Tag Archives: code of conduct

The linkspam is a harsh mistress (19 March 2014)

Super spam today folks!

Kicking off with our traditional can of miscellaneous linkspam:

The Mythology edition of Model View Culture is out, and its entire table of contents is of interest! This spammer couldn’t trim it down!

Look out for an interview with Model View Culture founders Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane on Geek Feminism tomorrow!

And finally, Julie Ann Horvath left Github, describing harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour. Some coverage and responses include:

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspam and a bag of chips (18 February 2014)

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on PinboardDelicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

How is linkspam formed? (9 July 2013)

Special issue on conference harassment!

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Structure and Justice

A few months ago, I attended a talk at Mozilla by Ted Nyman (of Github) titled “Scaling Happiness”. The video is freely available.

Nyman argued that companies with minimal formal structure are better for workers (specifically, better at maximizing workers’ happiness) than more traditional companies. Whenever someone asks whether something is “better”, I ask “better for whom?” Whose happiness was Nyman talking about? He didn’t say, but when I think about happiness, I ask what’s best for women, for people in GRSMs (gender, romantic and sexual minorities), for disabled people, and for people of color, since not too many people seem to think about what’s best for people in these groups. (For the record, I’m in the second and third of those groups, though I’m usually not perceived that way in one case, and often not perceived that way in the other.) Happiness for the dominant cadre in the software industry — that of people who have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and who lack visible disabilities — is not the same as happiness for everybody.

I don’t mean to say that happiness is a zero-sum game, that when abled white cis men are happy, that inherently takes away some of the limited pool of happiness from disabled trans women of color. Rather, part of the problem is that people who have privilege perceive happiness as a zero-sum game; part of their happiness comes from seeing themselves as better than others.

I think most people in the tech industry or in open-source or free culture communities know what I’m talking about when I say “structurelessness”. Perhaps you work at a “flat” company that encourages employees to make up wacky job titles to put on their business cards, calls everybody a “team member”, or renders everyone uncertain about who their boss is. Or maybe you’ve only worked at more structured, hierarchal organizations: ones with managers, a complicated organizational chart, ranks, and hierarchy. You probably know the distinction even if you’ve only been on one side of it.

Does structurelessness eliminate competition, abuses of power, and status hierarchies, or does it just drive them underground? To break down the question, let’s look at a few ideas about structurelessness, some of which are from Nyman’s talk and others are just things I keep hearing from people in the free/open-source software and culture world.

  • Authenticity: people are happier when they are able to be who they really are at work.
  • Informality: people are happier when they’re able to be informal at work, such as by wearing T-shirts with holes in them or saying “fuck” a lot.
  • Conduct: formal mechanisms for guiding behavior aren’t that important, since in a healthy organization, people will just be nice to each other.
  • Leadership: people whose job it is to manage aren’t necessary when people can just manage each other.
  • Accountability: formal goals and performance metrics just get in the way of getting a job done.

As a nod to structurelessness, I’ll take on these points in no particular order.

Hierarchies

First, why would a feminist argue in favor of structure when structure so often means hierarchy, and hierarchy is deeply entwined with oppression?

It’s true, I’m not a big fan of hierarchies. Maybe they can be used for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of that in reality. At the same time, though, it’s also a fallacy to think that simply declaring we’re not going to have hierarchies makes hierarchy go away. Jo Freeman wrote about this in the ’70s, in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Based on her experiences in feminist organizing, she found that groups of people (like feminist consciousness-raising groups) that declared they weren’t going to have a formal structure devolved into unofficial hierarchies, which were much harder to challenge and hold accountable.

Authenticity

Do you trust people to see you for who you are? I mean the question in two senses: (1) Do you believe that it’s even possible for you to communicate who you are to others without a great deal of effort, and (2) Do you trust others, as a general rule, enough to assume they will behave cordially towards you once they know who you are?

In his talk, Nyman talked about how in typical companies, many relationships are inauthentic. That is, people don’t act towards each other in the ways that they would in the absence of a rigid, externally imposed set of relationships. At least stereotypically, people don’t behave towards their bosses, or to their subordinates at work, the way they behave with their friends. He argued that people are happier when they can present themselves authentically and have authentic relationships, and that a less structured organization fosters such relationships.

If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.

Moreover, being your authentic self in front of somebody else requires trust, and outsiders have very good reasons not to trust insiders. For me, part of what I mean when I say I lack a certain amount of privilege is that every day at work, I make calculations about who is safe to interact with and who is unsafe. Of course, there are degrees of safety and it’s not a binary choice. For example, every time someone uses “crazy” as a pejorative — suggesting that what I am is also a label to insult an idea with — that decrements their “safety” score inside my head. Almost everyone uses this word in this way — even I still do, given that I’m not free of internalized ableism — which is why I say it’s not a binary property. If my company became totally flat and got rid of all structures, processes, and goals, I wouldn’t be able to have authentic interactions just because of that. I’d still have this calculus of safety I have to apply all the time.

And what about when who you are makes people uncomfortable? If you’re queer, trans, kinky, poly, disabled, you probably either have spent a lot of time trying to blend in, or you have stories about when people become uncomfortable upon realizing some aspect of who you really are, and having to comfort them. (Or both!)

To take a completely different example, do you really want to encourage people to be “who they really are” when who they really are is a harassing creep? Maybe having to be a bit inauthentic at work serves an equalizing function, like a uniform. If you know what the rules are, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to follow them and less likely that you’ll be cast out for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed.

Informality and isolation

Usually, no one tells little kids on the playground who to play with and who not to play with. But even very little kids start forming hierarchies of exclusion when left to their own devices. Vivian Paley’s work, as documented in her book “You Can’t Say ‘You Can’t Play’” showed both that in groups of kindergarteners, leaders emerged who got to decide which kids got to play and which kids got excluded; and that a teacher could change that by imposing the simple rule that “you can’t say ‘you can’t play’”. And increasing the amount of inclusion in the group made the kids in it feel more accepted, on the whole. An advocate of structureless organizations might argue that Ms. Paley should have just let her pupils be their authentic selves and form their own social alliances. But at least according to Paley’s account, imposing the rules made the kids happier — contrary to Nyman’s claims about structurelessness and happiness.

Now, perhaps kids are just different from adults. I also don’t think it’s necessarily human nature to form hierarchies in the absence of formal rules. Fundamentally, I don’t care whether that’s because of nature or nurture. No matter what combination of nature or nurture it is, as human beings we have the latitude to choose what we will value. Personally, I value inclusion, and while I can’t prove logically to somebody else that this is something they should value too, I think there’s plenty of evidence that inclusion and the overall happiness of people in a group correlate. And, as Paley’s kindergarteners show, inclusion does not necessarily naturally arise from structurelessness.

Mentorship

Isolation is closely related to an insidious way in which people who believe themselves to be good can perpetuate oppression: the withholding of mentorship. In another context, that of law schools, Pamela J. Smith wrote about how even when Black women gain admission as law students, informal social barriers to the development of mentoring relationships with faculty members are a form of discrimination that is difficult to challenge (“Failing to Mentor Sapphire: The Actionability of Blocking Black Women from Initiating Mentoring Relationships”, reprinted in Critical Race Feminism, Adrien Katherine Wing ed.)

Informal mentoring between apparent peers is mediated by social power dynamics as well. In her book Leaving The Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts wrote about the importance of tacit knowledge in determining whether Ph.D students succeed or fail. Many graduate programs are quite structureless in a day-to-day way; despite having a clear hierarchy (tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenured instructors, postdocs, grad students), new graduate students must navigate a system with very little formal structure in order to learn the unwritten rules of the game. The difference between being a popular person and an unpopular one in grad student social groups can be the difference between academic success and failure. Would fewer grad students drop out because of isolation if there was a more formal process for initiating beginning students?

In my personal experience as someone who, earlier in my life, didn’t resemble most of my colleagues, lack of mentorship is a major structural barrier to success both as an academic computer scientist and as a software engineer. And I think lack of structure translates into lack of mechanisms to encourage formal mentoring relationships — something that has a disparate impact on women, people in gender, romantic, and sexual minorities, people of color, disabled people, and everybody else who may not feel comfortable approaching someone of higher social status to ask for support.

Likewise, people with disabilities that affect how they process tacit social cues — such as people who are on the autism spectrum — may have a much easier time contributing harmoniously when the rules are made clear than when they must access all resources by guessing at a system of unwritten rules. Since ability to write software isn’t contingent on being neurotypical, barriers to entry for neurodiverse people mean excluding a portion of the talent pool for no particular reason.

When a marginalized person joins an organization, in the absence of structure, isolation and lack of mentorship can combine to render them powerless and unable to ask for — or perhaps even express — what it is that they need. In such a situation, it’s easy for that person to then be labeled “unproductive” by the very community that has, without even knowing it, made it impossible for that person to learn and grow. Formal structures are one way to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of whether senior folks in the organization find them initially easy to relate to or identity with.

Codes of conduct and diversity expectations

I don’t know how a structureless organization would maintain or enforce a code of conduct. Maybe in such an organization, everyone just likes each other so much that it’s not necessary to have one. But codes of conduct aren’t needed because people aren’t nice or because they don’t like each other; they’re needed because different people have different expectations about what kind of behavior is appropriate in which contexts. It doesn’t seem to me like getting rid of formal structure solves that problem.

Codes of conduct are just one way to help a group become or remain diverse, by ensuring a safe environment for everyone and providing mechanisms to address breaches of that safety. Without formal structures, how does a company make and keep itself diverse? While the practice of affirmative action is often inaccurately derided as “quotas”, a few tech companies do go as far as to institute numerical quotas for hiring women. I would suspect that such a practice, and even more flexible affirmative action concepts, would conflict with informality. But how does a structureless organization avoid devolving simply into hiring friends?

In general, how do you make sure that an organization without structure doesn’t default to recreating the same power hierarchies that exist in its underlying society? I asked this question during the question and answer period at Nyman’s talk, but it got a little lost in translation. Nyman’s answer amounted to “we won’t hire racist or sexist people”. But that’s not good enough. Everyone raised in a white supremacist society has unconscious racism, and everyone raised in a patriarchy has unconscious sexism. It’s obviously inadequate to dismiss the possibility of recreating systematic oppression “because most of us are good ethical people”. Nyman himself admitted that Github is getting less diverse.

Leadership

Unless it literally consists of a collection of people, each working alone — in which case you’d wonder what makes it an organization — in an organization without people formally titled “manager”, people will have to step up to manage each other at least sometimes and to some extent. How do you take initiative and assert power — in the absence of a structure that makes that power legitimate — when you’re already culturally oppressed and disempowered? If nobody is a manager, who will be most successful in, say, asking that their team institute a “run regression tests before committing code” policy: a tall, white, able-bodied, cis man; a short, Latina, disabled, cis woman; or a fat, Black, genderqueer person? When is it possible for people to really treat each other as equals, and when do they infer hierarchies when not given a formal hierarchy to look to?

What about when you’ve been punished in the past for trying to regulate others’ behavior instead of “knowing your place”? If you’re perceived as female, knowing that girls who assert power get called “bossy” and women who assert power get called worse, but also knowing that your leadership skills will eventually be called into question if you don’t assert power, structurelessness starts looking like a double bind.

Accountability

Without goals and performance metrics, how do people get held accountable? I don’t just mean accountability for delivering on the promises one makes as part of doing one’s job. How about, for example, not finding a subtle way to fire somebody for discriminatory reasons and make it look like it was performance-related?

In his talk, Nyman acknowledged that more “formal” processes are necessary for handling harassment: he acknowledged, “you can’t just go to anyone” if you’ve been harassed. But what else, falling short of “harassment” as such, might require a formal process?

Summing up

I’ve been pretty negative about structureless organizations. But there might be positives. Are they more open than more traditional companies to people with less formal education, or whose biographies are otherwise non-traditional? (I don’t know.) Do they make it harder for entrenched managers to retain power by virtue of seniority? (Again, I don’t know.)

To be fair, there isn’t just one set of processes that could arise when an organization sets aside formal structure. The majority could end up ruling most of the time. Or an organization could make decisions based on consensus. Or it could be cloyingly called a “do-ocracy”, in which decisions get made by whoever has enough time and energy to implement the consequences of the decision. I still think there’s the risk of majority rule, though, and the problem with that is that decisions about basic rights, respect and dignity can’t and shouldn’t be made by a majority. Where do basic rights, respect, and dignity come into this discussion? The number of occupations that are at least potentially a route into the middle class, at least theoretically available to anyone who has acquired a certain skill set that is possible for anyone dedicated to acquire, is steadily decreasing. If you’re in a social class such that you need money to live, learning how to program isn’t a bad way to go. But that will only continue to be true if tech company jobs are open to any qualified candidate, without the hidden price tag of humiliation based on one’s race, gender, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

Majority rule is, then, a problem because majorities often opt to keep minorities in their place for the benefit of the majority. And yes, a group made up of entirely people who see themselves as good and ethical can and will deny basic rights, respect and dignity to people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and other axes of oppression. The world might be different someday, but we can’t get there by pretending we are there.

Your thoughts, readers?

Thanks to Geek Feminism bloggers Sumana, Mary and Jessamyn for their comments.

The word LINKS spelt out in clips (safety pins)

Linkspam Of Unusual Size (22nd June, 2012)

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O'Reilly OSCON open source convention

Getting ready for OSCON, code of conduct and cultural change

This is a guest post by Selena. It is cross-posted from her blog.

I totally should be working on my talks right now, but instead I’ve been talking with people about the lack of a code of conduct for OSCON.

I’ve written before about cultural resistance, and how I think it fits in with changes that must happen in technical communities when we invite more women in.

One of those changes is making it clear that women (and other minorities) are not just tolerated in public spaces, but that they are explicitly wanted there.

O'Reilly OSCON open source convention

I think OSCON has made great strides in that direction by changing their marketing materials to include the faces of women. Sarah Novotny, co-chair of OSCON, travelled extensively to invite women face-to-face to submit talks. There are many women speaking at OSCON this year.

OSCON put the time and energy into creating a sense that women were already attending (which they are), and that they wanted more.

So, why all the fuss about having a code of conduct? Well, this community is changing.

What people think of as “summer camp for geeks” is this year a gathering that by definition includes people who haven’t previously been part of the OSCON community. When a community (which OSCON definitely is) sets out to change the gender percentages, it needs to be clear that the women are being invited to join and shape the culture, not just show up to be tourists of the existing culture.

The leadership of the conference needs to establish with existing attendees that the cultural change is wanted. The fact is, OSCON is a for-profit enterprise, with a business driving the event. Grassroots activism is helpful in encouraging change, but ultimately, the owners of the brand need to make a statement in addition to the marketing.

I applaud Jono Bacon for his creation of an anti-harassment policy for the Community Leadership Summit. I also am heartened at O’Reilly’s recent tweet that they are following this conversation.

I don’t think that codes of conduct are the perfect solution. But how else do we communicate to everyone participating that the change is happening, and that they need to accommodate new members *who are very different from them* during a period of cultural adjustment? That’s not a rhetorical question — I am genuinely interested in answers to this question.

I’ve updated my profile to state that I am pro-code-of-conduct, and included a link to anti-harassment resources, which I think should be part of an overall code of conduct. Donna put up a wikipage with easy to cut-n-paste additions for OSCON speaker profiles. If you agree that a code of conduct is a positive direction, please join us!

Editor’s note: Since Selena’s post was written, OSCON has agreed that a code of conduct is important. You can read Tim O’Reilly’s post on the subject here: Sexual Harassment at Technical Conferences: A Big No-No. However, I thought Selena’s temporary work-around for the problem is something others might like to have in mind for future events.

Friendly conference update

We announced a generic conference anti-harassment policy a couple of weeks ago. Since then several conferences have adopted anti-harassment policies, including Linux.conf.au 2011, FSF’s LibrePlanet 2011, and now all of Linux Foundation’s events have an official anti-harassment / discrimination policy. This includes 8 events in 2011 alone, including LinuxCon North America, LF End User Summit, and Kernel Summit.

Those of us who have attended Linux Foundation events will probably agree that their policy simply puts into writing what they were already doing. Other organizations which already have strong agreement on both standards of behavior and internal decision-making may be interested in adopting Linux Foundation’s simpler, streamlined policy. It is short enough to quote in its entirety here:


Linux Foundation events are working conferences intended for professional networking and collaboration in the Linux community. Attendees are expected to behave according to professional standards and in accordance with their employer’s policies on appropriate workplace behavior.

While at Linux Foundation events or related social networking opportunities, attendees should not engage in discriminatory or offensive speech or actions regarding gender, sexuality, race, or religion. Speakers should be especially aware of these concerns.

The Linux Foundation does not condone any statements by speakers contrary to these standards. The Linux Foundation reserves the right to deny entrance to any individual.

Please bring any concerns to to the immediate attention of Linux Foundation event staff, or contact Amanda McPherson, Vice President of Marketing at amanda (at) linuxfoundation (dot) org. We thank our attendees for their help in keeping Linux Foundation events professional, welcoming, and friendly.


(I helped write this policy as part of my pledge to help conferences adopt anti-harassment policies.)

Conferences that already had official harassment policies at the time of that announcement include OSDC and Ohio LinuxFest (one of the sources for the generic policy). LCA 2010 also deserves credit for including a clause on discrimination in its terms and conditions.

If your conference has an anti-harassment policy, let us know and we’ll blog about it on Geek Feminism! You can also add it to the list of conferences with an anti-harassment policy. If you are going to a conference that does not yet have an anti-harassment policy, and you would like to help change that, check out our list of conference organizer contact info.

A linkspammer who is also the breadwinner (9th December, 2010)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

The Importance of Allies

Deb Nicholson is a geeky gal who is motivated by the intersection of technology and social justice. She spends her time working freelance with the Caucus to Increase Women’s Participation in Free Software and pursuing a CS degree in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This has been cross-posted from her blog.

Ever since I started working towards the goal of increasing the number of women participating in the free software community, I’ve had men say some variation of the following to me, “I didn’t know it was this bad. Is there anything I can do?” The answer is yes!

There is a great potential for change. I think the gropers and insulters are the exception and not the rule. Unless 30 obnoxious men are changing their appearance and flying all over the globe to be “that guy” at dozens of linuxfests and free software gatherings every year, their numbers are still significant. If you believe my conspiracy scenario, then you may as well go all the way and imagine them to be trained and funded by Microsoft on a secret island in the remote Pacific. (Also, I have a work-at-home situation that starts with you mailing me a large check that I’d love to discuss with you.) But seriously, the dearth of opposing voices is what allows this small group to disproportionately set the tone at free software events. The bad actors are not the majority. Silence on this issue serves the status quo.

When thinking about change, I’ve always found Ursula LeGuin’s story, “The Ones who Walked Away from Omelas” inspiring. This example is from fiction and so naturally the choice to pipe down or walk away from a society that oppresses even one of its members is drawn in very broad strokes. LeGuin has essentially written a parable. If you as a conference goer find out that an event’s success rests upon the tears and ostracization of a small number of people, then walk away. Don’t attend that event again. Let me be a little more explicit. Say the keynote speaker is disrespectful to women and sets an inappropriate sexual tone for the conference. The conference organizers don’t feel that they can tell someone famous and important to either stay professional and respect all attendees or stop speaking without damaging the status of their event. The women at this conference no longer feel welcome. If you think those are the wrong priorities then you have two options, speak up or walk away.

Find yourself another event or project that values the inclusion of all its members over the egos of a few bad actors. Get involved where they’re doing it right! Or say something when your “mostly OK” community missteps. A simple, “Hey, that’s out of line” or “We really don’t need to use that kind of example” can go a long way. Sometimes you may find yourself in a smaller group and a quick, “That was really inappropriate” may be in order. What if you aren’t quick in the moment? After someone’s been offensive you might say to the offended party, “I’m sorry that guy was a jerk to you. If you want to report him, I’m happy to go with you to find a staff person.” Of course, this last example is going to be the most effective at an event that already has an anti-harassment policy in place.

Allies are extremely important. There aren’t that many women here yet. So, in order to be successful at changing the tone in the free software community, we need your help. The thing you can do today is to write to a conference you’re thinking about attending in the next year and politely ask if they would adopt an anti-harassment policy like this one. A policy may seem like a small step, but its adoption empowers the organizers to stop offensive behavior and to kick out repeat offenders. It also goes a long way towards broadcasting to potential attendees what sort of treatment they can expect and what won’t be tolerated. I hope that you’ll choose to speak up when you feel you can affect behavior and walk away when you feel the situation is irredeemable. Thanks to all of you who already do!

6 reasons event organizers should adopt the Conference Anti-Harassment Policy

This has been cross-posted from my personal blog.

Valerie and a number of my feminist friends have been working on a generic Conference anti-harassment policy which can be adapted to suit specific events. This is a response to quite a number of incidents that seem to crop up in geekdom. (And those are just the ones we know about and have recorded — many people prefer not to talk about problems publicly for various reasons.)

You can read about the conference anti-harassment policy on geek feminism, and even hacker news has picked it up with the free link to the article on LWN.

I want to urge conference organizers to take a look at the policy and consider adapting it, even if you don’t know of any problems at your event. Here’s a few reasons:

  1. It’s a signal that you’re serious about the safety of the folk at your event. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
  2. It helps your staff recognize when there may be a problem. This makes it easier for them to do their jobs!
  3. It gives your staff a starting point for what to do if something happens. That also makes it easier for them know how to respond appropriately.
  4. It makes it clearer to attendees what constitutes appropriate behaviour at your event. This is a courtesy since explicit rules are much easier to follow than implicit ones!
  5. Remember that a number of geeky folk have particular trouble sussing out unspoken rules, whether that’s due to being non-neurotypical, just being so focussed on geekery that other more social rules get missed, or any other reason. It’s easier if people don’t have to guess the rules.
  6. The point of the policy is to prevent problems from occurring in the future. Implementing it isn’t going to imply to anyone that you’ve been hiding incidents, and being asked to implement it doesn’t mean that people think you’ve been inviting skeezy, scary folk to your events. It’s probably just an explicit statement of rules that you thought were obvious.

Think of it like a seatbelt: hopefully you’ll never need it, and maybe it’ll make a few folk uncomfortable, but you’ll be happy it was there if you have to slam on the brakes. Wearing your seatbelt isn’t an admission that you’re a bad driver, it’s just an admission that you can’t control the behaviour of other people, so you might as well do your best to stay safe.