feel good, but it is necessary. Strong language may help. If I have the choice: Poster is happy, doesn't get the seriousness of the situation, and will make things worse. Or poster is unhappy, thinks of me as a rude ***hole, understands the seriousness of the situations, and fixes the problem - I'll choose the latter.

  • "but it is necessary." That may not be true on a case-by-case basis, so it's best not to assume.
    – user30031
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 23:26
  • Additionally, I don't think the choice between oblivious OP and rude answers is that clearly drawn, we just need to make an effort to prevent both.
    – user30031
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 23:27

How careful do we need to be to avoid making a poster feel bad when a querent is asking about their own bad behavior?

I'd argue not at all. If someone did something inordinately self destructive, they absolutely need to know how serious it is. In the second question, it was very necessary to shock the OP out of her view that she could conjure a way to get the P.Eng. fired with no severance. There really isn't a nice or feel-good way to say "Your company messed up hard and it'll cost you dearly one way or the other". Same for the first question.

Some asessments, conveyed honestly and in the most polite way, are still scathing and will make people feel bad. There really isn't anything we can do to negate that.

We should be as polite and friendly as possible, though.

  • Still, there a huge difference in saying "You made a serious mistake" and "You should have known better. You did a bad thing".
    – user30031
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 22:57
  • 1
    The second version is rude, without being any more convincing, so it's pointlessly rude. "You made a serious mistake" vs. "I've never seen anyone messing up things so badly" - the second is rude, but it also makes clear that this is a lot worse than just a serious mistake.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 22:55

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