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I usually hang out at math.SE being among top contributors. I find math.SE a pretty welcoming community, with many newcomers politely steered into a right direction, and given helpful hints/answers.

I came across a question about email writing style I encountered in marketing emails. Since in my native tongue (Russian) such a style would not considered polite, I asked it here, only to find my question down-voted multiple times, with little explanation extended.

Such a matter does not make me feel particularly welcome by the community. I think the attitude towards newcomers needs to improve.

  • As to the question itself, writing style really isn't part of EL&U. Maybe Writers would be a better fit, but I wouldn't know for sure. – simchona Jun 1 '12 at 3:39
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    @simchona Sure, I am not arguing it is, and in fact agree with the closing, but in my opinion, a more appropriate action would be to close and migrate to writing, as opposed to downvoting. – Sasha Jun 1 '12 at 3:44
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    It might still be off-topic, but perhaps part of the reason is that this meta question includes more useful information ("such a style would not be considered polite") about the marketing email that was missing from the original question, that just asks about permissibility. – Hugo Jun 1 '12 at 9:23
  • @Hugo: I think your comment addresses the heart of the matter (more detail in my answer below). – J.R. Jun 1 '12 at 10:59
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    @simchona Recently, Writers.SE has declared questions that have to do with rephrasing as off-topic. Not sure if they would consider this question as a rephrasing question though. I have similar questions on style on Writers.SE closed for being seen as a rephrasing question. – xenon Jun 4 '12 at 11:56
  • @xEnOn I was inclined to say "Yes! Absolutely it is true that Writers SE is the correct place to ask a rephrasing question of this sort!". I read your comment though. I checked Meta Writers SE, and I found this meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/535/… Your point is valid. I didn't realize that was in effects on Writers SE. – Ellie Kesselman Jun 6 '12 at 7:11
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Sasha: Welcome to EL&U (and I mean that sincerely).

When I was in school, there was a common refrain: there's no such thing as a stupid question. The sentiment was, if you are confused about something, you shouldn't be afraid to ask.

I still believe that's true – there's no such thing as a stupid question. However, just about any question can be poorly presented.

I've heard others mention that the "downvote phenomenon" seems more common at EL&U than at some of the other Stack Exchanges. Maybe that's because the active members of other exchanges are more polite, but it could also be because many of those forums get far fewer poorly-presented questions. For example, the Mathematica Exchange has had a little over 1,700 questions asked; Computational Sciences just over 600. The English Exchange is nearing 16,000.

We do downvote a lot of questions, but whether or not such downvotes are a symptom of a rude and unwelcoming community is up for interpretation. There are two issues that need to be investigated: (1) what does a downvote represent? and (2) what kinds of questions are being downvoted?

I find that most downvoted questions on EL&U seem hastily written, and the O.P.'s haven't done a very good job of "marketing" their question. Usually, these questions are either very basic (causing people to scratch their heads, and wonder, "Doesn't this person know how to use a dictionary [or thesaurus, or search engine]?") or else very confusing (because there is insufficient context to adequately explain the question).

Yet downvoting for these reasons is not limited to EL&U. What if I went to Math.SE and asked:

Confused about algebraic operations
What's the difference between addition and subtraction?

How "welcoming" would that community be?

Some might think of a creative response:

Now that you mention it, there's really no "difference" between the two; they are essentially the same operation. After all, 2 + 3 is the same as 2 - (-3)...

but I suspect more than one user would be a bit annoyed at such a basic question, and perhaps one might even be brave enough to openly chide me for asking it. (I don't frequent the Math Exchange, but such downvoting does seem to happen there when users ask inappropriate questions, as evidenced by this example and this example. Moreover, and it's not difficult to find examples in other exchanges as well – observe how this user was downvoted and rebuked, apparently for failing to provide sufficient information; notice the upvotes on the chiding remark as well). Here's another example of an unwelcoming reaction to an off-topic question on another exchange.

All that said, the EL&U community is very welcoming toward questions – even very basic questions – that do a good job of explaining why the question is being asked. Let me point to two examples: a downvoted question, and this upvoted question, both asked by community newcomers on the same day. The upvoted question is actually the more basic of the two, but the O.P. does a good job of explaining why he is asking the question: a concise yet clear context defines the scope of the question, and initial assumptions provide a baseline to work from. If you visit the question, you will see, not only did it reach 20 upvotes, but a few of the answers did as well. In contrast, the downvoted question, which has since been deleted, seemed hastily written, and too open-ended:

Is this the correct way to put this sentence?

"So I know you like coffee, and I know where to find the best coffee close to your work"

Thanks in advance.

What did the O.P. mean by "is this correct?" In what context would this sentence be used? A formal letter? An email? A conversation? How is anyone supposed to know? After one hour, the O.P. added this comment: "Its [sic] a conversation, asking out for coffee" – that's an important piece of information!

I've seen this pattern repeated rather often: a question is fired off, regulars ask some pointed questions, and only then is the vital information provided as an afterthought. In such situations, I've often thought to myself, "Had that information been included in the original question, instead of posted in a later comment, maybe this would've gotten upvotes instead of downvotes." Unfortunately, some O.P.'s seem unable or unwilling to accept such feedback as helpful; rather than thinking introspectively, trying to figure out how their question might have been improved, they become insolent or confrontational instead.

Going back to the question you cite, when I read:

Is ending an email with a question like that permissible?

my first thought is, "Why on earth wouldn't it be?" (After all, isn't that what the O.P. just did in the question?) But when I see this addendum:

In my opinion unsolicited marketing emails shouldn't be asking any questions at all. They should politely present the information. Question at the end of the email prompts for action, and since this is a marketing email, I will find it an unnecessary distraction. I asked the question here because I have never seen such a thing in Russian emails, where I would consider it rude.

then I think to myself, "Hmmm... that's quite thought-provoking" (it sets a better context, and I also find the cross-cultural reference rather interesting).

All this leads me to my closing point: is a downvote necessarily rude?

Quite frankly, I'm a bit surprised how often an unexplained downvote is considered a breach of etiquette (as opposed to being a mechanism to let O.P.s know that perhaps they could have done a better job framing or researching their question). More often than not, the first downvote isn't meant to be "rude;" it's nothing more than a quick way to express this sentiment: "I don't really like this question, but, before I fly off the handle, let's see what others think."

If an O.P. can accept a downvote or comment as helpful feedback, meant to indicate that a question has inadequate information, or is simply not a good fit for the EL&U forum (neither of which makes it a bad question, by the way), then I think you'll find this to be a very friendly, welcoming, helpful community.

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    +1 for everything, but especially for this: "there's no such thing as a stupid question. However, just about any question can be poorly presented." – user7626 Jun 2 '12 at 17:18
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    Just a thought, but someone new to this forum may not know what all the relevant information is that they should be supplying. It would be kinder, and more useful, to ask for the information and suggest that the person edit their original question, adding this information. – monty Jun 3 '12 at 11:58
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    @monty: I completely agree – how can a newcomer be expected to know all the rules, customs, and idiosynchrosies? That's why members of this community will often try to nudge someone in the right direction with a comment. Sometimes this guidance is well-received; other times, it isn't. – J.R. Jun 3 '12 at 16:59
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    sometimes a question is not very good at first sight and people just accuse it of being brainless, and, in a second thought, you find out it really is a good question. People should keep in mind that when someone doesn't know much about a subject, probably the question will not be very well formulated. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 17:16
  • I guess we are all here to learn. Learning how to ask, learning how to answer, learning how to deal with people, learning how to make a decision... learning to have some patience, sometimes. Possibly the greatest of all is learning how to make the best out of a problem.. – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 17:18
  • I think there always need to be checks in place, mentally, that keep us from overreacting. That said, I'm as guilty as anyone of losing my temper and being stubborn. On one hand, the more patience you can have with newcomers, to some limited extent, the less likely the community is to stagnate. On the other, we all have our limits, and moderators get to deal with the joy of always having those limits tested basically continually. As long as the politics don't obscure the whole purpose of a Q&A site and everyone has some balance of self-respect and humility, there's a good chance this wil work. – shinyspoongod Jun 20 '12 at 2:29
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    All that said, virtually anything that merits downvoting merits a comment. Perhaps a more semi-automated feedback system incorporated into the process of downvoting would help things along? e.g. I downvote something, a question in particular, then I get prompted with some common reasons why, and select one, and a comment is posted. I'm not sure this doesn't already exist in some form, but I'm too lazy to look. – shinyspoongod Jun 20 '12 at 2:30
  • Your math example is thought provoking. I've always felt very basic questions were appropriate on Stack Exchange sites, because they can serve as incredible references in socratic format. Basic questions are, in my opinion, some of the most valuable and difficult to answer completely. They are a place of exchange between a curious beginner and an expert. I hope these Q&A sites don't aspire to be merely experts asking experts. Simple questions, such as those a child might ask, are under-appreciated. 16,000 questions probably reflects the greater relevance to people's everyday life, not fluff. – BenjaminGolder Jun 25 '13 at 22:59
  • @Benjamin: Thanks for your thoughtful words. I wrote this a year ago; I wonder sometimes if my math example gets my point across. I was only trying to say that all Stack Exchange sites will downvote questions that are hastily asked, not well researched, not well-posed, and off-topic. People often mention that ELU seems to have more downvotes than other sites, but no one ever seems to take the time to examine the questions being downvoted with a critical eye. Instead, an erroneous assumption gets made that the community is made up of impatient snobs who don't care about the English learner. – J.R. Jun 25 '13 at 23:08
  • @Benjamin: (cont.) Put another way, basic questions don't bother me per se, but, if you're going to ask a basic question, at least compose it in a way that makes it look like you've thought about it for more than two seconds, and write it in a way that won't make it look like you typed it on your phone while you were multitasking, watching a sitcom. As an example, I have a hard time defending this question, and I think a similar question on another SE site is also likely to get downvoted. That's all I was trying to say. – J.R. Jun 25 '13 at 23:15
  • @J.R. That's the broader opinion, but I would hope that a question is judged by its content far more than its style. Sometimes that poorly worded question is the end result of struggling with something. Here, in the english usage stack exchange, I would hope to find the most forgiveness of awkward wording. Instead, it seems the most strict and least helpful in terms of giving askers feedback. – BenjaminGolder Jun 25 '13 at 23:20
  • @Benjamin: We have one user who hails from Japan. Many of his questions are basic; they often have grammatical errors & typos. Yet he gets consistently upvoted, and has 15,000+ rep pts. Why? Because, despite grammatical problems and awkward wordings, it's always evident he puts much thought and research into every question he poses. Sure, not everyone will write such deep questions right out of the gate, but can you not least acknowledge there is a line where an O.P. simply takes the community at large for granted? – J.R. Jun 25 '13 at 23:26
  • I definitely acknowledge that line exists, and rightly so, but I still agree: "I think the attitude towards newcomers needs to improve." I often see reasonable questions (and sometimes their answers) down-voted with no explanation. See this, this, and this – BenjaminGolder Jun 25 '13 at 23:37
  • also: this, and this. In other words, many of the questions I see with 0 or negative votes seem reasonable, though poorly worded. – BenjaminGolder Jun 25 '13 at 23:45
  • @Ben: We can go on ad infinitim. Yes, some users can get a little trigger happy with their downvote buttons. I only meant to point out that there is plenty of room for blame on both sides of the issue. (By the way, as an aside, I'd like to point out that four of the five questions you pointed to haven't been downvoted at all, so it seems like the community agrees with you – they are reasonable questions.) – J.R. Jun 26 '13 at 0:06
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Jeff Atwood, one of the creators of the system here, admits that it's painful:

Sure, it stings a bit to get downvoted. I’ve been downvoted myself on Stack Overflow. And each time, it makes me pause. But that’s good! That’s necessary! You have to believe there are potential consequences for every post you make — both good and bad. This is how things work on real playgrounds; why would we expect our web playgrounds to be any different?

Apart from what others wrote about improving questions, I'd only add that you have to move forward. Taking your comments to meta is one way, but

  • choosing to forget the regret,
  • learning from the negative experience, and
  • trusting you'll get a better reaction to your next question

are other ways to move ahead.

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    This question isn't asking about downvoting in general. It's about why it's overly abundant on ESU. – Chase Sandmann Dec 29 '14 at 19:32
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There are two (linked) issues.

People downvote because a question lacks research effort, or it's of particularly poor quality, or it's "not useful". Quite what "not useful" means is open to interpretation, but it can easily mean "not a good fit for this site."

There are a number of questions which are not really about grammar or word usage, which is the primary subject in ELU. A downvote is an indication that they should be elsewhere. It may not express an opinion on the quality of the question.

If a question should be elsewhere, then I agree it should be migrated elsewhere. That means a vote to close: not everyone has enough rep to do that; they can only downvote. I would hope that a significant number of downvotes would be enough to pique the interest of those who can vote to close and migrate.

The other issue is the advice box shown to askers.

How to Ask

Is your question about English language and usage?
We prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed.
Provide details. Share your research.
If your question is about this website, ask it on meta instead.
read the faq »
asking help »

The first hint there really should be re-worded to provide explicit guidance on what this site is about. Perhaps it should not simply repeat the big heading at the top of the page, but actually expand on it and provide more relevant help:

Is your question about English words or grammar?
If it isn't we can help you [find more relevant sites] for your question.

...with a link to a relevant list of alternatives. There doesn't seem to be one in the FAQ; perhaps there's an answer on Meta which could be linked.

The Bottom Line: I don't think we can necessarily do much about downvotes. But it should be possible to make downvotes less likely with a minimal amount of extra guidance.

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    A downvote can be a signal to others: "there's something not quite right with this question, please come and take a look and take action [e.g. vote to migrate]". – Hugo Jun 1 '12 at 9:17
  • Update: the "Ask Question" help has been reworded as "Is your question about using English?"; the necessity for prior research is highlighted; there's now a link to ELL, which wasn't possible in 2012. – Andrew Leach Dec 25 '14 at 16:26

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