[conspire] (forw) ASK

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Thu Jun 3 14:40:18 PDT 2010

Quoting Tony Godshall (tony at of.net):

> Maybe the best response would be to reply with a link to a useful
> essay.  Like the one about how to ask questions the smart way.   ;-)

Once I figured out why I was getting these bizarre e-mails (which took
quite a long time, because the querents could never give a coherent 
account of how and why they were writing to me), it was occasionally
tempting to use them in subtle and elegant psychological experiments.
(I'm joking.  Mostly.)

I've basically tried every approach I can think of, that seemed at least
empathetic to the questioner, including politely suggesting that they 
go back and re-read the essay, whose fundamental nature and point they 
have ironically missed completely -- because, of course, they haven't
read the essay at all, and have no desire to do so.  They just (very 
singlemindedly) want some random stranger to solve their problems.

Even when I'm at the greatest possible pains to be polite and
constructive in saying that, I have literally _never_ gotten anything
like a thank-you, for my pains.  Not even once, over more than a decade.
I get one of three things:  1.  Silence (the best-case outcome).  
2. Verbal abuse, and/or  3. A repeat of the demand that I answer the
(vague) technical question, this time phrased more urgently.

(Please note that, in most cases, I can't even in principle figure out
by what route they came to write to me, and experience shows that asking
_them_ almost never gives useful results.)

A further irony:  Often, when I describe this course of events on forums
like this one, some casual commentators (not referring to you, here) speak
reprovingly to me as if I've somehow created problems merely in
responding to the questioner at all -- or they tell me that obviously
the essay is hurting people (ignoring the fact that the hurt is caused
by _not reading it_ and lobbing technical queries incompetently at a
stranger -- me -- who has nothing to do with the problem).

The experience has highlighted to me the fact that the entire area of
technical support is surrounded by neurosis, error, and wishful

1.  Techies invariably assume that, if users don't understand something,
writing more and deeper explanations will fix the problem.  This ignores
the fact that (rather often) the more you write, the less people read.

2.  A lot of casual commentators assume that a technical person who's
asked a question has a moral obligation to solve the questioner's
problem, that the more hapless and incompetent the question is, the
more compelling the moral obligation is.  (In this view, unpaid
strangers have an extremely high level of moral obligation, and the most
hapless and least competent questioners have the highest claim to their
time and expertise.)  

3.  A lot of casual commentators think anything that leads the
questioner to feel offended or frustrated is Bad and Wrong, such that
telling the user 'I notice you asked your question in a way almost 
guaranteeing you cannot be helped' is deemed an act of pure evil, and 
that (instead) saying nothing at all, and letting the questioner's 
effort fail without knowing why, is considered a far better outcome.

4.  Thus, the same people consider it likewise an act of pure evil
to tell questioners a simple truth: that technical people tend to
allocate limited help time/effort/skill where it's likely to do the
most good.  That simple truth is a core message of "How to Ask Questions
the Smart Way", and I believe I've gotten more name-calling from its
inclusion than from anything else I've ever done or said, in a long
life.  Which frankly has rather amazed me.

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