Should we hold answers to just the question asked?

We have many questions here that we endeavor to limit so that the question isn't overly broad. We encourage users to address where they are in the world, what the social situation is, who the people you're interacting with are... etc.

Should we also hold answers to this guideline?

If someone asks "In the UK is _____ acceptable?" - what should we do with answers that say "In the US we do _____"? Should these be edited? downvoted? flagged? deleted?

Or, if someone wants to know how to interact with their boss outside of the office and gets answers that don't specifically address the fact that the person being discussed is your superior at work.

What if the answer goes off on a tangent that is irrelevant? They start out talking about your boss but then say "but if this is your spouse instead, you should do ____". Should the tangent be removed if it doesn't do damage to the answer?

We are here to ask specific questions and we can close those questions that don't meet our needs of specificity... what should we do with answers that don't fit the bill?

  • I would point out that some of this problem is a perception thing. Some of those tangents are actually the reason the OP edited the question to clarify what more specific instance they were asking advice. The answer had a few options based on the most likely options then the OP edited the question to specify. Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 1:02

5 Answers 5


On of the few fears I have for this site is broadness. For instance, "How do I [do X]?" questions aren't like jigsaw puzzles: There is never just one solution. Such a question leads to many, many answers, and eventually, one starts to wonder whether the question was too broad in the first place. Trust me, I have plenty of first-hand experience with this problem on Worldbuilding.

I'm a fan of the make-your-question-as-specific-as-possible approach for this site. Sure, questions belong to the community, and they're supposed to help more people than just the OP. But we also have to fight The Broadness Problem, and part of that means a focus on the person who asked the question. That's why details are important, and that's why we often look only at specific cultures and often tag accordingly (though not always).

Here's why, in a nutshell, I think that we need to really rein in answers:

  • If you try to help everyone, you help no one. Let's say I write a general answer to a question that's pretty region-dependent. I ignore the specific tag used. Given how much certain practices differ across the world, the odds that my answer will help everyone is pretty darn slim. Everybody loses.
  • Talking about a different country might not help anyone. If I ask a question about Y in, say, Trinidad, and someone gives me an answer about Y in Indonesia, then there's no guarantee that that answer will ever help anyone else. Who knows if an Indonesian will ever have this problem? That's my counterargument to the fear that limiting questions to one country will lead to an explosion of questions on the same topic but for different places - the odds of people in so many different regions having the same questions are slim.
  • Fight the Broadness Problem. This should be self-explanatory. If we allow answers that look at any possible variant of the situation, then there's absolutely no way to limit them or, more importantly, rank them against each other (objective ranking has been talked about in a different context before - see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective).

I've been using examples where someone mentions a different country, but the same logic applies to the other cases mentioned in the question.

So how to we deal with them?

People are still going to write these answers, no matter whether or not we like them. If we have a policy against them, though, then we have cause to - and should - delete them. Obviously, a mod can delete these answers, as can 4k-ers if the score < 0. Most of us - currently, none of us - are nowhere near 4k reputation, though, so we'll have to resort to flagging.

There was a discussion in the comments under NVZ's answer about whether or not the Not An Answer flag is appropriate to use in such situations. Part of the disagreement centered around this Meta Stack Exchange post, and whether or not Not An Answer flags are usable if an answer is trying to answer a question that simply happens to be a different one than the one asked. That Meta Stack Exchange post has two answers.

The first one contains the phrase

Do not use this flag when

. . .

  • You have to consider the question, other answers, or even the comments on the answer itself in order to determine if an answer is not-an-answer

which supports the idea of not using the flag in these cases. However, the second (newer) answer states

You can also use this flag for the following reasons, if you include a comment below the answer explaining the specific problem:

. . .

  • answers that attempt to answer another question or are just a general dump of unsolicited information, for example:

Question: What is the capital of Brazil?

Not an answer 1: The capital of Argentina is Buenos Aires.

Not an answer 2: Brazil is a state in South America.

Not an answer 3: We went to Brazil for our honeymoon.

This supports the idea of using the flags. The discussion basically got caught in whether or not each interpretation was right.

If we decide that these more general answers are not allowed, then flaggers have two options, either using the Not An Answer flag (the other set answer flags are nowhere near appropriate) or a custom flag.

Two things come to mind:

  1. Many other Stack Exchange sites already use flags in the second way (i.e. use NAA flags when an answer answers a totally different question).
  2. Custom flags are annoying to handle. As a mod, I know they break my routine during handling.

We lose nothing by using the Not An Answer flag, so long as we define an "answer" to be something like

A response to fully addresses the given question and offers a specific solution.

(essentially). It's clear that a more general answer is, therefore, Not An Answer.

We as a site have some leeway in deciding what is and what isn't an answer. We've been given tools; we need to shape them to fit the needs of our site. Let's use them like this.

  • I suspect we'll see several of the same questions separated by region not because people are honestly facing the same problem in that region, but because some user decided to be "helpful" or because someone decides that it's an easy way to rep farm. Haven't seen it yet, but people have been known to do that sort of thing when a loophole is left open.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:59
  • 3
    Adding a sort of "problems you've faced personally​" clause may help close the loophole though... If I remember, The Workplace has a similar policy.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:02
  • @apaul34208 limiting to "problems you've faced personally​" would be a nice idea.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:05
  • +1 Nicely expressed what I was trying to. It's good to have an experienced moderator's answer regarding these issues.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:07
  • @apaul34208 That's an excellent idea. The tour states "Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do."; that should be more prominent and explicit somewhere.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:09
  • cc @NVZ See above ^. Good to know that we're pretty much on the same page. :-)
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:09
  • @apaul34208 I'm pretty sure that our meta question about "hypothetical questions" is what you're talking about? The answers there seem to imply that we do not want people making up hypothetical questions.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:50
  • I can see your point as far as not bothering to address the specific question, what about cases where the specific question is answered, but the answer goes on and expounds on the topic? I guess I wouldn't have a problem with deleting answers that flatly don't answer the question, but the idea of losing potentially good content because the answer tried to go above and beyond bothers me.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 1:58
  • 1
    @apaul34208 Honestly, I'd suggest keeping those - so long as the answer also addresses the specific situation. The sort of answers you're talking about could be really good.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 2:01

I think the following two posts (excerpts) from Meta Stack Exchange give the general principles of how the Not An Answer flag should be used:

A bad or a wrong answer is still technically an answer. Moderators aren't here to judge the correctness of answers. That's what the voting system is for, so the right way to handle those is to downvote, edit, or leave a comment.

The "not an answer" flag is for posts that are either completely unrelated to the question, a "me too" kind of post, a follow-up question asked in an answer, etc.

(Adam Lear♦)

What is the not an answer flag?

The not an answer flag (NAA) is a flag to indicate that someone used the "answer the question" box to post something that isn't really an answer. It usually pushes an answer to the low-quality queue, where its fate is decided by reviewers. If it stays there for too long, the answer is also shown to diamond moderators in their flag queue. If the flag is considered valid, the post is deleted.

When should I use this flag?

Use this flag when an answer is being used to:

  • Ask a new question
  • Clarify the existing question
  • Communicate with another user
  • Say "thanks," or confirm that another posted answer worked for him.
  • "Bump" the question, as in "I have the same problem, have you found a solution?"

When may I use this flag?

You can also use this flag for the following reasons, if you include a comment below the answer explaining the specific problem:

  • answers that attempt to answer another question or are just a general dump of unsolicited information, for example:

Rules of Thumb

If you can’t determine whether or not it’s an answer without looking at the question it supposedly answers, explain the problem in a comment below the answer.

If you need knowledge that goes deeper than a basic expertise of the site’s topic (e.g., knowledge of a specific programming language on SO) don't use an NAA flag.

When should I not use this flag?

Do not use the not an answer flag for:

  • partial or short answers. If there is a hint of an answer, it’s not NAA. Don’t listen to people who claim that these should be comments. The fundamental distinction between answers and comments is that the former seek to address the question and the latter try to improve the question – not length.
  • wrong answers. Downvote them and use comments to explain what is wrong. The NAA flag is for answers that are not even wrong, i.e., they do not even live on the right–wrong axis (for the respective question).
  • spam, rude, or abusive posts. Use the respective flag instead, as it ensures a quick and proper handling. Note that gibberish can be flagged as abusive.


How do we apply this at Interpersonal Skills?

Each site decides for itself how tangential answers are allowed to be. Some sites are very strict about requiring answers to answer the precise question asked about, while other allow answers that touch on related topics.

For Interpersonal Skills I propose that if questions ask about a specific culture, answers must answer about that specific culture. If they want to answer for other cultures too, that's a bonus! But an answer that only provides information about other cultures should not be considered a valid answer. I think this is important because:

  1. Cultural differences are important, and what is acceptable in one culture can very easily be highly offensive in another
  2. Cultural differences are essentially hidden to cultural outsiders. It can take years to pick up on minor differences if you aren't explicitly taught them
  3. Very similar cultures will have certain major differences. The Anglophone countries of the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ, etc are all very similar culturally, more similar to each other than they are to the other European cultures for example. But it is only those who know two similar cultures well who will know there differences, such as, for example, the differences in gun culture, or how class differences are expressed.
  4. Unlike, to pick a site at semi random, the Gardening site, bad advice here could have very serious consequences. More than using the wrong fertiliser, bad advice here could lead to highly offending people, sometimes people who would be very important to the question askers. (Yes I know that sometimes the wrong fertiliser could kill a plant.)

If you don't know two cultures well, then you should assume that there are significant differences. If a question asks about culture A and you only know culture B, then until you have determined from those who know culture A well that it is the same as culture B in regards to whatever the question is about, then please refrain from answering.

  • 1
    +1 This is yet another great answer, and it's good to quote the original meta so that we don't have to go there to read it. Some people don't click on links. They want all information here itself.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 6:22

If the answer from another country is relevant, or at least partially helpful to the main question, then there is no reason for it not to be acceptable. If the answer is way off topic, or answers the question in the wrong way, then it should be downvoted/removed (as it's not answering the question properly). Every country is not an entirely different world, some share similarities, and some share differences too, if 2 countries share a similarity in the way a certain objective or opinion is expressed, then there is no reason why people from the other country can't help out.

I think it's also very important to note in particular when you are answering a question from another country, that way the question asker knows that your answer is from another country, and not that one, and then he can either choose to accept your answer or, if your answer isn't relevant to the question, accept a different one instead.

Ultimately there's no reason not to try to answer, even if it gets swamped in downvotes, at least you tried, it might have turned out to be actually really relevant, but you wouldn't have known. Provided it answers the question correctly, regardless of where it's from, it should be acceptable on the site.

  • Answers need to actually answer the specific question asked. If they want to provide additional information, then that's a bonus. But if you give an answer for another culture and don't give info for the actual culture asked about, that's Not An Answer. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 10:53
  • 1
    I think you have a good point here. Votes are ultimately a better way to address the issue.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 16:08

Yes answers should try to answer the question asked, but we should leave some room for broader more canonical answers.

If someone asks a question with a very specific context, the answer should cover that, but it's also nice to see answers that address the broader concept/topic. It makes answers more widely applicable, which will eventually help more people who read the question and answer later.

For instance someone may ask about the etiquette of a particular situation in the UK. If the answer covers that and goes on to explain how the etiquette of that same situation works in the US, and India, we've gone from a good answer that helps people in the UK, to a great answer that helps people in the UK, US, and India.

If you see a truly useless tangent feel free to vote and comment as needed, but let's try not to discourage longer more comprehensive answers.

  • 2
    I'm worried that "broader more canonical answers" breaks the purpose of this site. I would prefer that users with other versions of the question ask those questions rather than relying on one uberquestion to do it for everyone on the planet.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 21:50
  • 1
    @Catija no, I don't think we need a hundred separate questions for the same thing in the context of hundred different countries. If it's possible to make a general note after the specific answer, it will be beneficial in the long run.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 22:04
  • 2
    Creating canonical, general reference Q&A is one of the things that the Stack Exchange model does best. @Catija
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 22:10
  • 2
    There's a difference between answering the specific question and then broadening it to a wider audience and never answering the main question at all.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 22:10
  • @Catija Well, yes that's true, but that's not what my answer was advocating. I specifically noted that the specific question should be answered.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 22:36
  • 1
    @NVZ Okay, but it's important to be logical here. Realistically, people have common sense where they know what answers to accept and what not. Canadian (English Canada) and American office environments are for the most part similar.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 4:25
  • 1
    @apaul34208 covers that and goes on to explain how the etiquette of that same situation works in the US, and India, we've gone from a good answer that helps people in the UK, to a great answer that helps people in the UK, US, and India. That extra information is useless because it's not covered in the question. You're effectively changing the question. People who are interested in India will not look for a question asking about the US. If that were the case, we're better off to change this site into a Wikipedia page that covers everything. Specific questions are what sites thrive on.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 4:27
  • 1
    Let's not discourage that. An answer that goes comprehensive into the key points it tries to raise is beneficial. An answers that goes comprehensive by attempting to cover many different things is not. We want specific answers to serve specific questions. There's not much of a "general" question that will apply appropriately for each of our lives. Besides, what is wrong with specific questions? They do no harm to the site.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 4:29
  • 1
    @Zizouz212 of course we need specific answers, but a quick note at the end isn't harmful is what I'm saying. I'm not advocating writing a long answer that covers every possible country when it's not asked.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 5:07
  • Just so there's a real example to go on here (not giving my opinion yet), would you say that your answer here falls into the category of "broader more canonical answers"?
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 13:39
  • 1
    @HDE 226868 Not exactly, but I hope the last paragraph covered your specific case. I was more talking about answers like this: stackoverflow.com/a/15800696/1947286 it obviously goes well beyond the scope of the original question into related territory in the hope of helping more people who find it through related searches.
    – apaul
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:00
  • @apaul34208 Ah, I see what you mean now. But yes, the last bit of your answer did help in my case.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 15:01

Answers should address the specific context given in the question.

If someone asks "In the UK is _____ acceptable?" and if the answer is just "In the US we do _____" it's not really helpful, unless the answerer explains how the given answer is relevant to the UK context as well.

Answers that initially answered the question, but then added a bit of extra information which is only partly relevant to the question, are okay as long as the extra bit isn't taking up more than a reasonable amount of words or screen space, and in case it does cause some damage, then editing them out should be fine.

Answers that are way too general and do not address the specific context in the question are not useful, and it may be better to downvote them (the downvote tooltip reads "this answer is not useful"). You may also flag these as Not An Answer if you must, but I for one would not prefer that. "Flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, or an altogether wrong answer", so just downvote, and leave a comment explaining how this answer should be reworded to address the specific context.

Answers that do not provide any answer at all, and instead are just questions or comments in disguise, should be flagged as Not An Answer and removed.

For answers that are gibberish (e.g. iuifejqfiu) refer to my other meta answer, where animuson ♦ says:

We've established in past discussions that abuse of the system qualifies under the offensive flag. Posting gibberish that doesn't mean anything is definitely abusing the system.


We do have to be careful in situations where it's not as clear what the intent of the user is. Someone mashing their keyboard to get a bunch of random letters into a box is clearly abusing our system and they should be flagged and blocked. Someone who looks like they may have just ended up in the wrong place and have no idea what they're doing... well, flagging them as an abusive user and blocking them outright might be a bit much. If you're absolutely sure they're intentionally trying to be abusive, by all means. Otherwise, you may want to just stick with not an answer.

Answers that are not salvageable by edits whatsoever should be flagged as "very low quality" and removed.

Answers that contain spam should be flagged as "spam" and removed.

Keep in mind that it's always important to guide new users. Do not just downvote and leave them confused. Help them understand. Leave feedback in comments where possible.


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