As I already mentioned, some questions provide too much detail, making it a multi-thread open-ended requests for life advice.

However, in some cases the question lack enough details, and people are confused or ask for more details. Especially things dealing with social relations, norms, ethics, etc: levels of sensitivity varies by persons, laws varies by countries, different people have different first- or second-hand experiences, etc.

I am clueless when I see offensive, inappropriate, etc. So do many other readers, what end up in long comment ping-pong, people questioning if the issue is serious enough to call it. Or maybe actually OP downplays it and the behavior is not "a bit inappropriate" but deserves "Don't walk. Run." or legal actions?

For example, compare

What to do if advisor, when talking with me, holds my arm and I feel uncomfortable?


What to do if advisor, when talking with me, behaves inappropriately and I feel uncomfortable?

The first will start an idle discussion. The second won't.

Let us remember that Academia.SE has way more subjective questions than StackOverflow (or, say, MathOverflow). And the SE system works the best for clear, answerable questions. StackOverflow won't work with:

this library gives undesirable results, but let me not go into details.

The only exception I can foresee is privacy (but, I guess, more than often a different but of similar calibre example can be given). Otherwise explicit situations or verbatim phrases are the best (with, possibly placeholders to mask obscene words).

And as examples, questions which without explicit examples would end in guessing games (but, as they are, attracted good answers):

This meta question was started because of Should professors intervene if a student is wearing offensive clothing in their classroom? and being a sort-of follow-up of People denying the situation in the questions instead of answering.

In any case, IMHO, the most important factor is not my feeling about providing examples, but:

  • it is clear what is the question?
  • do they attract good answers?
  • do they minimize overhead (in people asking comments)?

What do you think?

2 Answers 2


I think that examples in potentially subjective questions encourage people to pass judgment on the examples.

If the question is one that asks people to pass judgment on the examples ("Is this kind of thing acceptable?") then giving an example of this is constructive.

If the question is "What should I do, given this?", then the example can become a distraction.

In Should professors intervene if a student is wearing offensive clothing in their classroom, I felt strongly about not giving the specific slogan not because of anonymity, but because I thought

  • some people might feel upset reading it (even in the context of an illustration), and
  • a few people might post things like "What's the big deal, that shirt is funny and you ladies should lighten up!" which would also upset readers.

I considered adding a link to the shirt in question (so as not to post the objectionable content on academia.SE directly) but even that seemed not constructive to me.

I think my characterization of the slogan in question as "indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women" was specific enough to answer the question, and indeed this question did get quite a few high-quality answers.

In any event, we got comments like:

AFAIK, mysogynic ideas came only from old, embittered thinkers, and are unlikely to be seen on someone's T-Shirt

and even a comment:

Without the content of the slogan in question, anyone attempting to make any judgement on said slogan is left chasing gremlins

The question didn't ask anyone to make a judgment on the slogan! Comments like these make me suspect that posting the slogan (or a specific example of one) would lead to people passing judgment on the offensiveness of the slogan, which isn't what the question was about.

In the other questions you mention, the example is unlikely to upset anyone reading it, so there is less of a downside to posting one (if the asker wants to). However, examples still lead to people passing judgment on the example .

For example, in What to do if an assignment is against student's religion, we had an answer that said:

Refusing to draw the human figure = ignorance and superstition. Avoiding listening to or playing music = ignorance and superstition.

And a comment:

How is music "bad" or "haram" is beyond me. Violent music could still be considered "haram" or even avoidable. But how do you justify neutral music by Beethoven as "haram" ?

both of which constitute nonconstructive judgment.

  • 2
    Thanks and I think I get your point. Mine are: 1. "It's offensive" has no agreed upon standard (for example, I do know in person people who would use "indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women" for any peer-reviewed paper (e.g. in neurobiology or evolutionary biology) not supporting their beliefs). 2. A clear question delegates idle discussions to some answers (e.g. this one, which can be downvoted), instead of making them prevalent everywhere. Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 19:50
  • Add a "subjective-examples" tag to lend the OP (or an editor) a tiny bit of authority in saying, for the OP to go in more detail would be nonconstructive?
    – user18072
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 21:38
  • 2
    @djechlin It's not clear to me what you're suggesting (or if you even are suggesting something) in that comment. Perhaps you can start a new meta question to discuss that suggestion(?) further.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 21:39
  • @ff524 meta.academia.stackexchange.com/a/3558/18072 updated with this proposal.
    – user18072
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 21:48

Question posters should provide as much useful detail as they feel comfortable sharing. If people are posting anonymously or via a pseudonym, then they would like to maintain at least some level of privacy and confidentiality. The more details you reveal, the easier it is for others to piece together exactly who you are and who you're complaining about.

  • 2
    No. If you make allegations of sexism, racism or other bias, you need to provide some factual basis. Also there's a difference between asking a) "X happened, is it inappropriate?" b) "I feel [subjective situation X] is inappropriate, how should I react?" and c) "[Unambiguous set of facts showing that X is inappropriate according to rules/law in some environment], how should I react?" c) is rare, b) is common, sometimes the a) is unanswerable and indeed not relevant to the answer (an XY problem).
    – smci
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 2:01
  • 1
    @smci - The word "allegations" doesn't make sense to me in the context of Academia SE. An allegation would be made in a grievance, formal complaint, lawsuit, etc. An allegation would include specific identifying information -- which we clearly do not want to be posted on Academia SE. Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 15:58
  • 1
    @aparente001: 'allegation', as in 'claim', that the student's behavior is motivated by gender, let alone that it might or does constitute a sexist act, or a 'clearly sexist act', to use her phrase. She made several conflicting claims, or allegations. (Nobody said 'formal allegation' or 'formal complaint'). Again, we do not necessarily need to go there to conclude the student is annoying and advise on how to deal with their complaint.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 7:27

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