I looked at a question to be answered and found a number of unpleasant comments to the OP. Apparently he was new, and his formatting wasn't to everyone's satisfaction. If the commenters had wanted to be helpful they could have explained what is needed and where to find information. Instead, there was an accusatory tone. Yet the questions were perfectly legitimate and easy enough to read.

In my own wanderings around the site, and mistake making, I have run into assorted aggressive and sometimes outright accusative comments. I decided I wouldn't care, but it has made things somewhat tense anyway. Telling me I am wrong is fine—I'm here to learn. Editorial commentary on how very wrong it is, or an implication that I'm offending people with my errors, seems unnecessary.

I know we can't monitor everyone's behavior, but in my experience as a business owner I've found that clearly posting expectations can bring about surprising changes. You have posted in your FAQs that we should all be respectful, but I wonder if that should show up from time to time on the questions pages. Maybe with some beautiful, active graphics?

Really, I am enjoying the site. It is a great break from my sometimes very tedious work, and I am learning interesting things, which is fun. I just wish we could keep it a little more friendly.

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    $\begingroup$ @user: uhh... what?!? $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Nov 1 '13 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ @TheChaz2.0: it's very easy to spend a bunch of time to make a cool animation only to find that everyone hates it. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Nov 1 '13 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ If you see a rude comment, you can flag it for moderator attention. A few words from a moderator may cure a poster of rudeness. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Nov 1 '13 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ I always find it odd when people make comments about $\LaTeX$ as opposed to simply editing the post...the only reason I know about \operatorname is because people kept on editing my posts to add it in... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Nov 1 '13 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ I wholeheartedly second your sentiment. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Nov 1 '13 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't mind seeing a message appearing below the textbox when a user starts to type a comment reminding him to please "Be nice." A simple reminder like that might help dispel some short fuses in the heat of the moment. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Gruber Nov 2 '13 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexanderGruber I have discovered that (one of) the best way to wind up my wife is to tell her to "be nice". I suspect that the same logic holds with those posting comments in the heat of the moment. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Nov 2 '13 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ But not all of us are your wife. She may be tired of being nice for various reasons (some women do get there). She might be nicer if she were commenting on a public and educational website. Perhaps "be nice" is too succinct. More like "everyone on this site deserves respect". Maybe assorted messages could pop up at random. (I'll bet I'm making myself popular with whoever maintains the site)... $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 3 '13 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ I chose "Be nice" because it is the phrase we use in moderator messages and in the FAQ to discourage abusive behavior to other users. The specific wording could be tweaked if we find it exacerbates people's rage. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Gruber Nov 4 '13 at 7:36

I agree with much of what @user7530 has said, and I'd like to add a couple of points based on my observation of some behavior I have observed on this site. The following should not be seen as a justification if rudeness; there is none. But there are behaviors that also transcend the requirement to be nice, and rather than rudeness, I prefer to call it bluntness.

Many people on this site are, like you and me, professional people who are here because, to them and us, math is so fun and a site like this is such a gift that we are willing to spend what little free time we have answering math questions. Honestly, I can't express in words the joy I get when I am able to put together a solution to a problem like this or this. (Maybe watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series about compares.) That people might benefit from my enthusiasm is for me an ancillary reward. Really, I am here because I love this stuff and I do not get to do it enough in my professional life.

Because my free time is so precious (in addition to a career, I also have a family and a 43-year-old body that needs exercise), I tend to get blunt - prickly even - when I encounter people who demonstrate contempt for math yet insist on being on this site. Such users waste my precious time. These users fall into three categories:

1) Users who demand free tutoring services, begging for help on each microstep. (Some have the chutzpah to ask for such services within a specified time period!) My bluntness is never a personal insult, but instead is designed to make clear that I no longer wish to be sucked into servitude. If users like that never return again to M.SE, then I think we are better off for it; such users do not like math and should not be here.

2) Users who post little more than Maple/Mathematica output outside of comments. I have dealt with one such user who informed me that, since all math can be done by Maple with perfection, actually thinking about math is stupid and a waste of time. (Not his/her words, but a paraphrase.) Why is this person even here? So, yes, I have not been nice to people like this. Not sorry.

3) Users who take the pointing out of errors in their work as insults to be ignored rather than constructive comments that help improve the site. Such users, who occasionally satiate a need for a rep score boost by posting poorly thought-out "hints," express shocked outrage at any downvotes that may occur because they refuse to acknowledge what's obvious to most other users. In this case, I usually point out the error in a clear but exasperated tone; this is not directed at the user but at those who may stumble across the "solution".

Early on in my time on this site, I got into a tussle with @did over my mistaken justification for a step leading to a correct answer. @did was, as usual, absolutely right and corrected a long-held mistaken assumption on my part. I learned something and am enormously grateful to him. But during the exchange, I got rude and testy and refused to believe I was wrong, even though someone who actually practiced math full time was telling me otherwise. So @did got very blunt with me, which shook me into reality. I hope to do the same with others and have the same effect.

That all said, there are lots more new users and experienced users coming here to learn. They ask good questions and demonstrate that they are listening to feedback. We should be doing everything we can to keep those people here, and, as you correctly point out, the language of patience is the only acceptable kind.

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    $\begingroup$ It is true there are students who would like someone else to do their homework. One can ignore them. But some people rush to answer because they want points. I love your user who thinks all math can be done by Maple. In the 19th century there was a physicist who said "physics is a finished subject ... everything is known except for 3 little clouds". $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 1 '13 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @BettyMock: too true, although sometimes it is not so clear cut. Occasionally, I will answer a question that looks reasonable, but then the OP, succubus-like, asks a follow-up, then another, then another, then...arrgh! No rep score or accept is worth that. The dude who thinks all math can be done by Maple is real; the first time I met him, he posted a comment on an answer of mine, completely unsubstantiated, that Maple could do what I did better. Words fail. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Nov 1 '13 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ There is a difference between blunt and aggressive. The bluntest comment I ever got was "this is wrong" (no further exlanation). I took no offense and it was indeed wrong. A comment that starts "everything is wrong with this proof" is rather aggressive. I had misread the question and correctly answered what I thought was the problem. When I properly read the problem I provided a correct answer. I'm sure these things happen to everyone, and a little patience wouldn't hurt. $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 1 '13 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ As for your dude, there's a saying from ancient Greece: "against stupidity the gods themselves rage in vain". One could easily give him a problem that Maple can't solve, but it sure isn't worth the trouble. $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 1 '13 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ I draw the line at things I would not say to someone's face. Aggressive means getting personal, which is a big no-no. Blunt can be, "Hey, this is wrong because..." I like bluntness as it minimizes the number of words people need to read and absorb. (It also helps that I work in patent law and have been a journal editor.) $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Nov 1 '13 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ My criticisms center around the concept of usefulness. An answer in SE is useful or not. It may be correct, but not useful. I told one guy that his answer was not only not useful , but was also a fudge, and I spelled it out in the clearest possible language. He did not admit to anything (although clearly the community agreed with me), but he did change his answer to a useful one. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Nov 1 '13 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ Just looked at your answers, and it is very nice work. No wonder you feel good. I agree that I used the word aggressive when I meant personal. When I occasionally critique something I am not blunt. I'll use the extra words to be tactful. Sometimes I'll even put it as a question; does this really follow? because this looks like a counterexample. It's easy for someone to save face when you put it that way. Perhaps I go too far; but I would like people to enjoy the site. I'll be blunt about things like -- you didn't take the derivative correctly. $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 3 '13 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ "such users do not like math and should not be here." Wouldn't it be better if this were a place where people who did not like math could read excellent answers that started pushing them towards liking math? I'm not saying low-effort questions are good, but rather that I don't like giving up on people. $\endgroup$ – Mark S. Nov 4 '13 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MarkS.: I wasn't complaining about low-effort questions necessarily - that is too easy. It's the people that appear to be earnest but really show that listening to you or reading what you write to them is just way too much effort. But if you want to save folks like this, then by all means feel free to take on some of these projects - who am I to stop you. If you can satisfy any of these people and turn them into future M.SE contributors that answer questions, then wonderful. As for me, no thanks. I'm here to work on fun problems, not be a hero. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Nov 4 '13 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand why you dislike follow up questions so much. Surely you want to help the user, otherwise you wouldn't have answered in the first place. $\endgroup$ – user85798 Nov 4 '13 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @OliverBel: I did not say that, and one or two is fine. Four, five,...it gets excessive at some point. And even so, it wouldn't be tiresome if I didn't find myself repeating what I had just written. Life is too short. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Nov 4 '13 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Betty: Greece? That looks like a translation of Schiller’s Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens, from his play Die Jungfrau von Orleans. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 4 '13 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott I have no doubt Schiller used that in his play, but I do think it originated in ancient Greece. Of course I could be wrong. But it is not uncommon for things like this to be borrowed over and over. Whoever said it first, the sentiment is so very true. $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 5 '13 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Betty: It’s entirely possible, but I’ve seen it only as a borrowing from Schiller, so I wondered whether you had an actual citation. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 5 '13 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott No I don't. It's just been stored in my general knowledge folder all these years, and I never had a reason to question it. If there is a citation anywhere, it is probably in Robert Graves. It may have originated with Schiller, but he was a monotheist, was he not? $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 7 '13 at 1:06

A high proportion of questions posted here are homework questions that show minimal effort on the part of the OP, both in explaining/formatting the question, and in attacking the problem itself. I believe many of the regulars feel overwhelmed, and become exasperated (and for good reason) when the quality of a question is particularly poor.

On the other hand, I agree it's not reasonable for everyone posting here to know Latex. Would it be possible for the site to detect when a low-rep user tries to post a question with un-LaTeXed equations, and pop up a window showing basic usage?

As for aggression about errors in posted answers, I can't say I've noticed much of that... it's true that in mathematical culture people tend to be more direct about pointing out errors without sugar-coating, but also without intending any personal offense. Are you sure you aren't reading too much into the comments?

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    $\begingroup$ Betty Mock is reading no more or less into the error-pointing-out comments than the average user would. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Nov 1 '13 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you user1729. $\endgroup$ – Betty Mock Nov 1 '13 at 20:23

The incidence of overly caustic comments seems to be relatively low from what I can gather (and then, it's often users with <2k rep posting these).

I feel that it should suffice to call people out on their tone, with a comment along the lines of:

@CausticCommenter Please mind your tone -- it is not MSE's primary goal to scare away new users.

One thing that helps me personally to avoid posting a caustic response is to make good use of the comment templates thread (together with the AutoReviewComments plug-in for easy use): these are (mostly) well thought out comments that have a more or less neutral tone. This helps to avoid one's frustration sneaking into the comment's tone too much.

I have also laid out my view on courtesy matters on MSE here.

  • $\begingroup$ A downvote? I'm curious as to the disagreement that gave rise to that. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Nov 1 '13 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't downvote, but I gave thought to dishing one out...(but decided a comment would be better, as I like your point about commenting so the post, as a whole, doesn't really deserve a -1). The downvote would have been for the plugging of the comment template thread. It annoys me when someone posts a comment which doesn't entirely fit with the thread in hand. It kinda sounds like they are being lazy. That said, I do understand why you think it is a good thing. Perhaps using the template then extensively editing it to fit the context would be a good compromise (note the "extensively"). $\endgroup$ – user1729 Nov 1 '13 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 Thanks for your reply. I'll take your critique of pre-cooked comments on board, and I acknowledge that it is a risk of their use (I guess "make good use" has two meanings now). I tend to edit them when that makes them more sensible. E.g. often, multiple such comments would apply, in which case it's better to just write an ordinary comment that amalgamates them. That said, they're particularly great to nudge users towards creating better titles, tag better, and other site usage things not directly related to content (but which are IMO important to draw attention to). $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Nov 1 '13 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @user: that laziness is an interesting thing. I suppose, as someone who tries to use the comment templates occasionally, that it's hard to consistently put in more effort (into my comment) than I have seen from the OP (in their question). $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Nov 1 '13 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @TheChaz I understand what you mean, but I think that the "effort on my part" card can only really be applied when answering the question. Putting in effort to tell them to make an effort is worth the effort... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Nov 1 '13 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ @User: well, when you put it that way... :) $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Nov 1 '13 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ I think that you underestimate the incidence of overly caustic comments, and I dislike canned comments. I do agree with the middle suggestion and have on a few occasions posted comments of that sort. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 2 '13 at 10:34

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