2

We have had a couple of questions that ask about ways to deal with interactions with others. These questions are perfectly on topic here because they are asking about interpersonal issues.

Sometimes, these questions may have solutions that are less about what is "polite" or "rude" or some other interpersonal skill, instead touching on legal issues. Some examples:

One of the answers here explains the legalities of the situation and advises that the OP take a legal stance by reaching out to HR or a lawyer.

Several of the answers here (existing and now deleted) focus on whether the OP is following the law rather than the "rudness" of the situation.

Similar to the prior question - many answers tended to focus on the legality of the situation rather than the rudeness.

So, given these examples - and others, if you wish - how should we address these answers? Can an answer be off topic here? If not, why not. If so, what should we do? Be thorough.


Note, this is related to "Just the facts, ma'am." OR Reining in answers but I think it's different. If they are the same, feel free to vote as a duplicate.

  • 1
    Related: Is "Don't do it" a valid answer? – Shog9 Aug 10 '17 at 16:54
  • That's certainly another issue, which is illustrated well by the question about asking a woman if she's pregnant. I'm not sure if it's preferable to address both at the same time or separately. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 17:00
  • I do not think this is a dupe of the reining in answers post mentioned by the OP. Quite separate issues. – Witan ap Danu Aug 10 '17 at 17:14
  • As the poster of one of the answers I have some thoughts (well several). Real life interferes at the moment, but I should get them in an answer here inside 24 hrs. In the interval, please refrain from drastic actions to any of the referenced, or related, posts. – Witan ap Danu Aug 10 '17 at 17:57
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    @WitanapDanu Please don't worry. We're not going to make policy decisions like this in an immediate fashion. Heck, we don't even have an answer yet and the question doesn't recommend any specific course of action. We are playing the long game. I welcome your thoughts. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 18:11
  • The way I look at it is that the law reflects morality and the opinion of society (society creates laws, from people who are elected). Therefore, using the law in an answer can be a good source for an answer. Where I differ, is that the answer needs to explain why the law is relevant and how to apply it. Ex: if I have to deal with a principal who is not addressing blatant harassment across teachers in a school, despite multiple requests to address it, a possible answer to the situation can be a legal one, even if it's may not desirable for everyone. But I want to wait for Witan's answer. – Zizouz212 Aug 10 '17 at 23:56
  • @Zizouz212 If you have an answer, please answer the question. – Catija Aug 11 '17 at 15:26
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    Well, my input has been posted, @Zizouz212. I've re-read it and let it stew in my brain, and I'm still satisfied that it's a decent encapsulation of my thoughts, within the limits of decent length limits. – Witan ap Danu Aug 11 '17 at 20:25
15

It's not common to refer to an answer as "off-topic", but certainly one of the cardinal sins when answering amounts to the same thing: failing to answer the question.

Heck, the most commonly-used flag, available only on answers, is intended for use when...

This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

Now... Where you draw the line between an answer that fails to in any way address the question and one that's simply... wrong... ...tends to be a bit controversial.

This problem, elsewhere

Most of us probably agree that a two-page rant about the Time Cube hypothesis or the phone number of world famous astrologer tantra mantra black magic love guru babaji is not an answer to most questions, but what about...

The answer tends to depend on both the topic and the folks who make up the core membership of the site. For example, the Parenting site famously does not tolerate questioning the premise for subjective topics - no matter how much you might personally believe that co-sleeping is a terrible harmful practice, you must concede that this is a matter of some debate and either answer the question as asked or move on to a different question; an answer that ignores this will likely be deleted regardless of how popular it becomes.

Conversely, several academic sites strongly discourage providing complete solutions to homework questions, recommending instead that answers provide only hints or advice that may lead the asker (or other readers) to their own solution.

The larger picture

It's also worth remembering that this problem doesn't exist in isolation. You've already identified a related problem - answers that do answer the question but contain generous helpings of opinion along side it - but in many cases the questions themselves encourage such digressions by including long or salacious back-stories by way of context; an answer might be forgiven for addressing matters tangential to the question if the question itself obscures the actual problem.

A moderator on Stack Overflow recently observed that when handling Not an Answer flags on certain types of answers he nearly always found himself editing or closing the question as well; certainly it's worth keeping in mind that a question which attracts many responses that don't answer the question may need heavy editing to salvage (if it can be salvaged at all) - simply removing the answers ends up being a game of whack-a-mole otherwise.

Don't neglect editing

I consider The Workplace to be probably the closest successful site to this one in terms of both topic and audience. They've long stood by the practice of making "heroic edits" when needed to salvage both problematic questions and answers, with the rationale that a prompt edit which dramatically rewrites a post to comply with site guidelines is preferable to leaving it until the severity of the problem becomes too great to address by any means short of deletion. Even when "off-topic" answers have already started to arrive, an edit to the question that makes it obvious such answers are both unhelpful and unwanted can render them easier to remove and discourage pile-on answers. See: https://workplace.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2218/how-can-we-improve-question-quality-without-closing-everything/2220#2220

  • I have been intending to have the "should we have the same rule as Parenting regarding questioning the premise" discussion here but I've been waiting for some good example questions/answers. I think the complication is drawing the line between truly questioning the premise and telling someone "Don't do it". – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 22:00
  • I suspect that "don't do it" is only a valid answer here when the question is an X/Y problem (or not a real problem at all), @Catija. Your pregnancy question is a good example of this: there are a ton of situations where it is absolutely essential not only that the question be asked but that it be asked in a way that'll be answered honestly; whether the asker is facing one of those situations is another matter, and most (though not all) of the answers made an assumption one way or another (on the side of either X/Y or "you don't have this problem at all"). – Shog9 Aug 10 '17 at 22:22
  • I don't know how to convince the OP of that question to actually add the details that they've alluded to in comments so that the answers don't make an assumption. I've been trying to decide whether it should be simply closed as too broad because of it but... – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 22:25
  • If I could think of an effective edit, I would do that @Catija. Failing that, closing and explaining the problem should suffice: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/1537/… – Shog9 Aug 10 '17 at 22:37
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    @Shog9 you seem to be of the opinion that NaA flags can and should be used on answers that do not actually answer or even address the question. If so, I agree; can I persuade you to weigh on the same matter over on Science Fiction & Fantasy? For instance, here or here? Current thinking seems to be that it's SE Policy to only flag posts that aren't attempts at answering — comments or new (unrelated) questions that happened to be posted through the answer box. – SQB Aug 24 '17 at 11:56
  • "Not an answer" means what it says - where folks usually get into the weeds is expecting a cookie-cutter response after reducing a complicated situation to a trite name. I doubt that I understand the problem on SFF well enough to say something useful there, but I suspect you're familiar enough with the problems on Stack Overflow to adapt the answer I provided for a very similar question over there. – Shog9 Aug 24 '17 at 20:11
  • @Shog9 thanks, I'll give it a shot. – SQB Sep 30 '17 at 19:11
7

The stated question

Can an answer be off topic here?

Depending on what is meant by "off topic" the answer can go either way. If the intention is can answers be off topic in the same way as questions, deserving a CV as off-topic, the answer is "No." If the intention is can answers be off topic in the sense of not addressing the question, then the answer is, at least, "possibly." In the second case, using the "not an answer" flag would be appropriate. There is a major caveat involved in the "possibly" cases - does the answer meet the guidelines in the flag dialog box? Most important, relative to this question is the first sentence:

This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question.

If, in fact that is true for the answer in question, then that answer should be handled using the suggestions in the second sentence.

It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

Each site has their own version of what qualifies as an "attempt to answer the question." I have not been able to follow it, but I do seem to recall that, either in chat or on Meta, that there has been some discussion about that issue already for our site. I wholeheartedly support the effort to define the accepted use of NAA flags for our site. From what I think I remember of the discussion, there were some points that didn't feel right to me, but I didn't have the spare time to engage in the discussion at that time, and only have a limited amount of time now as well. Still, it is a discussion that needs to be had and as a user of the site I should add my support, and my voice.

Part of my philosophy is to be as inclusive as practical. An internalized version of my thoughts can be expressed thus:

In seeking to be inclusive, we do not wish to open ourselves to the destruction of our site by those on self-serving power trips, or to philosophies and practices contradictory to our principles. In seeking to exclude those whose ways are contradictory to ours, we do not want to deny participation with us to any who are sincerely interested in our knowledge and assistance, regardless of race, color, sex, age, national or cultural origins, or sexual preference.

In line with that inclusiveness, I would apply the NAA flag to answers only if I am unable to see the connection between the question and the answer. If the answer offers a solution, not explicitly excluded by the OP, that seems to address the issue of the question, then I don't think it qualifies for the NAA flag. It might be a "stupid" answer, it might be nearly impossible for the OP to apply the answer to their situation, or it might be found to be "worthless" for any number of reasons. All such cases might earn a DV for the answer, but they still attempt to answer the question. I do consider extra-cultural answers to be explicitly excluded; a UK-based question needs UK-based answers, and a Chinese-based answer is, therefore, not an attempt to answer the question, and should be flagged NAA.

The hidden question

Now, on to the subtext, and what I think is the unasked question, the elephant in the room: What to do with answers that veer into legal realms when answering the question?

Unless it becomes site policy that, under for our site there will be no law-based answers on the grounds that invoking the law is, ipso facto, not "interpersonal" in nature, any question that has, or is completely, law-based, should be evaluated, on it's merits, as an answer, and a possible solution to the OP's question. Whether or not the answer includes any references to legal issues is immaterial to it's status as an attempt to answer the question.

To address the OP's listed questions:

  1. Is it rude to use a driveway to turn around in the road? (Dismal showing, only one valid answer)

    • None of the answers address the Australian perspective (The OP's stated location)
    • Only two answers are from a UK perspective (explicitly asked for by the OP)
    • All but the two UK-based answers are NAA on cultural mismatch grounds
    • One of the two UK-based answers does not even mention the word "rude", and would also be flagged as NAA
    • One answer would remain
  2. Is it rude to drive at the speed limit on dangerous roads when another driver wants to go faster? (Much better showing. 15 valid answers, 9 of which even refrained from offering opinions about "what to do" in the OP's situation.)

    • OP explicitly is "not asking for advice on what the best thing to do is"
    • Three answers are not US-based and don't address the rudeness issue, flag NAA
    • Another answer is invalid by OP's statement for giving advice and ignoring the question. Possible flag NAA
    • Six do address the rudeness issue, and give advice, but seem to be US-based. (Acceptable)
    • Nine answer the OP's question directly, and are, but for one, US-based. (Acceptable)
  3. How to ask a vegan to stop telling me about veganism because I am not interested in it?

    • A testament to our site's growth and development
    • In my opinion, all ten answers are valid.

Ok, admittedly, there was much less said about the last one. I think each answer, in context of the question (each version thereof), is valid. Some may be more "workable" for the OP's situation, and temperament, yet all are "possible" solutions. The OP is free to try the one deemed most promising, in the OP's mind, not mine, and if it fails can try each of them until one does work. The one that works for the OP deserves the accepted mark, and other users are free to vote, up or down, as they see potential for each answer. This question is also one that will serve our site well by being potentially useful to many people later, without ever needing to ask a new variation of the same question. Congratulations to the OP for this one!

Still, the issue of legal issues in answers remains unaddressed. This is a site for people looking to improve their interpersonal communication skills, per the tour page. I am going to address only the aspects of two interpersonal skills: social acceptability and personal boundaries.

Social acceptability

In most cases the laws reflect the minimum accepted behavior of the society that created them. While "interpersonal" communication occurs between two people (or more sometimes), it also occurs within the greater context of society, and must conform to the laws of that society.

Discussions of the laws (speed limits, etc.) relative to what is or is not "rude" while driving does seem to be missing the point. I think a person can follow the laws and still be rude. Conversely, I think someone can violate the laws and still be polite. Both are socially unacceptable, on different grounds, showing that they are not, necessarily connected.

For that reason, the answers to either driving question which rely on legalities to determine "rudeness" are wrong, in my opinion. Nevertheless, they are still "answers" to the question, and do not deserve to be closed, or flagged NAA, solely on that basis.

Personal boundaries

Having personal boundaries, and enforcing them is part of being a mentally "healthy" person, and is essential for having healthy interpersonal communications, and relations. Two sites that discuss this concept are How to Create Healthy Boundaries from the University of Kentucky, and Healthy Personal Boundaries & How to Establish Them from the Essential Life Skills website.

Society has decided that some personal boundaries deserve legal protection. Different societies have protected diverse collections of such boundaries, to varying level, but they have protected some at least. Having a Pollyannaish outlook is nice, and probably makes for a generally happy life. Being a pessimist probably makes for an equally unpleasant life. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt while being a realist - fewer surprises and fewer disappointments. In any case, there will be situations where the maximum exercise of interpersonal communication skills at the highest level of effectiveness will still fail to resolve an issue. I'm not likely to be very successful trying to talk a carjacker from taking my vehicle, talking as much as I like, and trying to make him see the errors of his ways. If I have the legal right to do so, maybe I can "communicate" my preference to keep my car if I use a loaded .44! Even that is not a sure thing, however. Therefore, I think we, as a site, need to accept that some answers will have legal implications, and require recourse to lawful authorities. Other questions may benefit from legal input, even though it is not strictly required for an answer. Note that such answers must be valid in the OP's cultural context.

We, as essentially anonymous Internet users, are not lawyers, any more than we are mental health professionals. It has been, essentially, decided that the response to suicide type questions is to resort to saying, in essence, "seek professional help." Why then, in appropriate situations can we not say "seek legal help" to other users? If a question is presented where the OP claims that her husband pulls her hair and beats her regularly, for being 5 minutes late with dinner, or any of several other "infractions", what "interpersonal communication" skills should we suggest that she develop. What if a user claims that on Thursday nights the neighbor enters her home and won't take "no" for an answer? First, according to accepted usage on the site, we require that the OP supplies us with some cultural context. Now we know the former is in the UAE and the latter is in the USA. If we are not allowed to suggest legal avenues of redress, what's left to say? "Run?", "Hide?", "Pray?", "Move?", "Accept you lot in life?" Actually, for the former, there is not any legal recourse - the husband has that legal right! For the latter, there is legal recourse - tell her that it is rape, and to call 911!

Admittedly, both cases are contrived. It has been suggested to "deal with problems as they occur" and not to be worried about hypothetical cases that don't exist yet. A decent guideline, since most of us are not prognosticators with any significant fame. Reading the writing on the wall, and seeing the potential problems created by a knee-jerk decision, in response to an issue that has occurred is not the same as dealing with hypothetical cases. It is reasoned evaluation of the possible actions as part of selecting the (hopefully) best one for our site.


My answer to the hidden question is that including law-based information in an answer does not make it a bad answer. It, in fact, can be an extreme case of following the "back it up" policy. For it to be a "valid" answer, however, it absolutely must be laws that are from the same country/state as the OP. UK laws are worthless in Japan, and Minnesota laws are worthless in California. Obviously it would be improper to give binding legal opinions, no matter what the OP's issue is. Pointing to the laws that exist, stating how they are (likely) relevant to the OP's issue, and suggesting they contact a professional, should be acceptable. Of course, the answer is still subject to all other forms of evaluation for quality, etc. An answer cannot avoid a flag for NAA merely by referencing some law, any more that it should get flagged as NAA merely for suggesting legal approaches to the issue. If the post is an attempt to answer the question, and meets other guidelines, then it is a valid answer, and should be handled no differently than any other valid answer.

In defense of my answer to the vegan question, it does suggest non-legal efforts first:

I am going to formulate my answer under the presumption that you have already tried reasonable requests, and maybe even debates with them, and the results are the same. If you have not, then use those methods first - they can lead to a better work environment for you and them. If, however, such efforts do prove, or have proven, fruitless, then stronger measures exist.

  • I'm confused. Our policy in the case of suicide and depression is to close the question and tell them to seek professional help. You seem to recognize that we are not lawyers and can not give legal advice but your answer on that question was all legal advice save a header reading "I am not a lawyer" and the first paragraph, which you have included here. There is, I think, a big separation from telling someone to consult HR and telling them about the laws that may or may not apply to them. Can you please address this discrepancy? – Catija Aug 12 '17 at 3:59
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    @Catija Do we need to be mental health professionals in order to suggest seeking professional help for mental issues? I don't think so. Likewise I do not need to be a lawyer to suggest an OP seek legal remedies. Telling an OP how to file a claim would be legal advice. My advice was find an attorney, including one link to do just that. – Witan ap Danu Aug 12 '17 at 4:11
  • No, you had 7 paragraphs (of which some are quotes) telling the OP to treat it like religious harassment... which is bad advice. Telling people what medicines or treatments to consider is medical advice in the same way quoting statutes is legal advice. Everything between the paragraph you quoted above and the one that starts "The bottom line" is legal advice. – Catija Aug 12 '17 at 4:14
  • I agree with almost everything that you have said. In conjunction with an IPS answer, telling someone to consider reaching out to a lawyer or HR is great. My main disagreement is with what you consider legal advice. – Catija Aug 12 '17 at 4:22
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    @Catija What you are calling advice I am calling back it up. What I provided was definitions, supported by, or directly provided by, official sources. Other sites, other than the law site, have to deal with legal issues on a regular basis, OpenSource, for example, and discussing the law, and quoting it is not giving advice. – Witan ap Danu Aug 12 '17 at 4:29
2

At least in the case of the question about how to deal with the pushy vegan coworkers, I'd tend to disagree that the answer doesn't answer the question or is off-topic. It recommends first requesting that they not continue the unwanted sharing of their views and then recommends how to deal with it if they don't stop, which is to bring it up to their boss, whose job it is to make sure they stop.

Granted, it might benefit the answer to be reworded a bit to focus more on what the OP should do rather than the boss' legal responsibilities. I do think that the boss' responsibility is useful and relevant information for the answer, but agree that it shouldn't be the focus. It would probably be more useful in the case of that particular answer to mention what the OP should do first and then include the Civil Rights Act/EEOC information after it, so that the OP (and future readers) are aware of how serious the boss' responsibilities are regarding this situation.

Having said all of this, the on-topic page here is currently blank, so I'm going by the name of the site and the questions and answers I've seen here so far for what is and isn't on-topic. Knowing when to (and when not to) give up on trying to make polite requests and instead escalate the issue to the person whose job it is to make it go away seems like an important interpersonal skill, at least to me.

0

How to deal with answers that address legal issues?

I spend hours every day teaching students what they will need to do in the future, facing a situation where they'll have to deal with key issues involving legal AND safety issues. It's not easy at all. What did I learn from that ?

Let's take the example @Catija mentioned, about driving. In many countries I know, you have the same rules regarding traffic lights : RED (stop) / YELLOW (should stop) / GREEN (go safely).

You drive up to the safe speed limit. Now, someone has been tailgating you for a while and couldn't pull over. You've tried everything you know to get off the hook. Now, the only thing you don't want is the traffic light to switch from green to yellow. Guess what ? YELLOW...

You're now left with 2 options:

  1. brake, stop, respect the law, cause an accident, get hit, maybe injured.
  2. keep your speed, don't stop, brake the law, don't cause an accident.

Now, I have to explain to my students:

  1. what the laws says and the issues (ticket / fine) you face.
  2. what the security issues are and what [ is expected / can be done / will be faced ].

(NOTE: I like @Witan-ap-Danu answer with special mention to the paragraph titled Social acceptability. As well as others, who talk about NAA flag, generous helpings of opinion, digressions, etc. No need to repeat this.)

I then ask them: What should be your choice then? What will YOU choose?

In case they struggle (and they often DO struggle), I say:

Is it better to play russian roulette with your driver's licence/money, or with one's health?

Life is always about choices we make, better know all possible issues before you decide. What's worth most for you?

It's kind of easy for them then... I don't tell them what to do. I show a path, let them know what they'll face going down one or the other, and they decide. Some go by the law, others by the driver's safety. By their values, background, beliefs...

Now, let's put aside that any answer has to clearly show interactions with others and interpersonal issues (experience, point of view... YMMV)

OPTIONS:

  • OP's country is known.
  • A reminder of the law in THIS particular country helps sorting things out.
  • OP is presented with 2 or more options (one of them being a legal issue).

I just came across THIS QUESTION. In this particular case, the legal issue seems important, and is acting as a support, by setting a legal frame. The UV answer points that, but not only.

I just reached my road junction. Duh!


Switching from teacher to student, I can now make my choice. If it's only about:

quoting the law (sometimes the wrong law/country), or aguing over the law, whether it's illegal, or not, or "we (don't) do that in my country", or about please, don't do it!

...then off-topic (can be flagged or asked for details in comments).

If it's about:

using the legal issue as a [ warning / frame / support ] part of a documented and explanatory answer that focuses on interactions with others and interpersonal issues.

...then on-topic.

-3

Part 1: on subjective stack exchange sites, you can and should "close" answers.

I could explain this myself, but shog does a better job of this (https://worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5168/can-post-notices-on-the-hard-science-tag-actually-do-something/5170#5170), so I'll let him explain:

This is one of those areas where a topic breaks the model a bit.

For questions, we have essentially two axes for voting: Useful vs useless (voting), appropriate vs inappropriate (closing).

Closing a question - possible even if highly upvoted - makes it eligible for deletion and prevents answers from being posted, providing strong encouragement for improvement.

For answers though, there's only one axis: useful / useless. An answer with a positive score can't be deleted except through moderator intervention, and there's no equivalent to blocking answers for an answer; years ago we tried using Community Wiki as a "reputation denial" feature but this failed miserably - the closest thing we have today is probably locking, which prevents voting but also prevents both improvement and deletion.

The solution we arrived at on Stack Overflow was to simply discourage questions whose answers cannot be effectively moderated based on the single useful/useless axis. This solved the immediate problem*, but did so by pushing it off onto other sites: Software Engineering, The Workplace, Software Recommendations all allow or have allowed questions for which answers may be difficult to evaluate on a single axis and thus require manual intervention by a moderator in order to remove those that violate community norms.

One reason to close an answer is because it's off-topic.

I think you've made a great case in your question for requiring that answers be on topic, ie that answers answer the question rather than go on needless tangents about legal issues. If I ask a question on this site, it's because I need help with interpersonal skills, not legal advice.

Of course, there are a lot of gray areas: maybe an answer spends a dew sentences on legal advice but then also talks about interpersonal skills. In this case, edit out the legal advice and see if the answer still makes sense. If it doesn't, then the answer isn't about interpersonal skills and should be "closed" as off topic.

until SE gives us community tools similar to close votes but for answers, it's the job of the moderators to "close" problematic answers.

The only tools that are equipped for this problem-- deletion of positively scored questions and post notices--are moderator only. So moderators: get a consensus and start using these tools. And since nobody reads meta, the best way to start building a consensus is by downvoting and leaving comments on the offending posts.

  • This isn't a particularly good answer; I wrote it very quickly. My hope is that something here will be useful enough to be incorporated into whatever answer gets adopted as the consensus. – user288 Aug 10 '17 at 20:23
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    There is another option... the NAA flag. There's no need for the moderators to be the arbiters of whether an answer actually answers the question. While it's not explicit in the NAA flag, it's widely contested that the NAA flag text should read "This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question as asked." If we decide that these are not answers, this is a viable solution. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 20:23
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  • @Shog9 That looks like an interesting idea. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 21:40

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