[Originally posted here, but moved as being too tangential to the specific question]

[This is similar to this question, but I'm not describing topicality of questions so much as the ability of answers to these questions to meet the standards we enforce for non-etiquette questions]

I don't disagree that the etiquette questions relate to interpersonal skills, nor that they can be popular and helpful. But with the recent emphasis on experience-based answers and scope of the site, should they be included here?

It seems to me that we have the following options:

  1. Assume that IPS has enough "etiquette experts" (however we define that) that these sorts of questions can be reliably addressed for enough users in enough distinct contexts around the world

  2. We acknowledge that the rules are less strict for etiquette questions (or that such questions get a special exception from the standard), and allow for non-expert answers but still generally expect a "correct" answer to exist and be presented

  3. We expect a "correct by consensus" approach, where different answers can be submitted and the most upvoted ones are "correct" by acclaim (etiquette generally depends on what others expect and how they judge the asker's behavior)

  4. We accept that etiquette questions will diverge from the typical question-answer setup of an SE site (IPS already has some of this character anyways, so that may not be too much of a stretch), and prepare to endure/accommodate a large number of "I feel like" or "I often see" types of answers

I personally don't think that etiquette questions are unreasonable for the site. But if we're formalizing other types of questions and answers to conform to the SE approach, as seems to be happening, etiquette questions are kind of an odd duck.

My parents made me go to etiquette school as a child. To the extent that there is an Emily Post-style "correct" answer to a question, I may know it. But if that answer is not generally known, can people really interpret it correctly?

As a (not great, admittedly) example, many people have internalized "ladies first" as the polite approach to pretty much everything. That's often true, but is specifically not when entering an elevator. Yet, if a man darts ahead to get on an elevator before a woman I think that many observers would consider it rude because it's not "ladies first".

Can it be a good interpersonal skill suggestion if a random observer would consider the action to be inappropriate, despite being technically correct by a standard of which many, perhaps most, are unaware?

Can we keep these sorts of questions and simultaneously maintain the same standards we expect for non-etiquette IPS answers?

  • 2
    "Technically correct" is a pretty big red flag here. Just as language is more than what dictionaries and grammar books say, etiquette is presumably more than what's necessarily in prescriptive guides. People who ask questions about it here aren't usually looking for a verdict no one actually knows about, they're looking for what will broadly be seen as good behavior.
    – Cascabel
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 14:33
  • How well does that mesh with the "back it up" and "clear questions, clear answers" ethos of the site? The formally "correct" behavior is roughly consensus based anyways, just codified by an alleged authority and thereafter being prescriptive. How can an individual comment meaningfully on what would be broadly viewed as good behavior, as opposed to their own personal opinion in their own context? As an example, texting while physically with other people is viewed by rude as some and fine by others. What's considered good behavior will vary by the person answering the question. How can
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 15:14
  • the SE format accommodate answers under these conditions? At least with language people can have the experience of seeing words used in a given way, and understanding the intended meaning. Would that apply to an individual judgment about good behavior in a specific social context overall?
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 15:15
  • I'm not trying to answer the overall question, just steer it toward what I think people actually come here looking for.
    – Cascabel
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 15:26
  • Fair enough, but that sort of is the question (at least as I intended it). A technically correct answer is one that exists and can be clearly stated. What is broadly viewed as good behavior is what I'm questioning as a valid answer that this stack can produce.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 16:09

2 Answers 2


My take is yes, these can be answered to our standards.

Etiquette by definition should be an established cultural norm. It covers things from "what fork do I use at a fancy restaurant" to "what do I do with my shoes when entering a Japanese home". Although personal preference and opinions on how necessary it is to follow etiquette varies, the proper etiquette itself is widely agreed upon and understood.

Regarding your point

  1. We acknowledge that the rules are less strict for etiquette questions (or that such questions get a special exception from the standard), and allow for non-expert answers but still generally expect a "correct" answer to exist and be presented

Actually, I think we need our standards for backing it up to be especially strict for these questions. Not just "well, when I visited my friend in Japan this one time..." but rather linking to authoritative sources, which should exist for situations which are a question of etiquette (think Emily Post, travel guides, sociology/anthropology papers, etc.).

So if a user asked,

What fork should I use at a fancy restaurant?

An answer saying

Use whatever you like! I used the same fork for the whole meal the last time I went to a restaurant there, and nobody seemed to care.

would be invalid (or at least low-quality), because there's no backup to show that this is a widely accepted cultural standard.

Instead, we'd want answers like

According to Some-Culture Etiquette Guru, you should start with the outermost fork, and work your way in as new courses arrive.

And if they wanted to add "... but when I was there last, my friend used the same fork the whole time, and nobody seemed to care", that'd be a useful addition to explain how important the etiquette was - it just doesn't work on its own to explain what the etiquette actually is.

And of course cultural norms shift. For example, when I was looking up sources about business card etiquette for a recent question I found there was a divide: some people insist business cards are necessary professional accoutrements, some insist it's outdated. So say we had a question like

What is the appropriate way to exchange contact info at a networking event?

it is perfectly fine to have multiple, contradictory answers, as long as they are backed up.

A1: You need to have business cards, they show you're serious and professional. As described in my Corporate Protocol 101 class, ...

A2: Business cards are a thing of the past and I've never seen them at any networking event in my city/field. Respected Business Blogger recommends...

This is analogous to Stack Overflow where language versions are evolving, so people post multiple answers for multiple versions. "This is how you do it in Java..." and later on someone posts "Java 8 introduced this new feature where you would do it this different way..." In fact we do have an etiquette question where the answers specifically discuss a generational shift: Who should identify themself first on the phone: the caller or the person called? (as a bonus I think AJ's answer there also is a good example of providing backup!).

And just to address your third point explicitly (I think the rest are basically covered by the above) - a "correct by consensus" approach is essentially how Stack Exchange is meant to work, right? In the above example where there's two "acceptable" answers (use cards / don't use cards), voting will give OP an idea of what is socially in vogue. However, I would also expect good quality answers to go into enough detail that OP can understand when the etiquette applies and any caveats thereof.

  • I'll just add that we also encourage questions to specify a culture (and sometimes require it) so that even if there might be conflicting answers when everyone on earth is considered, when answers are limited to the culture asked about there won't be. Commented May 26, 2018 at 0:29
  • I've been thinking about your answer, and I am persuaded by most of it. However, I think that the SO comparison raises an interesting issue. Programming answers involve a verifiable result and a precisely observable methodology, which is what allows varying approaches to be OK. IPS questions don't quite have this character. Perhaps the stack would be best served with some very rigid rules about what counts as sufficient evidence to "back it up", though that would probably be a stack-wide issue and not limited to etiquette.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 17:03
  • Well, your concern about verification and precision is something that's been discussed for most of the site's existence, because this stack is so subjective in nature :) But because etiquette is about standard behavior, I think it's more like asking "what's the pythonic way to do this?" or "how should I name my Java variables?", where you can reference style guides and/or discuss pros and cons of the most popular approaches, where the popular approaches are defined and limited. & if it isn't limited or reference-able... maybe the answer is "there is no standard etiquette for this situation."
    – Em C
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 17:18
  • I don´t really see how: Random blogger X writes you should do Y is a better backup than I have personally been there and this is how I experienced Y - I can find you a link for almost any absurd opinion, but as long as it´s not in a scientific paper, dictionary or at least written by some recognized expert, it may well be less credible than firsthand experience.
    – user6109
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 9:46
  • @Daniel please note that I didn't write "Random blogger X", I specifically said "Respected [subject] blogger". I meant well-known, reputable blogs would be a good source. (For example, I would consider Ask A Manager, Captain Awkward, and Mr. Money Mustache to be such blogs for workplace, social skills, and personal finance respectively.)
    – Em C
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:23
  • @Daniel Also... I don't see a difference from writing a first-person experience directly on this site vs. quoting it from a "random blogger", either way to readers it's "This random user says X". With a well-known blog, it's "Jane, of the popular blog ABC that is read by many [demographic]s, recommends..." and we can look up who Jane is and what her blog's reputation is and take that into account. (Again as an example, for all the blogs above, you can find interviews of the writers from other sources, see how widely they are quoted, etc.)
    – Em C
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:25
  • @Em C: Respected by whom? I personally don´t trust Mr. Money Mustache for several reasons so I would see his articles more as opinion than factual source. Never heard of Ask A Manager or Captain Awkward so If you cited them I´d have to go/ask/research what relevant experience they have. I´d maybe rather still hear from you that you personally applied X with success than some opinion of an unbeknownst to me blogger that may have put it up for clicks rather than truth ...
    – user6109
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:50
  • @Em C: The difference is, you can tell me directly what experience you have and how this applies specifically to my problem. The Blogger may be well respected but still have no relevant authority in my specific case and certainly won´t explain it to me here. Also its random user with 100 up-votes on his answer, that gives it authority. So in the end the one may be as good a backup as the other.
    – user6109
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:56
  • @Daniel, you could have the same objections about the author of a published article. The point is that with a known author there's enough verifiable information out there to know what their experience is, so you can make an educated choice on whether to take it into account. You can very easily search for the two other blogs I mentioned and see how well-known they are and what other people have to say about them.
    – Em C
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:57
  • If you see someone use Mr. Evil's Blog to "back up" their assertion that you should be mean to someone, by all means ask for another source and downvote. That's something we can challenge more easily and objectively than "In my experience, being mean to people is great and never has problems!" (because if it's only experience, then we're limited to saying "well, I think you're a liar").
    – Em C
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 13:00

Just a thought, but etiquette is defined as:


the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

So these are questions about what's customary in a given society or particular group.

As there's a lot of variation from one society/group to the next and given that these things evolve over time... A strictly prescriptive approach probably isn't necessary or ideal.

For instance, I too was raised with the "ladies first" thing. I later learned that some women don't appreciate it, and find it somewhat belittling, so my understanding of this particular etiquette changed. I'm still aware of the older etiquette construct and can apply it when it feels appropriate, but that leaves room for nuanced interpretations, applications, and understanding of how etiquette works.

Like most things, there's rarely one single "correct" answer. This has actually come up on technical sites like Stack Overflow. Think of etiquette like "best practices" in programming, in a lot of cases there will be a preferred "best practice" way to do something, but in a lot of other cases, it's really a 6 versus half dozen. There may be several ways to accomplish the same task, and the "best" way will probably come down to context and/or personal preference.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Diverse opinions about etiquette can have a place here provided that they fit the situation asked about.

The thing we should probably be on the lookout for is the answers that shoehorn opinion into etiquette... To use Stack Overflow as an example, most web-related questions end up receiving some version of "use jQuery" as an answer, regardless of how simple the question may be. And admittedly, sometimes using a JavaScript library makes sense... But it doesn't always make sense, it just happens to be a very popular tool, and as the saying goes "if all you have is a hammer, all the world is a nail"

Some folks seem to have a limited tool box when it comes to etiquette, or when it comes to navigating social situations in general. These folks tend to want to pass off their opinions about how things should be handled as "best practices". All they have is "be blunt" or "first come first serve" or what have you, and they'll apply that version of etiquette to every situation. While those tools do have their uses, they don't fit every situation any better than "use jQuery" fits every question on Stack Overflow. Basically they're recommending driving screws with a hammer.

Fortunately one thing that you suppose to be a problem, the back-it-up policy, may help here.

When it comes to questions of etiquette we can, and should, still ask users to support their answer with experience or references. Asking users to provide an example of a case where their approach worked, or an etiquette guide that supports their claim would probably narrow the field of answers.

Sure we'll have users who have successfully beaten a screw into a block of wood with their hammer, but having them explain how that process went will likely show that it really isn't a preferred method.

  • I've been thinking about your answer, and I am persuaded by most of it. However, I think that the SO comparison raises an interesting issue. Programming answers involve a verifiable result and a precisely observable methodology, which is what allows varying approaches to be OK. IPS questions don't quite have this character. Perhaps the stack would be best served with some very rigid rules about what counts as sufficient evidence to "back it up", though that would probably be a stack-wide issue and not limited to etiquette.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 17:05
  • (I know this is a paste of my comment above, but your answer raises some of the same issues and I don't want to cut you out of the conversation! I especially appreciate your final two paragraphs as contributions addressing my question).
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 17:05
  • @Upper_Case I'm not sure if really strict rules are the way to go, but asking users to support their answers is probably a step that will help with a number of issues.
    – apaul
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 18:31
  • My concern is more about uneven moderation rather than poor answers; we'll have answers of varying quality no matter what. But now that we're enforcing the "back it up" rules we'll need some standards as to what counts as evidence, or else what can enforcement even mean? A recent answer to a question asserted that "general life experience" counted. If that's so, then the "back it up criterion" becomes nearly meaningless and all but unenforceable. That's a separate issue than this question deals with, though.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 19:46
  • @Upper_Case I suspect that there will be some meta discussion about that before long... Personally I'm not a fan of the unsupported "in my experience" because it is pretty meaningless, and it isn't that hard to actually demonstrate experience in a lot of cases. Right now we're picking the very low hanging fruit, but I hope that it will develop further over time. Part of me would prefer users to step up their game without being forced to, but that doesn't usually work very well...
    – apaul
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 19:53

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