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Vienna Safety Presentation - Taking Responsibility for your Own Safety
Posted June 27th, 2009 - 4:08 pm by from Montreal, Canada (Permalink)
Dividing my presentation in 3 parts for your convenience, here is the last chunk, the part about Safety. This post is flagged and you are free to translate or cross-post it (using the permalink).

I added my notes to the speaker's notes so you can view both as you are viewing the presentation. You have to click on "Action", "View speaker notes" and rearrange your screen so that you can see both at the same time.


Otherwise, if you just want to read the contents, here it is:

Too often, we are asked: "What does CouchSurfing do for member's safety?". Well, Most of our safety features are public: references, vouches, verification, and they work best if the community uses them to their full potential.

There is no fool-proof safety system for many reasons. People live situations differently, their cultures tolerate different things. Smoking marijuana is legal in the Netherlands but carrying some in Singapore can lead to death penalty, for example.

We are dealing with an amazing range of potential connections, but also potential conflicts. Potential only - because as we get in touch with more people, we get more in touch with ourselves too, and learn to interact better and prevent these conflicts. It's a learning process and this is where you can actively support members with your experience.

Over the last year, CouchSurfing's Safety Team has given more information about its processes, stressing the importance of confidentiality. But our aim has always been to give more tools to the community to handle its own issues. In clear cases of abuse that occur through the website, CouchSurfing can take action to protect the community, but in the vast majority of the cases, it is the community itself that takes care of safety, real-life interactions, and hosting/surfing experiences.

Taking Responsibility for your Own Safety

This section of my presentation will be more personal, if you don't mind. I've been hosting and surfing since April 2005, travelling sometimes with a partner but mostly alone.

I'm a hitchhiker - in the hitchhiking world there is no verification, no references, no vouches. You have 20-30 seconds to assess someone's personality before entering the car. Most people think that it is the main challenge of hitchhiking, that first intuition about someone. They couldn't be more wrong. A German report from the Federal Police concluded that ". . . the risk of falling victim to a crime while hitch-hiking is strongly defined by the process of interaction between the driver and passenger." That means that most of the time, you don't meet serial killers roaming on the highways looking for their next victim. But there are slippery situations, misunderstandings, unspoken limits, frustrations, boundaries crossed and sometimes, points of no return.

But back to CouchSurfing and Hospitality Exchange. How to prevent conflict and unsafe situations? The principles are similar: before hosting & surfing be prepared to face the potential situation!

Now, of course you already know a lot of things about the topic, and my advice might sound trivial. But remember that this is advice that you carry, and a point of view you can communicate newer members. So I'm going to address you as I would address a regular member coming to me for advice.

Risk assessment... What are you ready to deal with?

Think of what makes you uncomfortable. Assessing this prior to surfing/hosting will make it easier for you to spot things in a profile that might make you uncomfortable or more nervous. Explore all the potential information a profile has!

Is their profile filled out? Do they have photographs? Who left them references? How much CouchSurfing experience do they have? When did they join?

I, for myself, am uncomfortable hosting a member that created a profile only a few days ago, that is not verified, even if they have a friend and a front face picture. I'd be wary that they might have created the profile with bad intentions, even though I understand that they might be on the road and discovered about CouchSurfing while discussing with people in a hostel. It's possible. But I am not comfortable...

But I'm comfortable with a male host that just created his profile, as long as I see a picture and that he gives me more information about him when I contact him, and I feel it's right! It's what I am ready to take, and I am aware of it.

CouchSurfing is not dangerous by nature ... (although it can be severely addictive)...
... it's a Website ... ... but people use it ... ... and people are potentially dangerous... ... just like crossing a street is...
And if you watch both sides before you cross the street, and wait until there is no traffic, you minimize your risk... ... and if you read a profile properly...

Get to Know yourself

Your limits: What can't you tolerate? What shocks you, what upsets you? What makes you uncomfortable? Why? This will make you recognize your feelings and make them more easy to communicate

What risks are you willing to take? This will influence your decision to surf or host when assessing a profile,

Your behaviour: What tends to annoy people in you? What cultural traits that you carry are not acceptable in some other cultures? How do you react when someone crosses your boundaries? Do you get angry, nervous, do you tend to voice it or to shut yourself in silence?

Your reactions: What would would you do if you were to be stuck in a conflict or a tricky situations? Are you prepared? How would you react? How do you usually get out of conflict?

Obviously, you can't get along with everyone, so better be realistic.


Be clear what your boundaries are: Couch Information is the best place to proactively set your limits on general topics. But there is a lot to be said when you meet your host/surfer.

For us, more experienced Couchsurfers, it might be obvious: we know ourselves so much that we are used to repeating the same things when we get a new surfer in our place... But you are there to advise people and support them while using the system. New members are not always aware of that and let people go past their boundaries. If you don't say that something is wrong, you can't ask people to guess it.

Examples that you might be able to relate to: this guy at a Couchsurfing meeting trying offer you drink after drink, putting his arm around your shoulder. That girl spreading rumors about members of your local community. That guy that always brings sex back on the topic... Can you be clear what your boundaries are then?

- Alcohol welcome at this event, but drunken people won't be tolerated.
- Could you please keep some distance? I'm uncomfortable with your arm being there.
- I'd rather talk about something else than sex.
- No, I don't want to kiss you, please do not insist.
- Woah, the living room is so small, I'd rather see your stuff in this corner than on the floor, could you please tidy up?

You can advice new members that before hosting & surfing, they practice saying "I'm uncomfortable with this, with that. I'd like you to leave now.

Exercise caution & ask

My host in Frankfurt will always tell the story about when i asked her "can i give you a hug?" as she found really sweet that I ask... But I now do it all the time: "can I take this?" "can I touch this?". Most of the time I get a yes, but each time I get a no, I realize that this was a potential conflict, or at least an awkward moment for my host. Think about it.

It's okay to say 'NO' - It's even okay to change your mind. Do it calmly but firmly. You don't have to be bluntly honest about everything, you don't have to justify everything. It's important that it is diplomatic, and this is an example of a learning process, an opportunity for personal growth. For example, you can say that your plans have changed and for unexpected reasons, you can't host someone any more. Being hosted is not a right, it is a privilege. As long as you communicate timely and respectfully, you are making the situation easier to deal with. Another good advice: communicate with others at least like you would like people to communicate with you

Problem with another member - suggested resolution process

What about warning other people in groups?

No, leave a reference. I feel it's still important to remind you this. The profile follows the person wherever they go on the website, whereas the groups are only read by a few members. Posting about a personal issue in groups is unfair as the other person cannot give their side of the story. And it spreads panic. Under panic, our reactions are not the best, especially as a group of people!

But I'd feel odd leaving a reference for that because...
I'm scared of leaving a reference because he might leave me one back

While these are valid concerns, remember why you joined CouchSurfing? Like me, you probably joined thinking "Hey, this is great, and with references abusers and unsuitable people are kept away from the community, or at least from me".

CouchSurfing's Safety Team tries hard to find ways to improve the current safety systems, especially the reference system. We made changes in the past to make it easier to use it, and we are constantly evaluating potential changes that are legally and culturally suitable. But you have to do your part. CouchSurfing's Safety is everyone's responsibility.

Thing is, we KNOW it's hard to leave a neutral or a negative reference. I left some myself, I can testify this is not a nice moment. I always end up asking myself what went wrong, what I did wrong, what I could have done better... It questions my ability to get along with people. But as I said earlier, this is a learning process. And receiving a negative or neutral reference in return is not a big deal. I trust that people will read both sides of the story and make their own mind, because there are 2 sides of a story, if not more. Imagine that I had to tell someone to leave, how could this person find this experience positive? Everybody's experience is unique, I have to respect that!

We often tell people that a reference tells as much about the person who writes it than about the person it's left for. How you write a reference shows to people how you address problems, how you solve conflicts and what you learned from them.

The whole system relies on member responsibility. That's what CouchSurfing does to ensure safety, that's what each of US do.

Supporting a member experiencing a conflict

Because you are an ambassador, people are more likely to come to you for advice. You are NOT responsible for people's interactions, but you can certainly help people that just experienced a bad situation or a conflict.

Some tips before giving advice to people!

* Make sure you remain uninvolved in the issue - No 3rd party complaints! Getting yourself in the problem won't help people to learn from their experience and to take responsibility, it won't help the safety team as we have to work with people directly, and making it your own crusade also makes you become part of the problem rather than the solution. This is especially true when you are an outsider to a community. So make sure you keep a distance with the situation:
* Listen compassionately
* Broaden the discussion (cultural differences, potential misunderstanding?)
* Be supportive
* Take the emotions out of the issue
* Encourage people through their resolution process but don't decide or act for them

If all else fails, in clear cases of abuse, to dispute a reference...
You can always contact us confidentially.

Complaint to MDST process