186

In light of recent events, I intended to write a simple letter of complaint to StackExchange. The obvious thing to do would be to write an opening with the fact such as

It came to my knowledge that a long-standing member and moderator of the Writing.SE community, among others, has been dismissed in circumstances that are short of the adverb "summarily".

I wanted such opening to be strong and to resonate with reader. I find that it contains far too many words, and thus not quite reaching the point.

In general, I find that opening with a fact is not quite as strong as opening with an emotional argument. For instance:

Never I would have believed to consider StackExchange but the mask before the monstrous face of intolerance.

The latter may resonate deeper with the reader, but it does not hold its ground in an argument. Moreover, my entire letter may be dismissed as a rant for the simple lack of facts.

How to construct a resonating opening line in a letter when stating a fact? What is the structure and language of a strong opening line that cannot be easily dismissed?

88

"Dear SE, I don't even know how to express how disappointed I am in you--literally. Because I don't know all the facts. But all the indications I've seen make me fear that the full facts would only make my current disappointment even greater."

Thereby:

  • Injecting some smartass humour, but also

  • Expressing how huge your current disappointment is, while

  • Acknowledging we don't know all the facts yet, even though

  • What we have heard so far is pretty damning indeed, and furthermore

  • Stressing things look very bad and it would take a very surprising save on their part to fix things

Oh, and they should really show up and own up to this epic fail on their part. ASAP. At the very least. And it's absolutely not enough--just a start.

  • 6
    "literally" has been somewhat abused by "the youth" to make it something of a tautology, at least in my locality (eg. "I literally had to do my homework before dinner, then ate my dinner super-fast so I wasn't late - literally!"). Maybe use a different word, or drop it entirely if you want to avoid accidentally appearing to sound like a kid from around here. I'll let others debate the use of 'Because' to start a sentence, which I was always told one shouldn't do ;-) – Ralph Bolton Oct 3 at 9:15
  • 6
    @RalphBolton First of all, I think my usage of literally made sense in the etymological usage of the word. But, in any case, see daily.jstor.org/… (I could never explain the issue better than that article). But not starting with "because" (or "but") is just a silly, unrealistic rule IMEO. – sesquipedalias Oct 3 at 9:44
  • 4
    I've been using "genuinely" since The Youth started the linguistic drfit of "literally." – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 3 at 9:59
  • 11
    I was expecting, "Dear SE, I don't even know how to express how disappointed I am in you, which is why I have asked a question on Writing.SE to help me with the opening of this letter." – Simon Forsberg Oct 3 at 17:21
  • 3
    And don't forget something along the lines about their "...values being out of alignment..." with their community. – stix Oct 3 at 19:51
53

Dear Stack Exchange,

for once can you be honest with us?

Why didn't you give Monica Cellio a second and private hearing?

Yours,

The volunteers who make up Stack Exchange.

   


Update #1
An explanation and an apology has recently been posted.

An Update to our Community and an Apology

The line

We removed a moderator for repeatedly violating our existing Code of Conduct and being unwilling to accept our CM’s repeated requests to change the behavior

has no documented evidence supporting it.

Update #2
A second letter of apology has been issued, below is a snippet

An apology to our community, and next steps

… we hurt a longstanding member of the community and an important volunteer moderator. She deserved the benefit of a private, comprehensive process. […]

I am [David Fullerton] more committed than ever to creating a welcoming and inclusive community across Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange, and the mistakes we made over the past few weeks made that worse, not better. I know we have lost the trust of many of you, and that trust must be re-earned over time by more than just words. That starts this week with some of the concrete steps we are taking with the moderator removal process and the Code of Conduct changes, but the hard work will continue for years.

  • 5
    Ah, so that's who it was. I like her. Any summary of the 'known facts' that you can point me to would be appreciated. – J. Chris Compton Oct 3 at 14:22
  • 7
    I found this version from her: judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5193/… – J. Chris Compton Oct 3 at 14:23
  • 32
    Wow, Monica Cellio? Despite not paying much attention to Stack Exchange moderators, she was one of the few I had repeatedly noticed and remembered as a notably likeable-seeming one! – Dronz Oct 3 at 15:39
  • 8
    @wizzwizz4 Even SE's claim doesn't claim that she "messed up", they claim she "repeatedly" violated the CoC. Thus far, of course, no evidence has been provided to support that claim from them, but neither side has made the claim that she "just messed up." I'd recommend thinking twice before posting speculation as fact on such a hot-button issue. – IllusiveBrian Oct 4 at 19:57
  • 2
    @IllusiveBrian She repeatedly messed up, and hurt people, but it wasn't out of malice. – wizzwizz4 Oct 4 at 20:10
31

It depends on what your goal is --an open letter can have many different audiences, and the putative addressee may not be the actual target. With that said, the best structure for a persuasive argument is to start with common ground, and to show how the same things that all sides agree on lead inevitably towards your conclusion. Then, bring things full circle by showing that things that both sides value are endangered or at stake.

Dear Stack Exchange,

Your site --which is really "our" site under the crowdsourcing model! --is rooted in (and dependent for its survival on) mutual trust, a spirit of generosity, and a respect for everyone's ability to contribute.

Which is why it's so dangerous to the interests of the network as a whole that a recent decision --while it may have been made with the best intentions, and in pursuit of the above aims --had the actual impact of violating every one of those core norms. The sudden, seemingly arbitrary de-modification of Monica Cellio, a long-standing, well-respected, and tirelessly contributing member of the larger SE community, has alienated crucial key members of said community, and stands to endanger much of the essential good will that SE has spent so long building.

It's hard to see how SE can survive if this becomes the new normal. You are literally only and exactly as strong as your community support.

  • 1
    Excellent advice as usual. You may recognize a reference to your first paragraph in my letter :) – NofP Oct 10 at 11:04
19

Never I would have believed to consider StackExchange but the mask before the monstrous face of intolerance.

That's not stronger than your first attempt. It's so archaic even experienced writers (e.g. me) have trouble parsing it. It took me several tries to see it's not full of errors, and several hours later I'm still not sure about "believed to consider".

How to construct a resonating opening line in a letter when stating a fact?

By stating the fact without excess verbiage. The trouble is, you're not stating a fact but voicing your opinion, to a group of people (StackExchange) who have done something contrary to that opinion.

There are 2 possible goals for your letter:

  1. to inform StackExchange of your opinion.
  2. to try and change StackExchange's opinion.

goal 1 can be cathartic, but is usually pointless.
goal 2 is much harder to achieve: you're attempting to change someone's mind. This tends to be a lost cause, especially in cases where there's already an emotional investment in the decision. You won't be the only one complaining to StackExchange, and people tend to dig in when they're under fire.

If your goal is to change minds, don't start by calling them 'monstrous'. In my opinion, a dispassionate account will get you further towards your goal than an attack.

  • 1
    Excellent advice. I took the suggestion to structure the letter as a proposal for a change, with actual proposal points. – NofP Oct 10 at 11:04
16

"I am horrified to find..." whatever you are horrified to have discovered

"I am most disappointed..." or maybe "I am shocked" or if the event you are writing about is worse you can say "I am appalled to discover..." or "I am disgusted to find that..."

Or you can readily swap to a past tense by "I was..."

English has many ways to express dislike of something... depending on the degree of dislike or horror or shock that you felt on hearing of the events. Disappointed is fairly mild, appalled and horrified tend to be for more strongly felt disappointment or dislike, disgusted is more appropriate perhaps for things that are repellent, such as if you heard that Stack Exchange had dismissed the person for having skin of the wrong colour.

You can amplify the stronger words by being 'utterly' as well... "I was utterly disgusted to hear..." implies that there is very little more disgusting you can imagine.

  • 1
    I decided for a milder choice of words in the end, but your advice still stands – NofP Oct 10 at 11:05
10

I find that in the course of angry letter writing, you are walking a balancing act in which you have an action taken that could be motivated by bad faith or by incompetence or an incomplete picture of the situation, so it's best to approach the subject in a clinical manner and lay down the factual merits for your case, rather than your emotional merits. Even if you do not believe it, your case should always look as if it gives the benefit of the doubt to the intended reader.

That isn't to say you should hide your emotions, but rather state them in a neutral and factual way. Rather than accuse the reader of being a monster, explain that you are having difficulty in rationalizing in any way that supports the reader's actions. It's critical that you lay out what you did see and why the action is being perceived by you as a bad faith action. Never directly accuse.

Don't start by saying "You are a monster for doing this and if you don't fix it, you will always be a monster." Rather, use statements of facts: "I am writing to inform you that I am having a difficult time understanding your recent actions and in light of this difficulty, I am having trouble with justifying your leadership capabilities to myself."

This does a few things. It gets what you emotionally feel out, but in a factual way. It states the cause of these emotions, in this case actions that seem to violate rules, and you admit you don't know what the reasons for these rule violations are, and allows the person the space to explain his or her side of the story and justify what happened.

From this, lay out the nature of the incident in question from your perspective, the rules that you perceive that were violated by the actions, and outline what you believe would be the correct actions of discipline under the law. Try to avoid shifting to unrelated rule violations or discipline for them. Try to limit example cases of past enforcement as the circumstances may be different or the rule did not exist and post ipso facto enforcement is not allowed. Doing so, especially excessively, can come off as whataboutism, and implies that the rule is being selectively enforced based on the reader's bias. Again, the point is to outline the problem as you see it and allow them a chance to justify the actions to you. Accusing them of hypocracy when they don't see it that way is an accusation of bad faith.

Especially when challenging someone with rule enforcement power, your letter should always assume the best, but it's okay to expect the worst. It may come that the enforcement agent will target you for charges because you are accusing him of things which he did not do, especially if you don't have insight into his perspective of the situation. The longer you can keep from an emotional charge or an accusation, the better, as you are more likely to draw support on the merits of the case than you are by impugning the character of the person acting under color of law. Consider Ghanid and Martin Luther King Jr., whose passive resistance to the law made the responses to them by law enforcement less easy to defend than if they have fought back. Arresting a man shouting "Hey Hey, Ho Ho! Racism has got to go!" at a segragated diner was a lot easier to justify then arresting a man for sitting down and ordering... for the crime of having the wrong skin color to make the order in that chair. In fact, in the case of a few department stores who's dining sections had this, they ended up repealing the rule long before the Jim Crow laws that allowed it were themselves repealed. The disproportionate reaction to a rather small infraction of the law built outside support for those who said that they were a problem, as the laws were justified as a way of stopping criminals from committing crime, not from people eating lunch.

Because of this when writing angry letters, you should attack the logical weakness of the situation, "Why was it done this way when the rules say not to?" and not the emotional implications that it is because they are "Evil."

If you are going to appeal to emotions, it should be done in a way that use your factual arguments to lead to a visceral conclusion that the reader would be opposed too. If you can decouple the reader from the sitution... force him to read from a narrative perspective where he is looking at a situation from the outside and upon reaching a conclusion, comes to view his own actions as similarly problematic. Two well beloved users of this tactic were Jesus, who's parables were used to put the theory of his preaching into a simple story that others could relate too, and Star Trek, which took real world modern issues and re-imagined them as if it was aliens with the same problems. In the Parable of the Prodical Son, Jesus tells a story of a father celebrating the return of a child who left home and lived fast and hard and fell on difficult times and caused his father emotional grief, as a way of relating to his audiences the unlimited forgiveness of God, and how God would respond to even a sinner who returning after previously turning his back on God. In Star Trek TNG, the episode "Measure of a Man" is not only a good example of this, but it also "shows the trick" being pulled on the audience in the story.

The plot in question, shows one of the main crew, an android named Data, in a trial to determine if he is Starfleet property like a computer, or has rights like Starfleet crew. The opening argument consists of displays of Data's android nature, from his superior strength to the detachment of limbs, and even the location and functionality of the off switch. The argument is so devastating that Picard (acting as Data's legal council) finds himself alone, late at night, unable to mount a defense). The bartender (played by Whoopi Goldberg to add more punch to the conversation) discusses the conclusion of the ruling if it favors this argument, as Picard admits, he's nearly convinced and cannot factually attack it:

GUINAN: And now he's about to be ruled the property of Starfleet. That should increase his value.

PICARD: In what way?

GUINAN: Well, consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do because it's too difficult, or to hazardous. And an army of Datas, all disposable, you don't have to think about their welfare, you don't think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people.

PICARD: You're talking about slavery.

GUINAN: I think that's a little harsh.

PICARD: I don't think that's a little harsh. I think that's the truth. But that's a truth we have obscured behind a comfortable, easy euphemism. Property. But that's not the issue at all, is it?

Here, Guinan employs the trick of Star Trek that it employs on it's audience. Piccard is unable or unwilling to address the reason why the argument that data is a machine is convincing, but still wrong... he has an emotional respect for Data as part of his crew and cannot see him as anything other than a person, but cannot help but realize that Data will be seen by strangers as a machine first. Guinan chooses her words to carry that line of thinking to the conclusion that Data would be quite important feature of society if this was to be his legal status, and while she demurs from the conclusion Piccard comes to, it only further settles Picards problem with the argument. As he argues in the trial, Data is a machine, but the question of his rights doesn't hinge on what his physical form is, but on capabilities he hasn't demonstrated in the court, such as keeping mementos of relationships he had with his crew, his decorations for service, his very quest for his rights, as evidence that data is aware of what his individual value to the crew is and is capable of signifying that relationship in these ways and more.

This is all because Guine provided a decouple of the emotional investment in Data for both Picard and the audience (who at this point, were seeing Data as one of the more popular show characters) and instead put the line of logic presented against Data to something that both the audience of Americans in the mid 1980s and Picard both view as a historical black mark on human history, slavery... the forced work of people society deemed lesser then they. It's timing is placed well towards the conclusion that the audience is already emotionally invested in Data is a person, but may not know why, other then they love him too much to let him leave. But as Picard comes to realize, that the emotion about Data's respected character masques the logical moral wrong that makes the stakes so much higher and the audience worried for their robot buddy: We know Data is more than a mere tool or computer or beast of burden but the we don't know that not everybody sees him as we do... and by relying on the emotional attachment to what we feel is a person, by declaring him property, we make him a slave and then the people who don't see him as a person will never come to respect him. It's hitting the audience over the head, but in story, Guinen's pushing the idea, is removing Picard from what he knows about Data the person, to see Data as a mass produced comodity and when this happens, the last time humanity did that to something like Data came straight to mind. It also helps the audience, who may know that Guinen was created after Whoopi Goldberg begged for a part, any part, on the revival of Star Trek (at the time, a valuable actress who Trek's budget couldn't afford). Goldberg's request was motivated because she owed her success to the orginal series. As a young girl growing up in the civil rights era, seeing the character of Uhuru, a black woman, on the bridge of star ship and a respected member of the crew, Goldberg realized that she could be an actress on TV and not have to play a maid. Uhuru was very important to many African Americans in the 1960s and not only inspired Star Trek fans into acting, but it was not uncommon for African American Astronauts to cite her role in their lives for why they decided to become Astronauts in the first place. Audiences' awareness of this fact in the episode brings them to see just how important what Goldberg was saying was. Her character wasn't playing Data's part... but she had been in that same role only two decades prior to the first airing of the episode.

If there is an emotional appeal, it needs to be the end of the letter, not the begining. Begin with why you wrote the letter, and present the facts of the case. You want to set it up so that by the time you make your emotional appeal, you've primed them to know the reason behind the emotion.

9

I have found that the approach varies, depending on your intent.

If you believe that the person will listen to you, then you want a friendly approach.

"Dear stack exchange, I have been engaged in this community for a number of years and have always enjoyed my time here, but recent events have left me disappointed."

or, if you feel that a stronger tone is needed....

"Dear stack exchange, I find your recent actions to be most disturbing. Not only were your actions abrupt, and without justification, your stone-walling against any inquiry demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the community"

If you want to give it some British subtlety, you could always try this route.

"Dear stack exchange, I find your recent actions to be quite brave, and I mean that in the same spirit that one MP would mean it when addressing another"

Snark is always a good approach.

"Dear Stack exchange, I want to thank you for your bold new approach towards management. Most companies, when confronted with a mistake would make a humble apology and move to correct their actions. I find your approach to be quite refreshing."

  • 1
    I took great inspiration from your last suggestion. You will notice it in the opening of my letter on meta.stackexchange. "how do you call someone who imposes their view with force?" – NofP Oct 10 at 11:07
8
+250

I think there are two important aspects that you should make clear:

  • That you indeed do care about the issue. Your letter is not just a rant, you sincerely are concerned about the damage the issue does or may do to what you consider important.

  • Why the addressed should care. The issue is not just something you personally disagree with, but something that may negatively affect also the addressed one.

Also, if possible, you should address the letter not to the entity, but to a specific person.

Here's a possible opening for a letter to Stack Exchange about the recent issues (I didn't take the time to figure out who at Stack Exchange this would best be addressed at, so I just use the fake name “Ms. Stack Employee”):

Dear Ms. Stack Employee,

As a long time user of the Stack Exchange network, up to now my overall impression of your company was mainly positive. However unfortunately the recent events challenged that assessment, to the point that I'm now reconsidering whether the site is worth my future investment in that site.

Note that I used the term investment deliberately; while I'm not invested monetarily, the effort I put in this site is indeed a non-monetary investment of which I expect a non-monetary payoff. I'm concerned that your recent actions may do enough damage to your main asset, the goodwill of your user base, that the expected payoff won't materialize. The fact that many moderators, who are both better informed and more invested in this site, decided to reduce or stop their investment in this site doesn't help to reassure me that your site is still worth my trust.

These two paragraphs address the above points in the following ways:

  • By noting that I'm a long time user, I make it clear that I have a genuine interest in the site's well-being.

  • By noting that my positive assessment is challenged, I make clear that I'm not yet determined on my reassessment. That is, the future actions of Stack Exchange actually matter.

  • By using financial language, I hint at the possibility that monetary investors might also be drawn to reconsider their investment. Of course I cannot state it because I don't know it (although if I were a monetary investor, I certainly would think about my investment strategy now).

  • I openly state that, in my opinion, their main asset (note the financial term, again) is the goodwill of their user base. Which in turn implies that any damage to that goodwill is a damage to the company, something the company certainly cares about.

  • I state my concern about the damage they did to this main asset, and how it personally affects me (again using financial terms).

  • Finally, I make it clear that this is not just my personal opinion, but that people who are mode informed and more invested in the site not only share my concern, but are already taking action, and that this very fact also adds to my own doubts. In other words, they should care about my opinion because it's not just mine.

Note that the above text doesn't yet say much about the actual incident. The following text would then have to detail why exactly the current events are so troubling.

  • 3
    @celfschk - Your arguments are well presented and compelling. If I were an investor in or board director of StackExchange, I would be horrified at this whole turn of events, which - as you point out - is financially very negative for the company. My personal suggestion is that you yourself write this letter to the new CEO! – TechnoCat Oct 5 at 15:25
  • 2
    Good advice. I indeed mentioned that they profit on our free labour. – NofP Oct 10 at 11:07
  • why isn't this the accepted answer? the most upvoted answer took the question as rhetorical, i.e. a humourous way to criticise SE in writing.se rather than meta, and therefore that answer is itself humourous but not very deep (it was also posted immediately after the question was asked, in order to support it, at a time when people were voting to close the question)... but in the long term, this here answer is better, so it seems to me that it should be accepted... – sesquipedalias Nov 13 at 8:26
3

When you begin a letter with a rant, especially if it is rude or bossy, it is unlikely to be taken on board, by the reader, or get the results you want.

The best opener in my view, establishes your credentials, mentions common ground, and creates a relationship with the reader, something like this:

As a member of Stack Exchange with n years experience and n answers posted, I have come to expect and enjoy an egalitarian and fair environment of communal sharing and collaboration for the common good.

Instead of trying to create the entire letter in the first paragraph, I suggest you slow down and craft a letter properly, which in my view best comprises these elements:

  1. It is addressed to the top person by name (ie, the CEO)
  2. A polite opener establishes your credentials, common ground, and relationship to the reader.
  3. A paragraph describes the problem and how it makes you feel
  4. A closing paragraph explains how you’ll react or action you’ll take if the issue is not addressed
  5. Yours Sincerely, your name

Bear in mind that a letter is the opener of your conversation with someone. It need not be the final soliloquy of your life! More can follow.

Writing a long rant with an ‘in your face’ opening is not likely to get you what you want, in my view. It is also coming from a place of ‘expecting not to be heard’ - like a parental 3 year old.

Instead, come from a place of being a grownup, talking like an adult, in order to be taken seriously and get the results you want.

I also think that paragraph depth is always a great indicator of ‘emotion’. Those stout wordy paragraphs full of vitriol are best kept for your friend or therapist.

Once you’ve calmed down, craft a proper brief letter that clearly states your case, and will be more likely to get results.

Lastly, Mark Twain has a great quote on this: ‘sorry for the long letter - for I did not have time to write a short one!’

Here is the letter as I would write it:

Dear (name),

As a member of Stack Exchange with n years experience and n answers posted, I have come to expect and enjoy an egalitarian and fair environment of communal sharing and collaboration for the common good.

It was therefore of great shock and disappointment to me to discover that a moderator has recently been dismissed in what I consider to be a very unfair and summary manner.

I am writing therefore, to ask that you look into this, and to ask you to reconsider the decision that was made.

I have to tell you that if appropriate action is not taken on this issue, I will consider deleting my Stack Exchange account and leaving the service.

Yours Sincerely

  • You should post requests like this on writing.meta.stackexchange.com. It is not an answer to the question here. – Chenmunka Oct 9 at 14:00
  • That’s right, Linksassin, I was giving an example of how to write it. I have added some explanation of how I constructed it, and why. – Jelila Oct 9 at 23:11
  • Even if it is a critique, I appreciated the feedback and tried to stand as clear as possible from writing a rant. Thank you again, and welcome to writing.SE – NofP Oct 10 at 11:09
  • Thanks NofP. It’s good that you raised the issue. – Jelila Oct 11 at 13:08

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