How to Insult People in Forums

Should you insult posters on newsgroups, forums or online discussions?  This may be a strange question to ask, and the answer is generally “no”. It is a bad idea, even though your target is usually too far away to exact retribution:  Occasionally, however, the urge to insult someone who posts on a forum is irresistible.

Most people on forums are remarkably patient with their fellow posters. This may, at least in part, be because they realize that no-one is immune from the occasional embarrassing gaffe. Many forum posts are written hurriedly.  Those of us who do a lot of posting tend to do so in a few stolen moments. As I write this, I’m finishing off a quick lunch (banana), and sipping coffee. There are a stack of things I should be doing. This haste can lead to unpolished text and phrases conjured up on the spur of the moment.  We make mistakes. We don’t finesse our responses. And this in turn can lead to incredulity and confusion in our fellow posters.

As a result, most posters refrain from directing scorn or ridicule at other forum members, or at least have very long fuses. There will come a time however when one feels provoked beyond endurance and the desire to let a person know what you really think is irresistible.

What should one do in these circumstances?

The Problems

If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here

The first problem with insulting someone in a forum is that it could be you who has misunderstood. A common mistake is when someone asks how to do something that looks completely idiotic. The first instinct is to assume that they obviously haven’t thought out the algorithm or business process, and to sweep the question aside with a contemptuous ‘tell me what you are really trying to achieve’, or the like. Usually you are right, but occasionally you will find that they have been told to do it that way by the pointy-headed boss who pays their salary.  Alternatively, they will be engaged in the miserable and unrewarding task of having to maintain a ‘Mad’ database system that has somehow got into production. Once in a while, they may actually have a good idea that you are too busy to appreciate.

Moral: Always give a possible direct solution to their problem before tactfully pointing out that there may be a better alternative. Nothing is achieved by implying that they are a lower form of life.

Language Imperialism

The SQL Community is very international.  It is forced to speak English as the language of Technology, just as Latin was the language of Academia until three hundred years ago. It isn’t easy for most of us. If the English is clearly the second language of the forum poster, and you use slang or complex metaphor in a comment, then these are easily misinterpreted.  Many a phrase, used in a lighthearted way, can be horribly insulting or humiliating when seen from the viewpoint of a different culture, especially to a Scotsman.

Moral: Any mocking of the English language of a poster in a forum is completely off-limits.  If ever you feel inclined to do this, and you are an English speaker, then try learning Ancient Greek just to put yourself in their shoes. It isn’t easy.

The Art of Vituperation

The third problem with insulting people is that vituperation is an art, like ballet. And, like ballet, if you attempt to do it without great expertise you merely look ridiculous.

Moral: Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker or Auberon Waugh could do vituperation to perfection. I doubt if you can, so avoid it.

Mocking Beginners

The habit of mocking beginners, deriding them as ‘Newbies’ or jeering at them because they don’t appreciate the etiquette of the forum,  usually makes the mocker seem ridiculous and, much more importantly, can put people off using the forum.

It is possible that a potentially talented author, submitting a first tentative articles or querulous forum posting, can get crushed by an unconsidered comment. Consider also that the beginner you mock and humiliate on the forum today may one day, and sooner than you think, become an expert and opinion leader.  It is never a good idea that such people are left smarting from one of your clumsy rebukes

Moral: In the history of warfare, certain weapons have killed more of the people who pulled the triggers than their intended targets. Think carefully before taking aim.

A suggestion

Am I suggesting that we should all be on our best behavior, at all times, in forums or Newsgroups?  No! Forums are fun to read, and participate in, when you can detect that the entries are written by real humans with diverse moods and emotions. If you take out all the emotion, then forums lose their fizz. All I’m saying is that, if you are going to show anger, impatience, or contempt, in your forum post, then it has to be done properly, at the right time, or not at all.

The answer, I think, was given to me a long time ago when I worked for an eminent consultant pediatrician in a hospital.  He had the delicate task of writing letters to doctors who had referred patients to him. Often he had to give them the news that they had misdiagnosed the patient, wasted a lot of time, caused suffering unnecessarily, or even hastened the patient’s demise.  In private, behind closed doors, he would wax vitriolic about the dangerous incompetence of the doctor concerned. The letters, however, would be effusive with compliments; any criticism was hedged about with lashings of thickly-spread flattery.

I was a young hothead, and I eventually asked him why his letters were so mealy mouthed. I didn’t get it.

“Nobody is immune from politeness and flattery”, he told me. “In fact, there seems to be no upper-limit to the amount of flattery that a person can absorb. If you can compliment and encourage the person that you must instruct, then any reproach is accepted more readily. There are ways of phrasing a painful truth about a person’s skills or conduct that will deflect hurt feelings, and therefore be accepted more readily. All you get by haranguing people for their foolishness is resentful resistance.”

I highly recommended application of this technique in forum posting. When the urge to flame somebody strikes,  rephrase your thoughts in such a way that the person is impelled into doing the right thing, but does not feel insulted. A nice fringe benefit to this process is that it provides a wonderful way of managing one’s anger and frustration.

Here are a few examples of this technique in action, to give you the idea:

What You Say

What You Mean

Your excellent DDL script which accompanied this question has somehow become detached.  This has meant that we are struggling to understand the problem.

How the hell can we work out what you mean if you haven’t even sufficient blood-sugar to supply the code?

It is kind of you to let us see a sample of the kind of questions posed by teachers, but I suspect that they are designed to work best if undertaken by the student and not appropriate here.

I’ll roast in hell before helping you with your IT School homework-unless I get your diploma, of course.

I suspect that you are too busy to have had any opportunity to read any previous forum entries on this subject.

This same question has been answered several times today already. Your brain is in write-only mode.

I suspect that there is a subtlety to this problem that is not immediately apparent.

Do they have databases on your planet?

I apologize for not being able to explain the solution to your  problem sufficiently clearly

The only solution is for you to do something else for a few thousand years so as to give evolution a chance.

It is fascinating to be reminded of this sort of SQL problem. It does not often come up.

Last time I saw this was when John asked Janet this in ‘Janet and John’s ABC Guide to SQL’

I have got a curious sense of ‘Deja-vue’ in reading this excellent posting

You’ve made me a cross poster because you are a cross-poster.

Having mastered this subtle art, you will find life on the forum far less stressful, and more rewarding, and those “in the know” will understand that you are writing is not necessarily the same as what you are thinking.