How to answer questions politely and correctly

Back in August I wrote a long post about how to ask questions politely and correctly to address what I see as a growing volume of poorly asked questions by people who often don’t have the common courtesy to be polite and also often come across as feeling entitled to an answer. Based on the responses, and private discussions, many of you out there see the same trend and are dismayed by it.

This is the necessary corollary to that post – how to answer questions politely and correctly, in my opinion – because I see people being discourteous and sometimes unprofessional in their replies. I’ve woven in some of the replies and private distribution list discussions I’ve had over the last two months as well – thanks to those involved – you know who you are.

I’ll start out by saying that some of you will disagree with elements of what I state below. That’s cool, this is just my opinion – vive la différence, and all that – but don’t expect to convince me to change my views. We’ll agree to disagree :-)

Ignorance is Not Stupidity

Probably the number one sin I see people committing when answering questions is giving an attitude to the original poster (who I’ll call the OP from now on) that they’re stupid/lacking/deficient/lazy in some way for not knowing the answer themselves.

Now, if a simple Google search would have found the answer, then I can understand some frustration on the part of the answerer, and I suffer from it myself, but that’s no excuse to be rude or belittling. I even shy away from posting Let Me Google That For You links in such cases as I think that comes across as too snarky, and I like to stay polite as much as I can. But sometimes I’ll just post a Google search URL (especially on Twitter), which does the same thing, but without the added snark, as that would just make me look angry. Others disagree with this sentiment, I know, and will happily post LMGTFY links – each to his/her own.

If it’s not a simple Google search, or I can tell from the question that the OP wouldn’t know what to search on, or how to make sense of the search results, or know which one to choose, then I’ll answer politely and explain the answer. Even if it’s something really simple about SQL Server. (Also check out the insightful comments about Google searches in the comment from @sqlhandle.)

As I explained in my post Ignorance is not stupidity back in 2011, everyone in the world starts with zero knowledge about SQL Server. I knew zero about SQL Server when I joined Microsoft from DEC in February 1999 (15 years ago – OMG – I’m getting old!! :-). Especially if the OP is someone you don’t know, give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect for having the guts to ask a question publicly to get help. Don’t slap someone down for not knowing the answer. That’s the height of conceit, it’s bullying, and it’ll likely drive the OP away from our wonderful online SQL Server community.

Ok – that’s one of my hot-button topics done.

Posting Links in Question Answers

Here’s another one: posting links in question answers.

There was an interesting debate on the MVP email list a week or so ago about this, where someone said they hesitate to post blog post links as an answer because it can come across as self-promotion. I vehemently argued against that point of view, and I continue to believe that posting blog post links in the answer (or even as the answer) is entirely justified.

Self-promotion is where you’re posting something solely to get clicks on a link, or to drive traffic to your website for some business purpose – which of course is bad and you shouldn’t do it in the answer to a technical question – unless it’s directly relevant in some way. Posting a link to a blog post that contains the answer that the OP needs, or helps explain the answer, is certainly not self promotion. It doesn’t matter that the link is to a blog post on your company website, that’s just where you blog, and if it makes them aware of your company, then I think that’s fair recompense for your time in answering a community question. it’s not blatant self-promotion.

I also don’t buy the argument that a bunch of the contents of said blog post should be reiterated in the answer, just to give some meat to the answer in the thread so the thread is ‘self-contained’, or because blog posts move. One of the reasons I blog about things is so I can reference them in classes and online, so I can avoid repeating myself and point people at a deeper reference as part of answer, or as the complete answer. This is especially important for question mediums like Twitter.

If in doubt, consult whatever guidelines exist for the forum/distribution list/medium on which you’re answering. And if I just drop in a blog post link, I’ll always say something like ‘If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to ask’.

Now, saying that, you need to be very confident that your blog post is actually correct and actually answers the question (or contributes to your answer).

Answering the Actual Question

Which brings me to my next point: make sure you’re answering the actual question.

Often I see someone post an answer to the question that shows that either a) they didn’t read the question to see what the OP was actually asking for, or b) they didn’t understand the question or what the OP was actually asking for.

This is quite prevalent on forums such as MSDN, where I’ll see people post just for the sake of posting to try to increase their forums points/score. This is just daft. What’s really interesting is that I don’t see this behavior at all on #sqlhelp, as the only merit gained from answering questions on Twitter is community respect, not some silly score. Other forums do it better by allowing up and down voting, which increases of decreases your score. I applaud people who answer lots of questions correctly, but if you’re only doing it to have a higher score than everyone else, then IMHO you need to go out and get a life.

Don’t post at all if you don’t know the answer and can’t help, otherwise you’re just noise that’s obscuring the answer for the OP and putting people off from following and helping out in that forum. This is what stopped me answering corruption questions on MSDN and other forums – having to continually (nicely) correct people who were answering incorrectly and then being berated for it.

If there isn’t enough information in the question to answer it correctly, ask for more information. Don’t just assume. Or maybe give a couple of different answers, for different conditions or SQL Server versions, state as much, and ask for clarification. If you assume some piece of information that can change the answer, you may be doing a huge disservice to the OP by giving them an answer that’s wrong for their situation.

Don’t just answer: It Depends.

Much of the time the answer really does start with It Depends, but you then need to explain why it depends, what it depends, how it depends, etc. It Depends is a valid start to an answer IMHO. See my post It Depends. It really, really does for more on this.

If you don’t have time to answer properly, don’t answer at all. A half answer, or a non-answer wastes everyone’s time. Step away and let someone else answer.

If the medium where the question is being asked isn’t appropriate to the question, direct the OP at an alternative medium. For instance, if someone posts a #sqlhelp question on Twitter asking for an explanation of whether to use one join type or another, or a comparison between mirroring and availability groups based on some facet of operation, they’ll be directed by someone to post the question on a forum so that longer answers can be given.


It all comes down to this: give a good answer, that answers the question, provides references if necessary, and leaves the OP feeling like they’ve had a good interaction with the SQL Server community.

Even if they don’t ask politely or correctly, don’t be a jerk when you answer. You can politely point out how to ask the question. The days of being able to hide anonymously on the Internet are well past – and your response is captured for all eternity, so take pride in answering politely and correctly.

Again, don’t be a jerk. Treat people with respect, and if they seem to be lacking in some way, educate them. But be nice about it.


13 thoughts on “How to answer questions politely and correctly

  1. Hi Paul, great post! Agreed, everyone is a beginner at some point. I remember quite a few beginner situations that your blog and emails helped me. People rarely regret being polite.

  2. Great Paul,
    My sentiments exactly and worded some much more professionally than I might have done:)

    Tow of my pet peeves are the “I don’t have time to answer right now but ….” and the “Why would even consider using/doing that. Just upgrade Memory/CPU/SQL ….”

  3. As someone once said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A few years back, I was tossed into the deep end of very unfamiliar pool. I am deeply grateful for education and assistance given … not least of all, here!

  4. Great followup to a great article. Something I’d like to add(pls forgive if I’m hijacking) : often a “simple Google search” is only simple *after* you know the answer:
    1. for almost any topic, there are more unreliable sources than reliable sources
    2. Search result order does not correlate strongly to source reliability
    3. Sometimes even vendors and top experts are wrong
    4. search for a specific Spinlock or wait name and you may get hits but absolutely nothing useful until the magic word yields the source you were looking for. But the magic word often comes with the answer.
    5. before you know the answer the words of a typical search may be far too nonspecific to bring good results even with nonbiased search algorithms(eg wait, join, table, block, lock, page, log, error)
    6. Finally – and this needs to be recognized to a growing degree: no, you *can’t* Google it for me. Google tailors search results based on search history. If I google search on the family computer I often come up with different results than from my phone or laptop. In fact, I use duckduckgo increasingly because searches (mine and my family’s) for nontech stuff are biasing tech search results on Google.

  5. Totally agree Paul. Pet hates are people that lecture questioners without ever answering the question, AND people that are just wanting to get numbers up by posting a link to a generic FAQ that has all their answers on it ie: they can’t actually be bothered answering the questions again and again.

  6. …are you going to answer the question or not? :)

    Great post and couldn’t agree more. I am always reluctant to ask questions on some forums, because I don’t need the attitude or the drama.


  7. Nice article. I’ve seen a few ‘nasty ish’ comments in forums and the like over the years, I often feel these people are probably just a chapter further ahead in the book, or maybe just better able to navigate their way around Google search results. In any case my experience has shown it’s the ‘Empty Cans’ that make the most noise!

  8. As for posting links in answers, I agree.

    I think another relevant criteria is, if a simple copy and paste would be an appropriate answer then a link to the material should be appropriate too.

    And the argument of promoting your site ignores the fact that the forum site wants to add value to their site by getting the content we have written elsewhere. I think the forums as well as Stackoverflow are examples of that.

    There is also the subject of posting information from an article written by someone else. Some people might say we are stealing someone else’s work. In Stackoverflow the response is that we can just give credit to the source of the information but legally speaking we should have permission to do that.

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