This question comes from my repeatedly failed attempts to answer questions on other SE websites, where I thought I knew what I was actually talking about.

In one instance, I was trying to explain orbital structures to an OP who appeared like he didn't know much about it in a way I've heard it explained to kids when they learn it for the first time. The other community members didn't like my approach and the apparent lack of scientific terminology in my answer, but I was sincerely trying to answer the question in a way the OP could actually understand. (This answer was deleted, but the question is here: https://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/85589/phases-of-atomic-or-molecular-orbitals - any Chemistry.SE mods can actually see it, but I'm not going to undelete it)

Another time, I was answering a question right here on Interpersonal.SE, but perhaps my answer wasn't good enough, or too long, but I got downvoted, and was told not to take the downvotes personally. While I didn't take them personally, I got the feeling that my answer was probably not meeting the OP's requirements, or was just too long. (Here's the question in concern: A friend blocked me, now I want to make amends)

The Question:

When answering people's questions, how do I know when it's best NOT to answer them, or when it is best left to other people to answer them? As per particular case requirements, how could I have avoided the aforementioned two cases?

I understand that there is a certain degree of subjectivity to my question, and hence I want to add here that being question answerers yourself, there's no better people to ask this to than other members of the SE community. I'm just asking for seasoned advice from the veterans of this trade. :)

  • 3
    There is an answer, although no magic formula. I think it's a valid question. I'm sure someone will come along with a great answer.
    – NVZ
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 12:01
  • 1
    This seems answerable, but having a little more information to work with would be helpful. As it is now I'm thinking it's too broad.
    – apaul
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 15:42
  • 1
    @apaul What kind of information would make this a little easier to answer? Please let me know...
    – Abhigyan
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 16:00
  • 2
    Narrowing down to a specific case and offering more detail about that case would probably help.
    – apaul
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 16:01
  • 2
    See! Told you you'd get an answer (and many more). :)
    – NVZ
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 7:09
  • 3
    Anecdotally, I would talk in simple terms if I inferred that the OP was missing crucial basic knowledge. From experience, it's often downvoted by the site experts (English.SE is the most likely to do so, based on the SE's I frequent). So far, the only real way I've found to avoid this negative community feedback is to (1) first give a direct answer (2) mention a suspicion that the OP is missing a key point, using quotes from the question to justify your inference (3) explain the missing information it in simple terms. The OP and readers essentially get to decide whether they need to read (3).
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 12:57

5 Answers 5


There are several ways to go about learning.

Here are a few that have helped me in the past, covering 5+ separate SE sites as well as the originating SO itself.

  1. Read, read, read before you post.
    Try to get a feel for the character of the site. Every single one is different! For example SO is notoriously 'hard to get'. Any comment posted stating that attracts down-votes all by itself. IPS is relatively new as well as relatively positive in atmosphere, making it a good place to start.

    Especially keep an eye out for highly up-voted questions/answers that you would have posted yourself (or better). These are the mould you are looking for.
  2. Keep posting!
    You name one answer that did not take well. We all have those. Keep at it! Reading your question I think you have lots to offer. Before turning away please try a few more times, get some numbers before drawing any conclusion. I myself have come a long long way since my very first post. Even recently I've tried to participate in one of the new Area50 proposals, and it did not take. I've moved on and directed my efforts elsewhere on SE.

  3. Focus on positives.
    Possibly this sounds cheap. But I've noticed positives tend to beget positives and the same is true for negatives. Rants tend to get down-voted and/or removed.

  4. Read some more.
    Try meta, follow some of the big stars, research how the site changed over time. Try chat too! It will give you great insight into what was tried, failed, was discarded. No need to invent the wheel.

  5. Have fun! (And patience too.)
    Good questions are irresistible! This is perhaps the biggest open door of all. I got hooked long ago. I visit regularly. If the going is slow, I silently lurk in the background until that sterling inviting perfect question has arrived and I pounce. Rabid answerer, here. Great appreciation for those who quest, em, pose questions here.

    Perhaps you also are one of those??

  • 1
    No doubt many answers are possible. Looking forward, learning myself every day.
    – Bookeater
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 13:15

Two golden rules:

  1. You understand what they are actually asking.
  2. You are willing to make efforts to actually answer and solve the problem.

That applies to answering any question, in real life, internet, or StackExchange sites.

In StackExchange sites

It's best NOT to answer a question if:

  1. You feel that the question breaks a rule(s).

    Check for the Help Center of each site for detailed rules, but the most common mistake is answering a question that is off-topic, too broad, unclear, primarily opinion-based, and rarely, spam/rude/abusive question. Flag them instead.

  2. You feel that you cannot add anything meaningful to the current answers.

    There's a limit to knowledge of each of us. If you feel that your points are already covered by existing answer, don't add another answer with different wording that doesn't add any useful information. Of course, that also means that you should read all answers before posting another answer.

    If an answer already covered your point, but you have something brief to add, consider to comment on that answer instead of posting another answer. You still can post an answer yourself, but make sure it has enough information to stand as an answer on its own. Don't rely on "I agree on X's answer, but I need to add that ...". If X's answer is removed, your answer might be rendered invalid. (I'm certain I'm guilty of this even now)

  3. You don't feel like to invest effort to your answer.

    We encourage answers that are backed up by experience or/and research. Consider spending some time to research your answer (Google, duh!). If you don't feel have time to do some research (when you don't have the experience), consider to postpone your answer until later when you have time.

    Please also consider taking some time to format your answer to make it easier to read. A wall of text scares away people (including me). Separate your answer to paragraphs and make use of bold, italic, quote ( > ), and code ( ` ) to make your answer easier to read.

There's also some discussion on what makes a good answer in Meta.Worldbuilding. Check it out!

  • Nice! Very different too.
    – Bookeater
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 13:18

Indications you shouldn't answer:

  • You have little to no expertise on the subject
  • When there are already several good answers and your answer does not provide a Significantly different perspective or approach
  • When a topic is heated or controversial (unless you're willing to take a significant number of down-votes and criticism in comments.
  • If the question is clearly off-topic. It's not unheard of for people to down vote answers to bad questions because they answered the bad question
  • Your answer would be heavy on unsupported opinion. "I think widget sales will drop in 2018" as opposed to "Well, I've been in the widget business for 20 years, and due to heavy sales this year, the fact that it takes five years for widgets to depreciate, and current market saturation, I think widget sales will drop in 2019"
  • The question itself irritates you in some fashion. The irritation will bleed through in your answer. This one is not so much of a "don't" as "Carefully consider".
  • If you're afraid you might get down voted. Down votes happen for a variety of reasons. Some are justified, some are not.
  • This is solid advice.
    – Bookeater
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 16:26

I would say your overall approach in writing answers (and asking questions) on IPS.SE is extremely positive @user46208. I liked your original username a lot and consider you a major contributor here! However, I learned myself by hard experience on Stack Exchange that not everyone is qualified to answer every question.

After writing many answers on questions I was not really qualified to answer I decided to only answer those questions whose answer I really know, and which I can back up with either experience or references. I also decided mainly to answer questions when I am really familiar with the topic, and therefore can stand my ground in any constructive discussion in comments, chat or meta.

Now here are some of your answers here on IPS.SE that meet those criteria and were therefore well appreciated by OP and the community:

What to do when someone serves chicken after you told them you are vegetarian?

How to create a mindset which promotes fluid and spontaneous talk

and this your excellent answer which I accepted as the best solution, coming from direct experience due to your being in the same position as the cousin in my question,

How to get more co-operation from a teacher who discourages a student from asking questions to clear his confusion?

Extract from my comments under your answer:

+1 for another very strong answer from a member who knows exactly what problem OP is facing! [...] Some members are uniquely positioned to answer some questions.

So pick those questions you feel you are well qualified to answer and back up your advice with experiences or references, depending on the site requirements. Do not answer questions that are outside your knowledge or experience, including IPS questions about an unfamiliar culture. And especially avoid writing a speculative answer.

Finally, anywhere on Stack Exchange, don't be discouraged by downvotes and don't take it personally. They are downvoting the answer and not you the user. Stack Exchange communities depend on active member-participation to share knowledge and information. So never hesitate to write an answer if you know the subject and are confident that you can contribute something useful to help OP and future readers!


TL;DR -- Trust your judgement

Let's turn this around, and ask when should you answer a question. The other times, you shouldn't. ;D

Do you know your subject? That's the first consideration. If an IP type question, perhaps you have had a similar experience. If a science/math/IT type question, perhaps you've had some related education or training. I didn't see the chemistry answer, but I do like the notion of a high-level simplified explanation.

Does the question engage you? Don't answer questions just to drop a snarky line (that's the job of a comment, which has a lower bar to deletion), or to gather points (let the points fall where they may).

Do you have an uncommon viewpoint? I know I've gone in to answer a lot of questions, done a quick scan of the answers, and got that "came here to say this" feeling. I find I'm most motivated to answer when I disagree with the answers already there; I don't want OP getting what I consider misguided advice.

Does OP really need help? This is where I get into trouble, betimes. There are times, especially on IP, when I know the question is poorly framed, or otherwise bound to be closed, but I answer it anyway, because OP really is in a spot.

So ... all this advice I've given you is roughly saying, "Do what you feel you should; let the chips fall where they may". That's great, but doesn't help your actual problem, which is more of your answers are getting deleted than you like. Maybe we can work with this...

I would not have deleted your "making amends" answer. Instead, I'd've dropped a few suggestions in comment:

  • Perhaps shorten your explanation of your experience

  • Move the grand finale up to the top, or at least put a TL;DR up top

  • I reject almost all close-as-duplicate answer in IPS.SE ... as the "backup" for such is personal experience, your take almost by definition will be slightly different and worthy of consideration.

Hope this helps! I know deletions and downvotes can be annoying, but keep on plugging! Heck, take a look at my vote-count for IPS.SE meta ... I'd be surprised if my vote-total were positive... ;D

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