Is Your Rudeness Necessary

Today I read a document called HowToAskQuestionsTheSmartWay by EricRaymond. He writes:

There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that reads "RtFm", the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The F**king Manual. He is almost certainly right. Go read it.

When did this kind of rudeness become acceptable to anyone? I agree with many of the points he makes in the essay regarding not asking stupid questions; if everyone thought hard before sending emails to support lists with subject lines like "Help, it doesn't work!", the world would be a better place. However, I contest absolutely his conviction that it's OK to be condescending and insulting to people who don't know better.

[If the concern is language, another commonly used interpretation of RTFM is "Read The Fine Manual."]

I suggest people read the article itself before commenting at length on this accurate-but-out-of-context quotation from it. Specifically, this is referring to people asking questions when (a) giving the answer is doing them a favour at some expense to the responder, and (b) it's clear that the questioner has not done any homework at all, but simply expects all the work to be done for them.

He goes on to say:

Much of what looks like rudeness in hacker circles is not intended to give offence. Rather, it's the product of the direct, cut-through-the-bullshit communications style that is natural to people who are more concerned about solving problems than making others feel warm and fuzzy.... (Some people assert that many hackers have a mild form of autism or AspergersSyndrome, and are actually missing some of the brain circuitry that lubricates normal human social interaction. This may or may not be true. If you are not a hacker yourself, it may help you cope with our eccentricities if you think of us as being BrainDamaged. Go right ahead. We won't care; we like being whatever it is we are, and generally have a healthy skepticism about clinical labels.)

I certainly feel that some people I've dealt with in the past must be BrainDamaged, because I certainly don't see how being insulting is helpful to anyone. If you're annoyed, then shut up. Telling someone they're an idiot who hasn't done the right thing leads only to acrimony and stress. Take those extra five or ten seconds and suggest reading the manual rather than just typing "RtFm". If you're able to tell me what to do without insulting me in the process, that's not making me feel "warm and fuzzy" - it's a little thing called common courtesy. And you'll earn my respect instead of a permanent redirect to /dev/null. -- EarleMartin

On the other hand, it is common courtesy to have taken the time to familiarize oneself with a newsgroup or other forum before posting there. It is common courtesy to search out and read any appropriate FAQs before posting there. It is common courtesy to take the time to be sure you understand your question, and have phrased it clearly with enough contextual meaning before you post it. It is simply obnoxious, immature and yes, rude behavior to show up in a new forum (unless it happens to be a help-desk or similar) demanding help without any prior effort on your part ... some people, it is true, react poorly to this rudeness, but that is another problem.

Well, of course. One of my specific problems in real-time fora like InternetRelayChat is with people giving a smug, useless answer that's a waste of everybody's time, then getting irate when the questioner inevitably reacts badly. Example: "Anyone know about foo?" "Yes, many people know about foo." The questioner may well be irritated by this; unsurprising, because it's a worthless reply which helps nobody. You're not a robot; there is no need for this anal literalism. Anyone with two brain cells to knock together is aware of common forms that questioning in the English language can take. Our imaginary questioner clearly has a foo-related issue and is looking for people knowledgeable in the ways of foo. Answer the earlier question with: "I don't, but Fred is our resident foo expert," or "Yes, I have some foo experience, what's up?" or some other useful response. Don't clutter up the conversation with inane and rude ConversationalChaff. If you're not in the mood for answering questions, then keep schtum. If you're the kind of person who participates in this anal-retentive literalism (like EricRaymond evidently is) then please grow the hell up. -- EarleMartin

[note: following reply deals with web or mail-type fora, not real-time areas]

Sure, the best protocol is just to ignore questions like this if you don't want to take the time to explain to the poster why it was a poor question if it was (highly likely as stated; i.e. either obvious, or lacking enough context/information to be useful). Some people are simply trying to give you this feedback in a way they think is clever or amusing. It usually isn't, so that makes two people who are detracting from the forum instead of one.

I guess the underlying point is that both questioner and answerer should both be familiar with the idioms of the medium, and obey them. This means that as a first time user of a medium, your primary job is to familiarize yourself with that culture before using it (by way of FAQs and other docs, etc.). It is also in the best interests of others in that medium to cut newbies a bit of slack.

I've never been able to accept the "I can't help being rude, so everyone else just has to deal with it" attitude. Anyone who is aware that they have a propensity for rudeness has a responsibility to be extra careful. I can understand that in real-time face-to-face conversations, someone with this problem may slip, but anyone who takes the time to write thoughtfully should have no problem using extra care.

If someone is wasting your time with dumb questions, then just ignore them or say "I'm sorry, but I don't have the time to help you with this." That will take much less of your precious time than some flurry of insults. If you'd prefer to deliver the insults anyway, you need to accept that you are being intentionally and unnecessarily rude.

-- KrisJohnson

I agree. I have a propensity for unintentional rudeness. I think I'm one of those geeks with a mild form of AspergersSyndrome. When we find others like us (like on usenet or irc), we tend to communicate in ways that appear rude to more normal folk. Sometimes we forget whom we are talking to and assume everyone else is like us. I'm aware of it and I try to guard against it. Pissing normal people off is a bad survival strategy.

I can't imagine why rudeness would be "necessary". But I think the real question is, is rudeness helpful? I think the answer has got to be no. It's counter-productive; it fills the channel with noise and leaves little or no room for signal. -- RandyStafford

Maybe the answer depends on whether you're talking about actively adding extra rude language, rather than simply directness - that some people interpret as rudeness.

[I don't think politeness fills the channel with less noise than rudeness. Politeness is added to rude signals. It's an extra layer of protocol that comes with large-scale human organization. Close friends and family can be 'rudest' with one another. As familiarity decreases, politeness increases. "Please see the documentation at <insert URL here>" is good for strangers. "rtfm" is fine among friends, and much less noisy.]

It could be partly a cultural issue. I hear people in New York are generally used to a harsh tone of communication during regular work. In California, however, such a style would not be accepted. Individual families vary widely also. My family tended to be rather loud, while my wife's family rarely raise their voices. However, it appears that my family communicate better, despite the loudness. My inlaws seem to sweep tough issues under the carpet rather than confront them in all their ugliness. We get verbally ugly, spill our guts, then make up and grow closer for the experience.

You have a different kind of relationship with family and friends than you have with strangers in an internet community. And there is a difference between being direct and being insulting.

An incident that happen to me a year or two ago: the neighbors to the east across the back yard fence have anywhere from two to five dogs at any given time. Their own two, plus the occasional boarders. Their neighbors to the north (my northeast) have a dog in their own fenced yard. My neighbors to the north have three dogs in their fenced yard. Occasionally all these dogs will be out at the same time, barking at each other (through the various fences) like crazy. Incredible racket. When this happens I trot inside and get out my Super Soaker CPS 2000, the real world equivalent of Doom's BFG 9000 when it comes to training bad behavior out of dogs and cats. All the animals in the neighborhood know that water cannon when they see it, and they all immediately discontinue whatever objectionable activity they were about.

Now, the neighbors to the east have a teenage son (whose name I can't recall) with a Bad Attitude, apparently. One time when I was out in the back yard this kid said something about me not squirting his dogs because he was going to come over and "kick my ass."

I was completely dumbfounded.

For one thing, I am 30 pounds heavier than this kid, with approximately 30 years more hand-to-hand combat training (with and without weapons of all kinds). I personally own 24 firearms, many knives, and all kinds of other implements of potential violence. But the fact that this little snot-faced twerp would have the gall to talk to his elder that way simply stunned me into a state of shock. He trotted back inside before I could recover and offer the following sage advice:

Don't be rude when you don't need to be, because in this foul society in the current US of A, somebody might simply kill you out of hand. In a perverse age when kids are whacking each other over a pair of sneakers you can't expect to do things like that and survive. I certainly could have killed that stupid kid with my bare hands without much trouble. There are many, many mechanisms in place preventing me from doing that, but those mechanisms don't apply to everyone. One must assume that the creepy weirdo who just cut in front of you for that last parking space is willing to kill you for it. That bad-tempered bank teller? Cut him some slack. And don't even get me started on postal workers. The phrase, "going postal?" I tell people to treat Usenet and other Internet exchanges the same way, because You Never Know.

Thusly, the following maxim: Use rudeness only when it's a matter of life or death. Literally.

-- MartySchrader

This sounds somewhat paranoid. If rudeness has any notable tendency to get one killed, why are there so many rude people left in the world? If so many people are so close to snapping, wouldn't you probably end up getting killed whether you were polite or not, just on the off chance that someone spilt his coffee? The US has a lot of violence, but not that much.

Oh, yeah. Chicagoland, where I come from, is getting more violent all the time. Chicago held the dubious "honor" of being the nation's [corrected] per capita murder leader in 2002. Just recently [Apr 04] there was an incident on the streets of Chicago right outside Wrigley Field. A pedestrian was shot and killed by a passenger (!!!) in a car after a traffic altercation. Oy.

My point is that rudeness in modern America is taking your life in your hands. You don't believe me? Check out the big city media. Search for murder and see how many of these incidents are related to really useless exchanges turning violent. Let's All Be Nice To Each Other(registered trademark).

On the other hand, Chicago is not the world.

[Perhaps not, but it's enough like the world that there's something to be learned here. The "world" has plenty of examples of peoples and cultures who will happily slug/shoot/stab/hang you if you are "rude" to them. It would be a fundamental error to assume that rudeness is a safe bet. I've been down that road. I made a joking remark to a fellow who was prone to rage (which I didn't know) and got my face bashed in. I now make darn sure I have some familiarity before I make funny.]

Very sad note: nearly four years after writing this bit it appears that this neighbor has killed his mother in a domestic violence incident. I wondered why the dog was outside barking his head off at 03:00 three nights ago. Now I know why. This kid turned out to be a homicidal maniac, quite literally. -- MartySchrader

Sounds like you need to pack more than just a super-soaker.

You may not have seen the note I made up above. I have about two dozen options more serious than a Super-Soaker. None of them were called for in the original incident, however.

It is also important to understand what is perceived as rudeness. Well-worn phrases such as RtFm don't carry much vitriol nowadays. The fact that we habitually use it only in this abbreviated form plays an important part. If you know what RtFm stands for, then you have implicitly had the chance already to absorb some of the culture that it comes out of. Ergo - you should take it in the spirit that it is meant (or at least, should be meant). -- DominicCronin

A sysad friend of mine who wears an "RTFM" T-shirt has been known to tell the more important suits that "it's a radio station in [pick a country beginning with R]". DaveH is quite polite, as sysads go.

Well, I know that people here prefer polite social interaction and abhor unjustified rudeness, but it's also a bit odd to insist that when you approach a social group as a supplicant to find out about a specific subject, you expect them to observe your social mores because they are "superior".

InternetRelayChat is a very complex social environment where certain things considered rude elsewhere are simply common conversational idioms. "STFU" doesn't carry much anger in it, it's just the shortest way these kids know how to type "You're irritating the channel." ... Usually.

If you go down into the stronghold of a hacker tribe, sorry, you're out of luck. People down in those textual wigwams are nasty, rude folk by normal social standards. That's just how things are down there. If you're going there to request knowledge and at the same time demand that they be polite to you even if you are committing the egregious sin of not reading the channel FAQ first (or asking some questions that the group considers improper to ask), then expect consequences.

IRC and Usenet are notorious for this because, unlike this wiki, they are mostly for social interaction. In social interaction, the distinction of signal and noise is almost entirely arbitrary. While a cool head and a suave speech may get you a lot in the real world, down in the seedy back-alleys of IRC, it doesn't mean much at all.

-- DaveFayram

What passes for polite in Paris differs from what passes for polite in Portland, New York City, or Hong Kong. Online isn't that different from the RealWorld in this regard.

I believe that in certain circumstances rudeness is, if not necessary, then justified and extremely useful.

Specifically I'm thinking of the situation that happens when someone rings your doorbell and, on your opening it, starts talking.

Now there are no two ways about it; interrupting someone who is speaking and who doesn't want to be interrupted is rude. The polite thing to do is to wait if, after you have signalled that you wish to interrupt, they signal that they do not wish you to do so.

But when the speaker is a salesman who is making a pitch. Who has tailored their words and presention to give you the minimal possible chance to intervene politely. Who is in fact trying to take advantage of your politeness in order to steal time from you for their own gain. Then I believe that a certain level of rudeness in return is justified. -- DouglasReay

interrupting someone who is speaking and who doesn't want to be interrupted is rude

There is nothing in manners that states one needs to be with a floor mat or foolish. This is certainly a such thing as a polite interruption; simply state "I am sorry but I am not interested." I would not consider it polite for someone to listen to my monologue on a topic rather than interrupting with critical news such as, "The building is on fire!" ::(People with AspergersSyndrome have trouble understanding when interrupting is ok. --(Alex) ~~~~

Agreed, delivering a monologue which precludes two way conversation is, I think more rude. My mother calls HelpVampires? time TimeThieves?, which seem an apt alternative description. -- MartinSpamer.

If somebody interrupts you, you don't have to be rude back. Look them in the eye, and calmly say, "Bob [their name], I would appreciate it if you didn't interrupt me. I promise I'll give you an equal chance to state your views. You have my word." This relieves possible concern that they won't get a chance to express their views, and also makes it clear you will do your part to share the time. -t

I think that ESR's intentions with this essay are being misunderstood. It is my impression that the essay is meant to be as much cautionary as instructive. He never advocates or justifies such rudeness; he simply explains that it happens (as anyone who frequented several technical fora for any length of time could attest), gives some of the reasons why it happens, and offers some advice on how to avoid being on the dirty end of the stick. His own recommendations for answering questions, at the end of the essay, stands in contrast to the sort of behavior he is talking about.

Mind you, ESR is often notably rude himself, but I think that this just a part of his general penchant for hypocrisy. The faults of the messenger do not necessarily reflect upon the validity of the message. - JayOsako

Does rudeness cripple inquiry? Does the crippling of debate cripple inquiry? Is rudeness an epistemic sin or just plain impolite?

PeterSuber, "Logical Rudeness":

I think EarleMartin is missing the point of ESR's document. It's a guide to dealing with hacker subculture as a nonhacker or neophyte hacker. What you perceive as rudeness, I call CultureShock. To a hacker, the truly rude behaviour is wasting everyone's time with stupid questions; compared to that a quick, pointed, and relevant put-down is nothing. It's not rude to forcibly eject somebody from a party when they're falling-down drunk and vomiting on the guests, is it?

Since aspects of hacker culture as reflected in this document tend to be incredibly useful, it gets quoted in places where there are different standards of behaviour (for example, WelcomeToWikiPleaseBePolite). I'd suggest just paying attention to the practical ways one can improve questions and ignore the rest. If you want to really understand the hacker subculture, parts I and III of are useful (although not authoritative). -- JonNiehof

To compare someone acting cluelessly to someone "falling-down drunk and vomiting" is inaccurate. You can educate the clueless, but no amount of instruction will make a drunk person any less drunk. So your example doesn't apply here. Being a rude, tactless boor is not justified in any context, particularly when you are the one who is in a position of being able to impart knowledge to someone who is clearly crying out for some appropriate advice.

Why do you think that computer users are often stereotyped as "nerds"? It's not only that they indulge in (apparently) lone, antisocial activity with a screen. It's because, as often as not, they simply do not behave socially as normal people do. Part of this seems to involve the belief that online they can act like assholes and it doesn't matter. Well, I hate to break it to anyone, but CyberSpace doesn't actually exist. It's just an extension of MeatSpace. Everyone on that screen exists somewhere in the real world, and in that real world they are expected to behave in an adult fashion, which involves treating other people with respect. Just because you are in "the hacker subculture" doesn't give you an opt-out to that fact. -- EarleMartin

Related: FistsWork

I would have to concur with EarleMartin. I did not complete reading the referenced document because of the overwhelming arrogance on the part of the author. In professional development environments, this approach is simply not tolerated. I can accept that in an open source development, a different approach to asking questions would be beneficial as opposed to the approach used when asking a paid professional. The article, though, seems much less focussed on providing advice and more on insulting "mere users" of software. Using a simple evaluation for a persuasive essay (and ignoring the content), the referenced document misses its mark. -- WayneMack

Handling abusive geeks:

"IsYourRudenessNecessary?" Yes, most definitely. :o)

"IsYourRudenessNecessary?" The short answer is *No*

I have been on every side of this debate as sponsor, developer, user, manager, etc. I like the example of a salesman coming to your door. In such a case, one needs a sort of 'meta-theory' like a PrincipleOfLeastRudeness?. If you waste time on that intrusive uninvited guest, you will end up (rudely) taking time from someone else who deserves it.

The thing that has moved me to comment here, though, is my frustration as a consumer of broken software. I won't bother to name and shame, but there is a large community of developers that has a culture of repeatedly releasing things that simply fail out of the box. Their answers are invariably unhelpful and often rude. For those of us who work on many different large and varied systems, it is not realistically possible to RTFM. TFM is usually the last thing to be updated and if the software crashes at the beginning of a vanilla installation, the developers have not even properly finished the software, let alone the documentation.

I am, more often than not, the programmer of systems. It is embarrassing (for me) to even *get* a question about my systems. It means I fell down somewhere. It is understandable that the community of developers gets defensive at times. We work through the night to achieve the impossible all the time. It can be irritating when someone glibly points out that after all that work, it has failed. Sometimes, it feels as if someone is equating their five minute evaluation with your thousand hours of hard-core development work and/or their six years of experience with your thirty. However, breakage, though it may not be my fault, is still my responsibility. My software either works when deployed or it does not. If it does not, it seems reasonable to me that the user might expect some help getting it to work. Others might point out that the manual and/or release notes *SAY* it breaks this way, that way, requires this, requires that, etc, etc. Who is in a better position to determine if the program is properly installed and has what it needs than the developers? As a rule, software should do its best to determine if it is able to run and should fail gracefully with a meaningful explanation as to why it failed if it cannot run. Nothing is better than a community of educated users and developers to help correct a problem quickly. It is only natural to head to the source for help. It seems to me that the more stable a system is, the more likely it is that people are proud and happy to offer assistance in the rare cases it fails. Grouchy communities that insist that their clients educate themselves as to the peculiar frailties of their software and the culture that surrounds it are not (or at least should not be) the norm. I certainly do not aspire to join that fraternity.

I read the entire document in question (for a second time) before posting this. By the time one gets to the few lines of civility, it has likely lost the goodwill of most readers. I disagree with the implied endorsement of 'hacker culture' being rude. As a 'hacker' myself for more than three decades, I take exception to the notion that 'hackers' are necessarily rude. I think that younger programmers can be arrogant as they become journeymen. However, I don't think gentlemen like P.J. Plauger (I pick him as an example because he once just picked up the phone for a chat with a younger programmer (me) once upon a time) and his ilk should be lumped in with the vocal minority of rude wannabes^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H people that hang out in various public forums.

It is unfortunate, but the incompetent (I don't necessarily exclude myself), are the least equipped to recognize their incompetence. The closer one gets to the top of their profession, the more they realize the extent of their ignorance. In my experience, the top people are rather humble and disinclined to throw stones.

Whilst I am beating my chest, let me just mention that it is crazy frustrating to look at these communities of developers claiming everything is fine on the one hand whilst they have thousands of current errata and software they know is sufficiently prone to crash that it has code to phone home when it does. Maybe it's just me, but I think that programmers whose software constantly traps out should be a little more humble. All software has bugs, but not all software manifests those bugs catastrophically as a matter of course. -- BobTrower

Re: Incompetence -- There is an article about it here:

From the above:

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell University

 "People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The
 authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these
 domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make
 unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4
 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and
 logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the
 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration
 to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically,
 improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them
 recognize the limitations of their abilities."

Somebody might want to refactor that elsewhere. It is the exact article I read many years ago and by pure serendipity I came across it while reading a site ranting about the bum rap Codd/Date got from the SQL vendors. -- BobTrower

{Perhaps a move to HumansAreLousyAtSelfEvaluation}

See: RespectAsaZeroSumGame, CriticalSpirit, DeleteInsults, IncompetentCommunicator, TrollPatternFixes, TheInternetIsNotYourLife, AnotherViewOnVulgarity, PolitenessConsideredHarmful, RudenessFails

CategoryCommunication, CategoryInteraction

EditText of this page (last edited January 17, 2012) or FindPage with title or text search