Interpersonal skills has a dark side. Sometimes, it's about getting what you want, not making a better and healthier relationship. Various unsavory tools can and have been used since forever that favor your outcome over the quality and type of the relationship.

This post is an effort to find where the line is for questions and answers and whether questions should be required to scope their moral restrictions.

I've noticed a conflict in some of the questions and answers that I don't think a lot of other people have noticed, or at least, it's not be brought up before. Naturally, many want to give morally good advice, not just advice that helps accomplish what the question asks for. Often, the assumption is that the asker cares about the feelings of the other person and the relationship in general. But this leaves answers giving a range of morally different solutions.

Let me illustrate with some examples:

  1. How to tell girlfriend I don't want to meet without hurting her feelings?

    This is a classic morally obliged question. They have a clear goal (I don't want to see you right now), but doesn't want that to hurt the other's feelings. The fact that the major concern is hurting feelings makes this not a dark side question. This question is virtually identical. The answers reflect this moral constraint because the question clearly frames it.

  2. Why do people flirt in customer service situations?

    This question is clinically dark side. It asks, "Why does this questionable behavior happen?" The question doesn't understand why someone would do this in the first place, with the presumption that there's a moral issue with it. The answers are equally clinical and amoral. They are descriptive, not prescriptive (for the most part). This is a particularly scientific approach to the topic (and are frankly the most interesting kind of questions to me). What I'd like to see more is citations, but that's a different topic.

  3. How to join in when people are gossiping?

    This one is especially interesting. It's basically "How can I be bad? It's not natural for me." Advice there includes get drunk, change the topic, argue for the one being gossiped about, and talk about them instead (because people like talking about themselves). There's even a reasoned defense for the "goodness" and usefulness of gossip, then the juxtaposition with "small talk". I'd say that covers the range between morally good and morally questionable actions. But to be fair, the question asked "how to gossip", which none of the answers quite hit. Should that make them "not an answer", or perhaps the question should be more clear that avoiding the gossip altogether would be an option. What might be more interesting is a clinical, descriptive approach. For example, "how can gossip be used in your interpersonal skills to reach your desired goals?" That's certainly morally questionable, if someone were to implement the skills without regard for others, but very much the domain of this site.

  4. How to communicate to my co-workers that they don't have to say "bless you" when I sneeze?

    This particular person is annoyed at a peculiar social moré. You sneeze, expect a blessing. He want's it to stop and doesn't really put any moral restrictions on the situation. In fact, the first comment asks "Does being polite matter to you?" That really hits the point of this post. Again, the answers reflect the ambiguity in the question and give a range of solutions on the morality scale.

  5. Politest way to stress I do not wish to eat something?

    This question illustrates a difficult situation with the asker's in-laws and her dietary wishes. The in-laws don't want to accommodate the specific dietary wishes, and seemingly lied about the contents of a dinner as well, which led to an unhappy engagement in the washroom. Suggestions here reflect the ambiguity as well. She may take the moral route first, the one that tries to do what's healthy for the relationship (which she wants to keep), but may find she won't get what she wants. The in-laws may still refuse to accommodate her diet. At that point, she might consider a less moral route, because sometimes getting what you want and moving the relationship in a healthy direction are in conflict. She could, for example, toy with the in-laws' emotions, as one answer suggests.

  6. How can we get a landscaper to stop blowing leaves into our yard?

    This is a classic interpersonal conundrum. "My neighbor is doing something I don't like. How can I make it stop?" Unfortunately, some stories have led to criminal action. Something like threats (bodily, legal action, etc.) is a tool in the interpersonal arsenal, but naturally, we should draw the line at least just short of suggesting criminal action.

We can just concede that there's a moral issue here, but at the same time, perhaps we should allow outright amoral answers and questions. If we think of interpersonal skills as a science, we must concede that science is inherently amoral. The best answer might be morally repugnant, but it is still a legitimate study in interpersonal skills. Likewise, a question may outright request a morally repugnant standard on the answers (e.g. "I want them to feel bad?"), but it is still a study in interpersonal skills. Further, descriptive questions, rather than prescriptive questions, are amoral by nature. They simply describe interpersonal skills in action and their motivations behind their use.

Should questions specify any moral obligations on how they may respond or go about getting what you want? And if they don't are "Screw them" answers as valid as "Let's be friends" on the same post? If questions do specify moral restrictions, should answers that stretch outside of them be considered "not an answer" and possibly be deleted? Should dark questions even be allowed? Should there be limits on the shade that answers may portray?

  • 19
    Wait... Are you implying there's a side that is... Not-dark? And it still involves people in some way?
    – Shog9
    Oct 18, 2017 at 2:33
  • Also: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/158/…
    – Shog9
    Oct 18, 2017 at 2:35
  • 3
    The force is strong with this one. How do I join this dark side?
    – NVZ
    Oct 18, 2017 at 2:40
  • 2
  • 4
    And today, a question asking how to strike up an extra-marital affair with an older, married-with-children friend of the family. Assuming this isn't a prank question of the "Dear Penthouse" variety.
    – 1006a
    Oct 18, 2017 at 14:49
  • "And today, a question asking how to strike up an extra-marital affair with an older, married-with-children friend of the family. Assuming this isn't a prank question of the "Dear Penthouse" variety." __ Now that you highlighted it, that question looks odd indeed, just like last week's Q that many suspected of being trolling. Are we 'morally obliged' to take such questions at face value @1006a? Oct 18, 2017 at 15:23
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    @EnglishStudent I don't know. I don't know how we can prove one way or another when a question is fake; it's also not clear to me whether we want to extend the "Be Nice" policy beyond the confines of our own online SE interactions—that is, should we allow questions that ask how to accomplish Not Nice goals? This particular question seems very fishy to me, but if we are going to answer questions of the "how can I get away with cheating" variety perhaps it's just as well to have a fake question as the canonical question for dupe-closing, anyway.
    – 1006a
    Oct 18, 2017 at 15:53
  • I don't really mind a honest question with a 'dark' interpersonal objective but this is something else. Now I will be reading questions more critically and thinking, 'does this read fishy or is it a genuine situation?' Oh you have certainly 'raised my consciousness' about trolling, many thanks @1006a! Oct 18, 2017 at 15:56
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    The be nice policy this for interactions on the site among users. The be nice policy is not meant to dictate the content of the site. So an answer could say that you should do a horrible thing and still be polite and nice. Conversely, the exact same answer could be rude, call names, and otherwise insult other users.
    – user5547
    Oct 18, 2017 at 16:34
  • @1006a on the workplace, the politic is to consider the well attent of the OP and to answer accordingly. But you're free to not answer and downvote, specially if you think this question don't add any value to the site.
    – Walfrat
    Oct 19, 2017 at 8:08
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    I don't see how questions of the type "how do I tell people that their behaviour bothers me" (examples 4, 5 and 6) can be called "dark side". (Especially if the question includes the word "politely".) Isn't that what this site is all about? Agreed about the other examples though.
    – Mr Lister
    Oct 20, 2017 at 9:17
  • @MrLister Well, you can be nice or not. That's kind of the gist. The teeter totter action between getting what you want and making a healthy relationship. People who don't care about you or your feelings are more likely to stomp on them to get what they want. Conversely, if the subject is your own mother, you may want to be nicer than that.
    – user5547
    Nov 15, 2017 at 20:45
  • I see example question 4 as "How to tell randoms to fuck off". You don't really care about these people; you just want results. Example 5 is higher stakes, so maybe "Fuck off, mom" is an option. Example 6 suggests really dark stuff, like threats and criminal action. The pattern on this site is a rose colored glasses thing, so will we allow darker things? How would "I really want to fuck this guy up" be received, as the epitome of a dark question?
    – user5547
    Nov 15, 2017 at 20:46
  • Seems related: To what extent do we respect the OP's request?
    – user5547
    Nov 15, 2017 at 20:52

5 Answers 5


I hate to say it, but "screw them" is likely to always be a possible answer. Even when a question specifically asks for a polite answer, there's an outside chance that being polite isn't an option or isn't a great way to handle the situation.

Also there's an awful lot of gray area between polite and rude. There are, of course, extremes at both ends, from thanking them for doing whatever thing they did, to kick them till you get tired and call the police. But believe it or not, most questions fall somewhere between the extremes.

This being the case, both extremes are probably going to be wrong, so framing questions to ask for one extreme or the other is going to be problematic.

What can we do instead?

Well, we can do, more or less, what we've been doing. Vote and/or flag. If it's an answer that you feel doesn't answer the question, or violates the Be Nice policy flag it. If the answer simply seems wrong to you personally, downvote.

"It's all chaos, it's all random, and it's horrifying, and if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That's all you can do." - Michelle McNamara

Morality is something that's simply too subjective to make a clear-cut rule on.

  • Another argument, if we start to answer people like that with answer that really ell how to get to their dark objective, the site will be flooded with such questions.
    – Walfrat
    Oct 19, 2017 at 8:09

In accordance with the generic principle of making the internet a better place, Stack Exchange in general and Interpersonal.SE in particular certainly encourage constructive solutions, and also discourage negative-minded advice even if it happens to suit OP's expectations. So questions don't really need to specify any moral obligations on how answers may respond or go about getting what they want. Generally accepted 'high standards' of ethics and morality apply here. By extension, we should also discourage questions asking for a negative interpersonal outcome, methinks.

Interpersonal skills as defined for the purposes of this site do not include cheating, avoidance, hurtful behavior or malicious manipulation although a bit of harmless social tricks is probably OK. So answers offering such 'interpersonally negative' solutions tend to be badly received by the community. On the other hand, 'descriptively amoral' posts and observations on human behavior should be neutrally considered to be within the scope of this site, as long as the intent is to learn about interpersonal skills and better understand/ be more effective in personal and social interactions.

From your question: "We can just concede that there's a moral issue here, but at the same time, perhaps we should allow outright amoral answers and questions. If we think of interpersonal skills as a science, we must concede that science is inherently amoral. The best answer might be morally repugnant, but it is still a legitimate study in interpersonal skills."

Would you like to see a more 'neutral tone' and dispassionately scientific discussion of interpersonal interactions without making value judgments? Maybe there is a basic conceptual difference here in that the Interpersonal.SE community sees interpersonal skills less as a 'science' and more as an interactive, practically useful 'social art.'

Note that I am a sociologist myself and tend to view human behavior from theoretical perspectives and broadly scientific frames of reference, not a moral framework, because Man is only a highly evolved beast and the 'dark side' is naturally strong in human actions. However every SE site is founded on and developed along the lines of stated objectives and community expectations: this site is dedicated to improving interpersonal skills through positive interactions and is not an 'amoral' site, as I understood by close interaction with members for the last 3 months. Therefore a value judgment is implicit here.

Any member who asks for, advises or advocates unethical interpersonal practices or regressive social behavior will be actively challenged and 'debated down' by the community. Even though human interactions fundamentally have a very strong 'dark side', we are strongly focused on the 'better side' at IPS.SE!

However, we don't need to 'draw a line' specially for this purpose because there are simple and powerful network-wide solutions for posts that transgress general moral expectations and the 'be nice' policy: downvoting, close-voting, flagging and deletion. Members who repeatedly infringe the regulations will be suspended with increasing severity for a week, a month or a year, just as on any other Stack Exchange website.

  • The internet is made a better place if there's information made here that doesn't exist elsewhere. Maybe that information is dangerous, but that shouldn't be our concern. I'm not interested in policing or judging the world's interpersonal skills. I'm interested in an apathetic study of the topic.
    – user5547
    Oct 18, 2017 at 16:36
  • There are the stated objectives and community expectations that drive a site, especially a new site like Interpersonal.SE -- this site is dedicated to improving interpersonal skills through positive interactions and is not an 'amoral' site, as I understood by close interaction with members for the last 3 months. Therefore value judgment is implicit here, and not "maybe that information is dangerous, but that shouldn't be our concern. I'm not interested in policing the world's interpersonal skills." Bad interpersonal solutions are rejected and only constructive advice is welcome here. Oct 18, 2017 at 16:45
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    Note that I am a sociologist myself and tend to see human behavior from theoretical perspectives and broadly scientific frames of reference. Not a moral framework, because the 'dark side' is naturally strong in human actions. However this website takes an active interest in promoting positive interpersonal interactions and discouraging negative solutions, @fresbend. Oct 18, 2017 at 16:50
  • "Therefore value judgment is implicit here." If that's where the community wants to go. It's not where I want to go ...
    – user5547
    Oct 18, 2017 at 16:50
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    I am just giving you my understanding of how this site works and whether to participate is individual choice @fresbend. I am active here because I am extremely introverted in 'real life' and fascinated by interpersonal skills as also by the complexity of interpersonal situations: I respect interpersonally talented people and this is one of the nicest and most supportive communities on the Stack Exchange network. Oct 18, 2017 at 16:54
  • "interactive, practically useful 'social art.'" very well put. I like that description an awful lot. +1
    – apaul
    Oct 19, 2017 at 3:54
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    Thanks @apaul -- that's really what we are doing here! Oct 19, 2017 at 5:04

TL;DR -- Let the community police itself on this

Honestly folks ... we talk as if we can easily divorce ourselves from our own morality and cultural beliefs. To go back to the "how to snag father's married friend attention" question, read the answers. They contain a fair amount of "Girl that's a bad idea" kind of talk, with a healthy undercurrent of "... and immoral, too".

I don't have a problem with this. I have a culture. I have a religion. I have a belief system. Those are the tools I have to cope with the world, so those are the ones I use to give advice.

Let's not be so sensitive to others that we choke down our own morality for fear that someone, somewhere, may endorse behavior X. If you don't like what OP is up to, say so. But -- and here's the kicker -- don't do it in secret. Don't make questions you disagree with silently disappear. Speak your piece and do it publicly.

Somebody asks an amoral question? Let the downvotes, or just silence handle it. It's not the job of this meta-forum to decide whether people should treat it as "an amoral exercise in social skills" or rush to warn OP that he's making a big mistake. We're not nearly that clever.

  • I didn't make this suggestion because I care about hurt feelings. I made the suggestion because I'd like to see more questions actually about interpersonal skills as a science, instead of general "dear Abby" advice.
    – user5547
    Oct 20, 2017 at 6:19
  • And if you this it's not possible, check out Christianity SE. We've managed to divorce personal, strongly held convictions from discussion of the topic. It's one of the best run sites in the network.
    – user5547
    Oct 20, 2017 at 6:20
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    @fredsbend I did actually take a look at your comments wrt Peter and the 'rock' issue... Anyway, I raise an eyebrow at the notion of treating IP as an abstract intellectual exercise. (Aristotle himself worried about the teaching of rhetoric, for fear that arguments would be won by best technique instead of, well, being right.) Point here is that IP is about the gooey human stuff; that's why people write in with their problems. If I write in asking IPSE to teach me to tell lies, I'm hoping that people call me out on it instead of saying "Okay, step one is ..." YMMV, of course.
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 6:26
  • @fredsbend one more thing ... the very fact that you and I disagree so fundamentally on this point underscores why I'm suggesting that mods etc do not enforce your vision or mine, but rather let voting sort it out.
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 6:31
  • So do you want a "dear Abby" or do you think IPS is more than that? More will take work and organization. Voting will give us, or already has, "dear Abby".
    – user5547
    Oct 20, 2017 at 6:47
  • @fredsbend at heart I do more or less want a dear Abby. I have little interest in interpersonal issues as formal manipulation of rulesets; my interest is that people who have a problem get some decent advice. I will freely admit that my views are a bit unpopular -- I think I am net-downvoted on meta here ;D -- but I prefer value to OP over punctilio, I like off-topic comments, and almost never vote to close. Am not sorry, not one bit.
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 7:04
  • @fredsbend why not both? We seem to be successfully tackling both kinds of questions, what's wrong with that?
    – apaul
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:21
  • @apaul you and the balanced, reasonable approach. How are we supposed to get a good donnybrook going? Er, note to self... ;D Actually, I think the desired "Dear Abby-tude" level of this site would be a good meta question in and of itself!
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:28
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    I think that's the first time I've been accused of being balanced or reasonable on this site, thanks for that ;)
    – apaul
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:30
  • @apaul Many reasons. If a post materializes, I'll illustrate them there.
    – user5547
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:33
  • @fredsbend I'm not sure if I understood that. Many reasons for what?
    – apaul
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:36
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    @apaul ... "accused"... ;D
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:52
  • @apaul You asked me: "why not both?"
    – user5547
    Oct 20, 2017 at 16:02
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    @fredsbend ah, ok. So that's a "many reasons to not accept both"
    – apaul
    Oct 20, 2017 at 16:05

Questions should specifically state if they accept not-too-polite answers, else we are expecting answers to suggest polite approach.

Even if the question already stated not-too-polite answer will be accepted, we cannot guarantee that it won't be downvoted. We can only decline NAA flag for not-too-polite answer for question that tolerates it.

A rule of thumb is that answers should follow Be Nice policy. Specifically asking for not-too-polite answer does not excuse an answer to be impolite. It gives some leniency on "impoliteness", but it does not mean you can freely give impolite answer. That must be judged case-by-case basis.

Finally, if a question specifically ask for impolite approach there are two options to consider:

  1. Tell the OP it's a bad idea, and why. Suggest to do the opposite (or not-too-polite alternative)
  2. Flag the question as "rude or abusive".

Well, ultimately, it's about your best interests. Don't let anything get in the way of your best interests. Now, this isn't necessarily selfish. We all care about our family, friends, etc, so lying to them or harming them will hurt us as well. Therefore, we have to find the optimal path. We have make the decision that maximizes benefit to ourselves, while minimizing pain to ourselves from the aforementioned scenario.

  • Is that related to the doctrine of 'enlightened self-interest' @Daniel Grover? Oct 18, 2017 at 22:46
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    " We all care about our family, friends, etc, so lying to them or harming them will hurt us as well." I'd be cautious of using game theory or best-interests maximization drive one's actions; that sets up scenarios where it "makes sense" to save up social/emotional capital for one gigantic betrayal. There's got to be (sez I) something else to hang one's morality on. Be it religion, philosophy, the generalized national moral code of your community ... something.
    – akaioi
    Oct 20, 2017 at 15:33
  • Well, ethical egoism is a moral code. Oct 20, 2017 at 15:46

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