# Should we make it clearer that there's no need to apologize?

Often - sometimes several times a day - I see questions that open (or occasionally close) by apologizing for the poster's ignorance or for asking a 'basic' question.

Firstly, there's no need to apologize for ignorance here - the site exists to help us overcome our various forms of statistical ignorance; it's precisely what we're here for.

Secondly, there's no need to apologize even for a truly basic question; basic questions are actually likely to help many more people than the more esoteric ones, and some of our very best answers are thoughtful responses to what might be seen as basic questions. As long as you've put some basic effort into resolving your problem (at least check Wikipedia for definitions and search here to check if your question has already been answered), basic questions are welcome. In any case, seemingly basic questions are often surprisingly subtle - if you don't know enough to know the answer to a basic question, you probably don't know enough to know whether it's more complicated than it seems.

Is there a good place (perhaps the on-topic help?) where we can explain to users not to apologize for either of these things?

[Edit: indeed, it might be worth saying "don't apologize in your question" more broadly. If you're apologizing for something you can avoid, just fix it instead. If there's really nothing you can do about it, don't apologize for it.]

• Flag the questions as "overly apologetic"? – StasK Sep 26 '14 at 1:07
• @StasK: What would that imply? That people are asked to go back and rephrase their question? The overarching issue here is to simplify questions, not to create more work for moderators. – Nick Cox Sep 26 '14 at 15:44
• Two good answers; either might have deserved a tick to go with the upvote. – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Sep 29 '14 at 2:14
• This is one of several reasons why the "help" menu should actually be a giant obnoxious javascript popup that locks down your browser until you at least make a half-hearted attempt to skim it. Or, at least, shouldn't be hidden away in gray text way up in the corner. – shadowtalker Oct 1 '14 at 0:17

I apologize that I don't have a better answer, but I doubt adding this information to the on-topic help will make a difference. The on-topic section of the help center is editable by the moderators (unlike the rest of the help center or the site's tour page), but I doubt enough people look at that before posting for it to make any difference. I do understand what you're talking about, I notice this behavior all the time myself and it pains me too. But I doubt anything can be done about it. Sorry.

• It took me a moment to spot the humor in the first sentence. At the least there's a page or two here on meta that might be pointed to after the fact ... not least this one ... which might avoid repeats from the same user. – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Sep 25 '14 at 4:00

In essence, don't apologise for asking questions on a forum: that's what it's for!

However, as @Gung also emphasises, it is very difficult to stop these apologies being added in the first place.

Apologies are given for understandable reasons: an attempt at politeness, embarrassment, confusion, unwillingness to look ignorant or stupid, and so forth. And if you turn it round, is it more or less irritating to see questions posted without apologies that should not have been posted because they are lazy attempts to get other people to do the work, show no research effort or attempt to explain a problem clearly, or are inappropriate any way?

I can't see that we can get more people to read advice in the Help Center before posting. For every person cautious enough to read all the advice first, it seems that there are several who just post any way. We don't have a futuristic technology that would prevent people from posting until they understood the precise goals and style of the forum, and if we did, the world would be a more awful place, as many science fiction stories underline.

My solution, in a word, is just editing. I often edit out, or at least edit down, these apologies as irrelevant to the technical question being asked and of no real use or interest to other readers. They join in oblivion pleas of urgency or desperation and other irrelevant stuff. If I edited your post and you are reading this, know that I was just trying to improve your question and make it easier for others to read, to grasp your question and to give you a good answer.

• Also, remember that cultural difference are very important for things like this. In certain cultures apologizing for ignorance about a topic may be considered normal and not doing it may seem impolite. – nico Oct 5 '14 at 20:27

Just to add a thought to other answers: I see people apologizing because on some SE sites, people are quick to flag basic questions as inappropriate, hence the psychological need to apologise hoping not to bring the wrath of experienced but not so tactful users. I totally agree with the OP that basic questions with a minimum effort of understanding from the asker are totally correct on SE. It's only that when you don't know a lot on a topic, it's often hard to show that you have done the basic researches because, well, you don't understand.

Sorry if this is not right on topic ;)

Re meanness: I don't see evidence for it in comments or answers, or in voting to migrate or put on hold unsuitable questions for CV. Down-voting basic questions, however, especially without explanation, might be viewed as meanness; at any rate it may not be encouraging to new users.

Recent examples of questions that IMO are all right, but received down-votes:

Probability that x samples from normal distribution sum to X

Log probability vs product of probabilities

How to analyze relationship between data pairs

Of course these questions, & others, may well not have been downvoted because they're basic (& I don't mean to criticize anyone just for voting in a way I might not have done), but if there's anything to the idea that people are being discouraged from asking basic questions by the manner in which other basic questions are responded to, as @Jen has suggested, it's that impression we want to avoid.

So for basic questions I'd certainly suggest

1. Taking more pains than usual to explain the reason for the down-vote where you feel one's justified.

& more tentatively

1. Considering, in cases where the question hasn't any up-votes, & isn't blatantly awful (incomprehensible, scan of entire homework sheet, &c.)—& especially when it's from a new user, or gathering close votes anyway—whether a down-vote's helpful.
• Questions like these seem to place voters on a spectrum. Some use criteria such as "unclear or not helpful" and in downvoting focus on the question itself: "unclear" necessarily may include very poor presentation. In contrast, many give credit whenever the question has a core to it that can be used to produce an interesting or useful answer. I've seen advice from e.g. @whuber to the effect that if a question is worth answering it usually deserves an upvote, but while I respect that I sometimes discriminate between a poor question (downvote possible) and a good answer (upvote natural), – Nick Cox Oct 24 '14 at 15:19
• @NickCox: These examples don't strike me as being very unclear, & no-one's commented that they are. There are others that suggest the OP has no experience of asking anyone anything ever. – Scortchi - Reinstate Monica Oct 24 '14 at 15:39
• I am trying to analyse the distribution of downvotes with no data on predictors, something which in the rest of what we do statistically we would usually regard as difficult if not futile. "not helpful" is also part of it. What you say about "no experience of asking..." rings true. The indications are that even our least experienced posters are typically well into undergraduate careers and many make it clear that they are graduate students or more senior. – Nick Cox Oct 24 '14 at 16:20

Since I don't have to apologize for my answer, I will feel free to unabashedly express my straightforward opinion on the problem: I think a lot of people are afraid that some responders will mock and deride them and in all honesty, I have apologized in some of my questions because I have seen the evidence of people being mean, mocking, and cynical to the newbies. Regardless of the fact that CV is generally a great exclusion from this phenomenon, I have nevertheless seen this sort of behavior even here and this is why I believe some people apologize -- so all those arrogant "I know it all" insecure individuals will hone their incessant urge to put other people down and show the newbies their proper place.

I do not believe that either flagging, editing, or putting some sort of an obvious statement on top is going to solve the issue. Why not be honest and look at the fundamental problem lingering on here? The fewer instances of such embarrassing and immature ("Oh, that's such a primitive question") behaviors there are on here, the fewer newbies feel embarrassed and inferior and downright afraid to post their supposedly "stupid" or "incompetent" questions. It's easy to just sugarcoat the cake with some nice little candles, but it's not really going to help change its core and original flavor.

And please let's not pretend that arrogance and pretentiousness has never been an issue; some people just tend to use online resources to unleash their inner insecurities and ego problems. It's unfortunate they mistake this amazing source for a professional psychotherapist. That's the core problem that needs to be addressed.

And yes, this might be harsh, but hey, for once I don't feel the need to apologize.

• "seen the evidence of people being mean, mocking, and cynical to the newbies" - while it has no doubt happened I think it's quite rare on CV. Are there any examples you'd like to point to? $\quad$ "Why not be honest and look at the fundamental problem lingering on here" -- if there is a fundamental problem we should address it, but we should be clear about what exactly we're dealing with then. Where's this happening? $\quad$ "And yes, this might be harsh" -- well, no I don't think it's harsh at all, where it's warranted. So what are we discussing, exactly? – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '14 at 2:39
• I'll get back to you if I find some specific instances; the ones that especially came to my attention, I saw some time ago when I just discovered CV. I would say it's more common on Stackoverflow, but if I recently spot something along the lines, I will definitely let you know. @Glen_b As for the second question, if the question is how to stop people from apologizing, then I am urging you to look at the fundamental underlying problem, not just a fix. – Jen Oct 3 '14 at 2:44
• Any time you have concerns, you can raise them here or in chat. Don't be afraid to criticize (though of course constructive criticism is usually more effective). Moderators in particular seem to be keen to deal with rudeness. I agree it happens - people are people so of course it does, but for it to be fundamental, it must be common enough that a lot of newbies would see it before they post. I haven't seen something that would qualify as fundamental in that sense. – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '14 at 2:47
• this is the whole issue -- they see this attitude, they feel intimidated, so they do not register on the site and they don't post. So how are you expecting to recognize the pattern when there's no data? So how can you assume if it's "common" amongst newbies if they don't post to begin with? – Jen Oct 3 '14 at 2:49
• @Glen_b plus, if someone really feels the need to apologize, they are going to do it anyways, by a simple manipulation of sentences in English you can subtly fulfill this goal and it's not going to be explicit or obvious. People are going to find their ways one way or another, because the fundamental issue is not going away – Jen Oct 3 '14 at 2:52
• I'm unsure what you're saying now. Which attitude are they seeing (where you say "this attitude")? If there's no pattern, no data, what are newbies seeing? I can see more on the site than they can (like deleted posts for example), so if it's scaring them away, I ought to see it. It's certainly possible that there's much more than I notice and I'm just being blind to it -- but in that case I want to see it. If I remember right, typically there's something like 50-60 questions a day. How many questions a day are people being rude or mean? Around five would seem to me like a serious problem. – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '14 at 3:01
• Oh, I do want to emphasize that I appreciate you coming in on this question. We need more voices, more opinions. – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '14 at 3:11
• You make strong assertions about supposedly widespread behaviour without even one specific example, but we want to focus on your claims. I can understand that posters may be unwilling to engage in debate with individuals whose posts they find obnoxious, but that is one of many good reasons for the ability to flag posts and to alert moderators. FWIW, I look at a lot of questions here and a very small sample on Stack Overflow and I have to agree from my very limited sample that there seems to be a higher fraction of aggressive, snarky and moderately rude wording on SO. – Nick Cox Oct 3 '14 at 8:42
• Another perspective: 'Our super-star answerers do provide "too good" answers - but they are also too good to those with lesser knowledge. To maintain high standards, they are obliged to point out mistakes and ask for corrections -but they never, I mean never, do it in an intimidating or insulting way.' Alecos Papadopoulos in meta.stats.stackexchange.com/questions/2083/… – Nick Cox Oct 3 '14 at 12:21
• @NickCox probably true but, due to the higher amount of questions that SO gets, there are also a lot more really bad questions there. Surely this does not justify rudeness, although I can understand that some people tend to lose their temper when seeing the nth question about the same topic for which a 5 seconds Google search would give an answer... – nico Oct 5 '14 at 20:31

As a newbie I think it might be informative that I share my experience. Cross-validated is intimidating, period. There are a few reasons for that, some of which are preventable, some of which are not (perhaps this idea deserves its own meta discussion). Anyways, apologizing is a natural response to asking others for help, particularly because you may feel like a burden. I understand it is important to let people know that they are not a burden: just be careful not to tell people that they "don't" need to or "shouldn't" feel bad; instead just let them know you're glad to help.

• A newbie perspective is certainly valuable here. Please expand on what in your view is preventable. One of the problems of active users is that we're not the technical support arm of a company dedicated to supporting its clients, right or wrong. If a newbie (or anyone else!) doesn't have a question that is clear, different and pertinent, it doesn't belong here. The aim of the forum is not to answer every question in the way that posters would like it answered. That's tough for people to hear sometimes, and we certainly should be polite and sensitive, but it's tough the other way too. – Nick Cox Oct 9 '14 at 11:14
• @NickCox It is a bit difficult to truly separate the preventable from the not, but I will quickly shot at it. When you make a statement like; "If a newbie (or anyone else!) doesn't have a question that is clear, different and pertinent, it doesn't belong here.", what do you think that statement "doesn't belong here" communicates? How would it make someone feel? Let me make it clear, I am not calling out you or anyone individually, and I know talking about feelings ____(insert adjective here)___. – k6adams Oct 9 '14 at 16:36
• I have observed there is a general attitude that users are not doing their due-diligence (in general I would agree), but that is to a large extent the nature of the beast. It is how you handle that situation. If it's not clear, just ask for clarification. If it is not pertinent, who really cares (maybe if you are feeling generous you guide them to the right resource)? – k6adams Oct 9 '14 at 16:37
• If it is a repeat, send them the link and let it be. Do we need to make a correction if it doesn't alter the context of the question? Before CV I had never been to a forum where others would change the content of my post, and it can be a bit jarring the first few times. Perhaps a bit of explanation of the correction process for newbies while it is occurring would go a long way. – k6adams Oct 9 '14 at 16:38
• I think CV is great! I know taking the time to be extra polite to every newbie is difficult, but the initial impression is the most important. – k6adams Oct 9 '14 at 16:40
• You're conflating what we say to posters in practice with a meta discussion about principles. If anyone wants to say that they have a question that is unclear and/or just the same as a previous question and/or not pertinent to the forum, then they're not going to impress me! I am totally on board with every plea for being as nice as possible, but even kindergarten can be a scary place when you first attend until you get socialised. Same here, except we aim mostly at adults. – Nick Cox Oct 9 '14 at 16:41
• Somewhere on the forum is an explanation of editing along these lines: If you are uncomfortable with the idea of your questions being edited by someone else, then Stack Exchange may not be the place for you. I can't find it this instant. The larger point is that the SE system is large and complicated and takes a while to get used to -- that's true for all of us. SE is however on the whole fantastically well documented; it's a pity that more people don't look at the documentation more carefully. – Nick Cox Oct 9 '14 at 16:48
• catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html is I think pertinent. Its tone is not one that I recommend here but its observations that on-line communities must police themselves and police themselves visibly are all too accurate. CV is a small town and traffic cops are needed. – Nick Cox Oct 9 '14 at 16:52
• Found it: "If you are not comfortable with the idea of your contributions being collaboratively edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you." stats.stackexchange.com/help/editing This doesn't meet your suggestion of explanation while it's occurring. That is a detail for elsewhere, perhaps. – Nick Cox Oct 9 '14 at 16:56
• @Nick Lol, is that a correction? I have a ton of empathy for major contributors. I understand, CV takes time to get use to, and people should do their due-diligence. However, just because my cell phone company told me that my data may be collected, that doesn't mean I "feel" good about it went it happens. The warning means little. You may know labor is going to hurt, but you don't truly know until you experience it. When traveling to another country, you hope that when you make cultural mistakes that others don't judge you but gently inform you about the customs. "" – k6adams Oct 9 '14 at 17:06