Wikipedia:Advice for hotheads

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Wikipedia editors taking a break to cool down, after some heavy editing. Sometimes a wikibreak is the best response when editing makes you feel "hotheaded".

This essay consists of some basic advice for editors who recognize themselves as argumentative, cantankerous, or curmudgeonly – those prone to often finding themselves in prolonged, rancorous disputes that usually seem to escalate. Hopefully these tips will help keep you out of administrative and community trouble and sanctions, and help you better integrate into the Wikipedia mode of discussion. Even non-debatory editors have hotheaded moments, and should consider these tips when needed.

This essay should not be used as a way to label other people. Per this page's own advice, never write "Quit being a WP:HOTHEAD!" at someone. Try instead something like: "If you're a dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon like so many of us, the lighthearted advice at WP:HOTHEADS may be helpful to you."

Address edits, not editors[edit]

Rudeness is contagious

"People who encounter rude behavior from co-workers are more likely to act rudely in later interactions, according to a recent University of Florida study.

Mistreated people are also more likely to feel as if others are treating them rudely, to which they respond with more rudeness, passing on negative emotions like a virus."

— "Study Finds Workplace Rudeness Is Contagious", Los Angeles Times, 26 July 2015 (original study[1])

Never, ever project negative mental assumptions about someone you're in a disagreement with. Focus exclusively on statements/content (on their own merits) and, if necessary to address editorial behavior, on provable patterns of edits.

The fastest route to trouble is to say something like:

  • "You're irrational!"
  • "You're only saying that because you have an agenda." (= "That's just a bunch of [mention political faction here] crap", "Only a [nationality/religion/etc. label here] would say that", and many other variants.)
  • "This is just more typical [username here] nonsense."

These are all ad hominem fallacies laced with argument to emotion as well – a.k.a. demonization.

Focus instead on what was said, not who said it or why you imagine they did so:

  • "That argument is unsound because [insert demonstrable logic and facts]."
  • "That view seems to side unduly with [whatever off-WP third-party interest it seems to reflect, and why]."
  • "That unhelpful edit fits a long-term behavior pattern: [insert diffs that prove it]".

One particular feature of this approach to dispute is couching things in terms of one's own perception, not projection of imagined Platonic, objective truths about someone else, and especially not hypocritical psychological projection of one's own faults, failings, and behaviors onto others.

Taking this careful approach is basically a way to be more polite and self-honest in a dispute if it is not likely to evaporate, and perhaps more importantly to the debatory personality, a way to be taken more seriously rather than being dismissed as a disruptive ranter.

Yes, really: address edits, not editors[edit]

The style described above also takes cues from both E-prime and nonviolent communication (fancy ways of saying "not arguing like a holier-than-thou, know-it-all douchebag"): Avoid the "to be of identity" and anything that smacks of it, in reference to another editor.

Confrontational and likely to be interpreted as a personal attack:

  • "You are [something negative]."
  • "You are being [something negative]."
  • "You are doing [something negative]."
  • "Your statement is [something negative]."

Instead, couch things in terms of your own subjective perception, and about the content rather than the editor when possible:

  • "This comes across as [something frustrating that is not just a personal insult or value judgment] to me."
  • "That approach does not seem conducive to [collaboration, resolution, sourcing, etc.]."
  • "How is that any different from [something undesirable in the context, and not a personalized jab]?"
  • "That statement has [problems you clearly identify, with policy or sources to back it up]."

The use of hedging terms can notably soften a statement without changing the gist of the message: "It seems that these edits may ..." or "I find that statement somewhat ...".

Stop framing things in terms of victory and defeat[edit]

In a similar vein, one of the fastest ways to reduce a perception of "battleground" behavior is to avoid wording that suggests a focus on "winning". Wikipedia is not a contest.

  • Use: Green tickY The proposal, with which I agree, was accepted by consensus.
  • Not: Red XN I won on that.
  • Use: Green tickY I've already pointed out why that view doesn't apply to this case; please see [link here].
  • Not: Red XN I already defeated your argument.
  • Use: Green tickY That request for page protection was declined for a clearly explained reason.
  • Not: Red XN Your lame attempt to lock the page down was beaten.
  • Use: Green tickY Good luck at RfA, but you should probably closely read WP:RFAADVICE.
  • Not: Red XN Your RfA will go down in flames, because you're clueless.
  • Use: Green tickY Thank you for clarifying.
  • Not: Red XN Glad I forced you into making some sense.

See the difference?

Don't be arrogant[edit]

Assuming that any giving of advice, any criticism of your reasoning or behavior, or any attempt at dispute resolution is a some kind of attack on you and your honor is arrogance. Assuming that you alone decide that you are knowledgable enough about Wikipedia and must be doing things right is arrogance. Trying to "educate" an admin, or other long-term editor with much greater experience than you here, about Wikipedia policy is arrogance. Treating anyone who disagrees with you like an idiot because you are sure you know a lot about the topic is arrogance (and on this largely anonymous system, you have no idea what anyone's expertise is in the first place). Wasting copious amounts of other editors' valuable volunteer time making circular arguments in an argumentum ad nauseam attempt to get them to give up and let you have your way is arrogance. Acting like you are always right is the dictionary definition of arrogance.

Ask more; state and demand less[edit]

Many "how to win friends and influence people" and "how to win arguments" writers advise to frequently turn debate points into questions for the other party/parties to try to answer convincingly, rather than just making definitive statements or demands of your own that others can challenge (perhaps with difficult questions for you to wrestle with). Reformulating statements into clever questions is more work, but it does have a tendency to reduce conflict, by leading the other party to defend their assertion with actual facts and reasoning (i.e., improving the quality of the discussion and speeding resolution of the issue), rather than responding with a counter-attack against what they perceive as a verbal attack on their person, intelligence, or motives.

When it's important to state something firmly, do so only if your statement is grounded in demonstrable facts (what the reliable sources say, what Wikipedia policy says), not supposition or assumption, personal conviction or anecdote, "everyone knows ..." and other red-herring fallacies, or desire for what "should" be. If you can't prove it, don't say it.

If you're convinced that it's necessary to state something firm about another editor's behaviors, be damned sure that you have diffs to back up any claims you make about their editing patterns, and strongly consider saving such complaints for user talk page discussion, or (if it rises to that level) some form of Wikipedia dispute resolution. Whether your debate opponent has a habit of calling people Nazis or giving undue favor to sources from Botswana really has nothing to do with the purpose of, say, Talk:Doctor Who, so avoid digging into personal, off-topic arguments in such a venue. If you've already started, it's unlikely anyone will object if you refactor that material to user talk or close and collapse the extraneous material and resume the discussion in user talk.

A word of warning, though: If you habitually make everything a question, you will annoy other editors, because it looks like a WP:POINTy or sarcastic attempt to waste their time. Even if you're polite, it can also come across instead as uncertainty or cluelessness, as if you have no clearly formulated input for the discussion.

Tone it down[edit]

Keep Calm and Carry On

If you're using vulgarities, you're almost certainly making a mistake. Especially if you're responding to someone else who already did – you'll be missing an opportunity to take the discursive high ground. Swearing is strong seasoning in this environment, and its impact is squandered when it's done frequently. People are apt to think "Who is this full-of-shit asshole who keeps calling everyone 'assholes' and 'full of shit'?".

Avoid hyperbole, and look for adjectives of characterization and exaggeration that you can remove from what you're writing (or by self-moderating something you already posted). "This has clear logic problems, like [example], and is contradicted by policy, at [cite]" is actually a much stronger statement than "This has amazingly ridiculous logic problems, like some idiot on crack wrote it, and it totally flies in the face of cherished Wikipedia policy traditions like [cite] that we're all expected to uphold or get the hell off the system!". The latter is what sounds like the idiot on crack.

If you've included some dismissive "gesture" like "Go screw yourself", "Why don't you just quit Wikipedia and go troll somewhere else?", "Don't you ever post on my talk page again!", "BTW, please familiarize yourself with WP:JERK", etc., just delete it. It adds nothing, makes you look like the problem, and no one will take it seriously anyway. If you think there's a real problem to address, there are noticeboards for that. If you think there's a correctable attitude issue at play and something really, really needs to be said, be calm and distant about it if you can't muster a cheerful response, e.g.: "Talk pages are for collaboration and communication to improve the encyclopedia, not for personalized venting. Please refrain from posting on my talk page further unless it's toward constructive goals." This level of distant, chiding formalism tends to stop ranters in their tracks.

If you really must, you actually can get away with mentioning WP:JERK if you explicitly acknowledge the long-standing canard that one is violating the rule by the very act of citing it, e.g.: "I bet this discussion would be lot more productive if we both took a step away from the WP:JERK cliff." Remember that humor can go a long way to defusing tension, as can mingling some self-criticism into a critique of someone else, to make it less one-sided.

Pro tip: Assume that your post will be used as evidence at WP:ANI, WP:AE, WP:RFARB, or some other noticeboard. Are you sure you still want to click "Publish changes"? In a dispute, you want other editors to focus on the content or behavior you've objected to, not your own behavior.

Sarcastic false civility fools no one, including admins[edit]

A weak personal attack is still wrong. If you make a habit of using faux-civility, dripping with sarcasm and irony, to make a point about your dim view of your debate opponents, no one is going to interpret this as actual civility, but simply as a form of gaming the system (specifically "sanction gaming" and "civil PoV-pushing"). If you habitually use language manipulation to strongly imply instead of quite state outright that other editors are stupid, crazy, liars, or up to evil deeds this will still eventually result in you being sanctioned, just as if you'd called them names, if you keep it up.

Don't post in the heat of the moment[edit]

If you're a "ranty-pants" type, go ahead and write your spur-of-the-moment, bombastic reaction in a debate, to get it out of your system, but don't post it yet. Go have a snack or watch funny pet videos for 15 minutes, come back, and re-edit it to follow the above advice before posting it.

There are various other posting contra-indications, like drunkenness, lack of sleep, depression, etc. How much about what you're planning to post in response to someone reflects the facts versus your own mood?

Stop the runaway train[edit]

If you just posted a comment you regret, and no one has replied, it's not too late to delete it. If someone replies suggesting mutual withdrawal, consider it a golden opportunity to nip things in the bud. If you think someone else should take back something they said, you can also suggest mutual withdrawal.

You cannot argue Wikipedia into capitulation[edit]

Wikipedia's administrative processes are entirely geared to protecting project stability, not toward individual "justice", a "fair hearing", or "proving who is technically in the right". This is a marked difference from the approach taken by Western, democratic legal systems, especially common law systems. It's a collectivist approach that supports the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the one.

Consequently, anyone who approaches Wikipedia administration and dispute resolution from a "justice" perspective will be disappointed and may make their circumstances worse, quite quickly, and sometimes irreparably. This is especially true of venues entirely controlled by admins, such as WP:AN, WP:AE, WP:RFARB, and WP:ARCA, versus the more everyone-gets-a-say forum of WP:ANI. Numerous generally-productive editors who have been sanctioned one or more times in the past will maintain that their statements and arguments were correct, but feel that they still got railroaded solely because of the disagreeableness of their attitude. They feel that they were punished simply for "being uppity".

This perception is, in fact, entirely correct. You will be sanctioned for habitually badgering others to satisfy your petty demands, being excessively individualistic at the expense of others, excuse-making or finger-pointing at others, nit-picking, clearly trying to just "win" at all costs, stubbornly "not getting it", dragging out conflict just to make a point, or waging a petty "righting great wrongs" micro-crusade for personal honor that no one else cares about.

Those who really are here to build an encyclopedia have one expectation of disputes: that they quickly resolve (or dissolve) with a result that is acceptable to the consensus of the editorial community so that collegial collaboration resumes. If you are here for advocacy or activism – for outing The Truth – then you are making a mistake and will be ejected when others realize it.

Administrative enforcement on WP necessarily takes this approach to recalcitrant hotheads, because the very act of arguing ad nauseam, to defy the collective peer pressure of the editorial community telling one to change one's ways, is considered disruptive in and of itself. The community, and in particular the administrative and arbitration corps, care primarily about the functioning of the Wikipedia "organs", like content creation and source checking; any individual cell (i.e., you) causing inflammation, for whatever reason, is a cancer to be removed. It can take a long time for some editors to internalize this and adjust, especially if they're used to rancorous debate on online forums. Some never do, and get indefinitely blocked or site-banned, or get in so much perennial trouble (repeated short-term blocks, topic- and interaction-bans, etc.) that they "quit in disgust". Inability to recognize that Wikipedia is not the Internet and is not academia or any other fully public sphere, but is akin to a closed game with a specific set of player-conduct rules, is in the end a working-with-others competence failure. Either one gets it, eventually, or one is shown the door.

For the temperamental and uncollaborative, walking away from Wikipedia (at least for a while) is a real option, and not necessarily a bad one.

See also[edit]

More advice for hotheads


  1. ^ Foulk, T; Woolum, A; Erez, A (January 2016). "Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors". The Journal of applied psychology. 101 (1): 50–67. doi:10.1037/apl0000037. PMID 26121091.