On at least two occasions some advanced MO users included in their comments phrases which were less than polite. I hope that these are isolated instances or else I would quietly and simply leave MO without a word. I don't know if these were the cases of autism or because their English is poorer than mine (I doubt it--my own English is poor enough).

If people would leave MO because they value politeness above MO imperfect manners then whom are the advanced users going to pester? :-)

PS.   At this time  ( 2014-11-22, h.22:06 of the USA Central Time Zone )  there are $\ 5\ $ up-votes and $\ 8\ $ down-votes (like they were needed in this case :-) -- one may wonder who is who? It's ironic that a simple request for being polite causes such a downpour of excitement.

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    $\begingroup$ It's hard to have a discussion about this without concrete examples. I suspect that almost everyone agrees that it is important to be polite, but that there is disagreement about what this means in practice. $\endgroup$ – Andy Putman Nov 21 '14 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ Please flag instances of rudeness that you see, to bring them to moderator attention. Either the moderators will find merit in the flag (and typically delete the offending comment, or perform some other suitable action), or dismiss the flag as not rising to that level. I too have recently been seeing comments directed at questions which don't belong at MO which I thought unnecessarily harsh. Autism/ASD or not, rude/offensive comments should generally be removed. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Nov 21 '14 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble, I didn't say rude, I said less than polite (something like giving direct orders rather than using a phrase of the kind: would you... or would you, please, ...). $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Nov 21 '14 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ Włodzimierz, please be more specific, so that we can better respond to your post. Is it a case where the OP says something like "Prove this statement"? I'm not sure what you would like the community to do about this exactly, but we moderators are here to help if we can. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Nov 21 '14 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Todd, I can tell the difference between the mathematical jargon and a part of a regular communication. $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Nov 21 '14 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Włodzimierz: would you please be more specific? (My previous comment was not to insult you or to be "less than polite; a lot of people are put out when a poster uses the imperative form "Prove that...", and for all I knew you were among them.) $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Nov 21 '14 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Wlod, you can send email to Todd and the others at moderators@mathoverflow.net . You can put the name Todd in the subject line, for example. That way you can answer Todd without, well, without anything going wrong. I've done that a few times over the years, i think it is a good option with divisive material, and any of the moderators may choose to reply if they find a reason to do so. Last time I did that, I was taken aback by the way someone interpreted a comment i had made, really threw me. Todd was very nice about it all. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Nov 22 '14 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I am relaxed, but there seems to be some breakdown in communication and I guess I should bow out of the discussion. If I understand you correctly, you just wish to point out that some older or more experienced users have been less than polite or not as sensitive as they could be, etc., but I still am not sure what you're referring to. (And yes, please feel free anytime to contact me and/or the rest of the moderator team, as Will has just suggested.) $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Nov 22 '14 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ Dear Włodzimierz, the very best way to provide the specifics Todd is suggesting you to provide is to flag the posts/comments where you find less-than-polite behavior. In the abstract, as Andy observed above, everyone agrees that being polite is important. Flags have the immense benefit of being a quieter way of getting this particular sort of point across. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Nov 22 '14 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ The comment seems like a factual assertion meant to point out a misunderstanding. Whether it is close to rude depends on the context. If a questioner were to comment just this on an answer (on main), then it would possibly be close to rude. As part of a longer exchange, I do not find it rude. It is to the point. But, when one feels people are talking sideways it can also be helpful to directly address the issue. Anyway, I feel my main point was not really received, which is that it is not that productive to pay a lot of attention to perceived details of tone and politeness on this site. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 22 '14 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ To expand on the last sentence. Things like politeness are really tricky in a cross-cultural context and even more so in writing. What is polite here, is rude or odd there, and vice versa. The key issue to me is the intent and/or the actual contribution in a situation at hand. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 22 '14 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ To add on what @quid is saying, as an Israeli, I am not used to formality, for me politeness means using ones first name, and being informal. Formality is associated with distancing yourself from someone, either in an insulting manner or worse, a condescending manner. Imagine my first brushes with Indian English, were everyone is calling me "Sir" and thanking me every time. And imagine their encounters with my brusque Israeli nature. It was on more than one occasion that I had to explain that I'm not offending anyone, and more than once I felt offended by over formality of others. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Nov 23 '14 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf, I was informal since I was born, and stayed informal always, and will be informal for the rest of my days. But that's not the topic. It's about a spectrum of being good-natured, positive, polite, wishing others well, etc. through unpleasant and negative, all the way to impolite (even rude) and hostile. This is a different dimension--perpendicular or orthogonal--to the informal $\rightarrow$ formal axis. $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Nov 23 '14 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning your recent edit with the comment on the down-votes: the hover text attached to the down-vote arrow is "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful". If you are curious about down-voters' intentions, it might be worthwhile to interpret these down-votes as an expression of this sentiment, in the absence of clear evidence otherwise. $\endgroup$ – S. Carnahan Nov 23 '14 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding your remark that intentions are difficult to judged. This is no doubt true and I recently ran into some unpleasantness by mistaking a follow-up question of an OP (on some comment, not even mine) for an honest question, as opposed to a rhetorical one to voice complaint about a comment. Still, the in my opinion most sane approach is to assume good intentions and take things at face-value absent very clear indications to the contrary. In case of doubt, you can always ask directly. This is not the most elegant thing to do, but it can be effective. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Nov 23 '14 at 14:23

Everywhere were people come together, some are less polite than they should be, and some feel insulted also when nobody intended to be impolite, let alone insulting. MathOverflow is no exception here, but these things are also in no way particular to MO. Without knowing a concrete case, I fear nothing more can be said.


I sympathize with Włodzimierz Holsztyński's position. I have had comments made on some of my posts which I initially took as insults. I also have made comments which I later saw could be taken poorly. Where possible, I tried for clarity, and apologized when I saw that offense was caused by me.

Fortunately, I have received enough positive feedback on this forum that I continue to contribute, and I do my best to let go of the feelings accompanying past comments I did not like. While the moderators are supposed to handle the more extreme cases, I believe it is up to the community to be vigilant and forgiving: point out marginal cases without assigning blame, and suggest a reframing that is more in line with what we believe are community values.

Further, make questions and concerns about the behaviour, and not about the user. I like the model of the community policeman who acts to resolve disputes as opposed to the community vigilante who look to enforce rules. If one sees what might be poor behaviour, ask for help in resolution, with the emphasis of resolving a situation over enforcing a rule. (Of course, moderator is an even better term.)

Gerhard "Neither Policeman Nor Vigilante Be" Paseman, 2014.11.24


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