How to not get a question answered

Raymond has had lots of great posts over the years on how to not get a question answered. Some of the ways he points out that help ensure that a question goes unanswered are:

I would add that phrasing the question in terms of the attempted solution rather than the underlying problem is a great way to have a question remain unanswered. But I already did that. Today’s rant, rather, is:

A great way to not get your question answered is to treat the person that you’re asking to share their time and knowledge like they’re not a human being.

I understand that this is easy to do.

I understand that when someone is asking a technical question, it is almost always because they’re deeply frustrated by their inability to make some important specific complicated thing work the way they’d expect.

I understand that software makers are a big source of frustration in a more general sense. We all use imperfect software every day; little frustrations mentally accumulate in a way that little victories do not.

I understand that programming languages and software in general is often counterintuitive, and that understanding the complex reasoning behind a counterintuitive result is often seemingly of little practical import compared to just getting the problem at hand solved.

I understand that it is very easy to use an email client as an impersonal and automatic information resource something like a search engine, where you just type in your query, you get your result back, and you move on with your day.

I understand that there is an inherent and pervasive bias in pure-text communication which makes statements intended to be good-humoured sound sophomoric, makes statements which were intended to be friendly sound smarmy, makes statements which were intended to be enthusiastic sound brash, makes statements intended to be helpful sound condescending, makes statements which were intended to be precise and accurate sound brusque and pedantic, makes statements which were intended to be positive sound neutral, and makes statements which were intended to be neutral seem downright hostile.

Boy, do I ever understand that. For over four years I have deliberately tried to pitch the tone of this blog as good-humoured, friendly, enthusiastic, helpful, precise, accurate and positive; I suspect that most of the time I fail badly at most or all of those. Writing is hard.

I understand all that, from both sides; I’ve certainly been on both the sending and receiving ends of all of the above, many times.

Which is why I try very hard to be helpful to the complete strangers who send me overtly rude and frequently profane emails capped off with a request for me to to take time out of my day to explain something to them.

I try to see an upset or confused user as an opportunity to make a good impression; sometimes people do a complete 180 when you help them out and are appreciative and grateful. Sometimes they even send an unsolicited note to your manager, which is always pleasant.

But more often, I never hear from them again after their question is answered.

None of this is in their own best interests. It makes the human information sources they rely upon less likely to help them now and in the future.

So, just a friendly reminder. (A friendly, good-humoured, helpful, enthusiastic, positive reminder!) The people you are sending email to about your technical problems are people. It would be smart to briefly introduce yourself, describe your problem without insulting the people who created it, indicate what you’ve done to attempt to solve it yourself, actually ask for help, and later say thank-you for their time whether they manage to actually help you or not.

It’s smart because doing so is in your own best interests.

It would also be nice, but I actually am not particularly concerned about “nice” today. Nice is nice to have I suppose. But not being smart is just dumb.

Commentary from 2021:

Obviously this rant was born of frustration; one of my predecessors on the C# team, Anson Horton, recently told a story of the early days of answering C# questions internally at Microsoft that reminded me of this article. His story ended well but most of them did not. And of course it was similar answering JavaScript questions internally; it had nothing to do with C# as C#. The underlying problem was how Microsofties (and their customers!) were socialized to treat their colleagues with contempt, and not the software systems which facilitated it.

There were a lot of good comments posted on the original article; to summarize a few of them here:

  • Commiseration from people whose time had also been imposed upon by people asking rude and often unanswerable questions.
  • Some people said that this was post-it-note wisdom, and that was a compliment: they put a post-it note on their monitor that said “little frustrations accumulate, little victories do not”.
  • More ranting from me; I pointed out in a follow-up comment that there were entire multi-week stretches when I worked on subtle problems in method type inference for eight hours a day, and that maybe if I don’t answer your question on that subject within five minutes, there’s a reason for that. It takes research to answer a question correctly, and research takes time, and must be prioritized against many other important concerns.
  • A number of readers felt called out, and said yeah, sorry I never thanked you for solving my problem. One of which was a question I answered ten years previously! You’re welcome!

I was expressing some frustration here; I was not fishing for compliments or for thanks, but hey, I’ll take both if they’re offered.


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