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My organisation has recently started advertising certain meetings as being "Safe Spaces" without describing what is meant by such a thing.

Merriam-Webster describes it as:

a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations

which strikes me as a concept which is unlikely to be conducive to holding an effective meeting since it makes addressing disagreements impossible.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge dictionary says that it is:

a place or room, for example at a university, where people can go if they feel upset or threatened

which is a very different thing indeed and not obviously relevant to holding a meeting.

So, is there a common definition of the term? Is it a place where people are able to speak freely, or is it a place where people are forbidden from speaking freely?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Aug 21 at 2:34
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    I have now come to the conclusion that the concept is too vague and applied too differently across institutions for us to offer a clear answer. Only your institution can explain what they mean. Voted to close as depending on individual factors.
    – henning
    Aug 22 at 16:37
  • The time being, it might be related to the pandemics
    – Alchimista
    Aug 23 at 9:46
  • It seem we have no idea what is meant by a meeting being a safe space. You need to ask the person who is hosting the meeting. Aug 24 at 15:29

14 Answers 14

43

I think the Merriam Webster definition you reference:

a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations

is failing to emphasize sufficiently that first item in the list: "free of bias"; a safe space is about being safe in terms of identity, including gender, race, sexuality, religion, national origin, etc. It does not refer to lack of conflict as in "Gary and Mary both want to expand their labs into the space vacated when Jamie retires", or whether to order food for seminars, or the superiority of one sports team over another, or how to handle a case of suspected plagiarism, or how to organize collective examinations.

The original concept of the safe space, as far as I know it, is that they were intended to be places specifically for marginalized individuals. For example, a safe space might be a meeting where women could discuss sexual harassment and assault they have experienced without the presence of men (especially men with seniority) who might respond dismissively.

I think it's more likely that in the context you describe (though more information would be necessary to be sure) the term is being used to further a target that all spaces should be safe for everyone by excluding dismissive, discriminatory, and hateful speech rather than separating from individuals who are not members of some marginalized/disadvantaged/mistreated group. Attendees should feel comfortable and safe that when they attend they will not be dismissed or called out for their skin color or sexuality, that they will not hear language that suggests their views or complaints are wrong due to their gender or ethnic background, etc.

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    So it would be acceptable to tell someone that they are wrong for reasons other than "their gender or ethnic background, etc."?
    – DrMcCleod
    Aug 20 at 18:29
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    @DrMcCleod yes, as long as you do so respectfully. Ad hominem in a meeting would violate the spirit of a safe space too, even if it wasn't for discriminatory reasons.
    – Drake P
    Aug 20 at 19:09
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    @DrMcCleod It's a little more nuanced than that, which is why hopefully your organization will bolster this goal with some guidelines and training. For example, women are rarely told explicitly "your ideas are stupid because you are a woman". It's a lot more common for a woman's ideas to be ignored in a meeting, or treated with contempt (like eye rolling, looking away, etc). Which is why this type of thing is so tricky to deal with. I've left lots of trainings where people seemed to think the lesson was "don't say certain words" when really it was supposed to be "treat others with respect"
    – HFBrowning
    Aug 20 at 19:12
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    @DrMcCleod It's rarely a good idea in a productive meeting among peers (or with superiors) to tell someone else they are wrong, though there are exceptions and trivial counterexamples. Typically it would be better to present instead your point of view, which may be in conflict with others, and reasons you hold that view. However, to keep a space "safe" you should also be checking your point of view and make sure it isn't invalidating someone else's experience.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 20 at 19:24
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    So it seems basically the ideal goal would be to be professional and a decent human being respecting their co-workers (and basically accepting individualism)? So reinventing the wheel with maybe a different spin/focus on it (not meant dismissively in the goal, just an observation in that every generation seems to fight similar fights). Unless someone misunderstood the original/ideal concept behind it and pushes something completely different. Aug 21 at 14:49
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I do not usually see the "safe space" label applied to what we could call "productive" meetings, e.g. meetings where people are presenting findings, or working on planning a study, event, etc. I think a lot of answers are imagining this when you say "some meetings."

Safe spaces are often open fora for discussion. For example, a group on women's harassment would not allow you to deny someone's experience or the effect on them (no "frame challenges"). Similarly, a trans support group is not for people to question trans identities, but to talk about shared experiences.

For me, based in the Twin Cities, there were meetings to discuss the murder of George Floyd. It would be expected in those safe spaces for example, a Black community member could express how the murder impacts them more than a White person. Or for someone who lived nearby to discuss how it affected their life differently.

In some ways, I think of it like improv, where you can't say "no - that didn't happen" to someone.

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    I understand what you mean to convey by the last sentence, but I'm not sure it's the best analogy to use given the context.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 20 at 22:25
  • @BryanKrause Oh sorry I thought you said you didn't understand. I'm not sure what you mean though? Aug 20 at 22:38
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    Oh, just the pairing of improv, which is generally comedic and by definition made up on a whim, with the types of discussions that need safe spaces, which are far from comedic and half the point being to exclude accusations that anything shared is made up.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 20 at 22:43
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    Hmm this seems also a particular type of productive. Like, I get that denying someone's experience is generally not a respectful move. But if you cannot question the general truthfulness of statements ("no that didn't happen") the meeting won't be productive in finding truth or a good truth based action plan. It seems the goal here is more ... therapeutic. To let everyone go through the emotions and express themselves, which is certainly a valid goal! (depending on context). But, that then would beg the question how that fits into regular organization meetings. Aug 21 at 15:12
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    @Frank Yes, that is why I asked OP to clarify the organization. They declined. Aug 21 at 15:19
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First, let me suggest that the organization explain what it means, perhaps as a set of principles, which is more likely to provide guidance than a firm set of "rules" that might be "cleverly" sidestepped.

But, I'd think that the meaning is that participants in such meetings have assurance that they will "feel safe" to contribute their ideas, whatever they are, without being personally attacked. There are racist and sexist members of the faculty, of course, though hopefully rarer than in the general population.

And, in universities, "attack" can be anything from verbal abuse (not physical, most places) to simple intimidation of junior faculty by their higher ranked "peers".

I've been in organizations where I had to just learn to "shut up" because the organization thought it was doing just fine with policies and actions that were actually disruptive. I wasn't happy about it and left rather soon. I actually held senior rank, but it was the lone newcomer vs the old guard. So, meetings to discuss policy didn't feel "safe" to me.

Perhaps one of the committees for which this is an important issue could suggest principles and/or rules to the larger institution.

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    "I've been in organizations where I had to just learn to "shut up" because the organization thought it was doing just fine with policies and actions that were actually disruptive."..... And is a 'safe space' a place where you could talk about those policies, or a place where you couldn't in order to avoid conflict? Your answer doesn't make it clear.
    – DrMcCleod
    Aug 20 at 12:49
  • See if I've improved it. @DrMcCleod. Willingness to listen to the ideas of others is probably one of the principles creating a safe space.
    – Buffy
    Aug 20 at 12:53
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    What is the difference with a "non-safe" space then? What behaviour exactly would be OK in a "non-safe" space but not in a safe space?
    – Louic
    Aug 20 at 21:25
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    @Louic, safe spaces are provided to avoid the behaviors that might occur in places that aren't safe. So, maybe none is the answer to your query.
    – Buffy
    Aug 20 at 21:29
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"Is it a place where people are able to speak freely, or is it a place where people are forbidden from speaking freely?"

Yes. Both. All societies have norms about what beliefs and expressions and behaviours are socially acceptable. Intense psychological pressure can be brought to bear on people to conform to those norms, to try to fit in. Anyone standing up against those norms will usually face intense hostility, even persecution. It has been a feature of human societies throughout history. Tribe against tribe, religion against religion, nation against nation, political faction against political faction. It has got less violent over time, but is still ubiquitous in human society.

Safe spaces don't change this. They switch around which beliefs are considered socially acceptable and which are not - so people who in traditional society feel intimidated from speaking because their beliefs have been held to be unacceptable are freed to speak openly, and those who would previously have enforced traditional social norms are now suppressed as being socially unacceptable. They become "safe" for people who otherwise would otherwise feel suppressed, but suppress people who previously would have been safe. Objectively, there is no difference. This is exactly the same sort of human behaviour as applied previously, just with people sitting in different seats. Subjectively, whether this seems like an improvement depends on which tribe you identify with.

There is potentially some benefit from holding meetings in which various different silenced minority views are allowed to speak - you get to hear ideas and viewpoints you otherwise would not. But there is a danger in leaving some views out. So you can argue for a meeting in which a particular minority view runs the show, but then you must have another meeting where the critics of that view get their say too, and are safe from social retribution for thus breaking other people's norms. Otherwise you defeat the entire purpose, and become what you set out to defeat.

It is essential in setting up such a "safe space" system to clearly communicate what specific viewpoints are being encouraged and suppressed in each meeting, and to ensure that all viewpoints get their turn in some meeting or another. Or it just becomes another instance of social tyranny.

"Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant - society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it - its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism."

JS Mill, On Liberty, 1859.

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    Indeed, good points. But: well, yes, certainly a more precise description could be about reversal or contravening of the "usual" power hierarchy... But/and there is not genuine symmetry, since some demographics do have power in the ambient world, and some don't. My own interpretation of "safe space" is that wherein people who'd not be powerful in the outside world (and might be badly treated...), are, for some moments, the peer of everyone else in the room. Aug 20 at 23:38
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    @paulgarrett, It's a complicated situation. Different demographics dominate at different times. And people belong to many different demographic subsets, some of which have power and others don't. We're all minorities in some regards, and majorities in others. And often different minorities can be in conflict with each other. But the symmetry I'm talking about is where you swap which particular view has the power, I'm not saying that the powerful are the same as the powerless. Giving someone else the power doesn't get rid of the problem. The only answer is to get rid of the power itself. Aug 21 at 0:17
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    "Otherwise you defeat the entire purpose, and become what you set out to defeat." Except, of course, when the entire point of the exercise is to shut out people who disagree with you politically from having power in the institution in question by preventing them from speaking.
    – nick012000
    Aug 21 at 6:12
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    It is essential ... to ensure that all viewpoints get their turn in some meeting or another. Every space is a safe space for the dominant groups. That's why safe spaces for minorities matter in the first place.
    – henning
    Aug 21 at 6:31
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    @Mast no, it means you are much less likely to suffer negative repercussions if you freely express your views/yourself/your experiences, whatever they are.
    – henning
    Aug 22 at 13:39
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I like to think of "safe spaces" in the context of the animal kingdom, or rather, the Disney version thereof.

A safe space is something akin to the watering hole in the Savannah, where the (Disney) animals of all sorts come; lions drink next to gazelles, zebras next to tigers.

It's a place where the animals can come and discuss - whatever, but not risk being eaten or attacked. It's not to say they can't have meaningful, important discussions - but there is a tacit agreement that the lions and tigers won't eat the other animals.

The same applies to "Safe spaces" in a university setting: it's not a place where nobody can talk about anything, or even a place where you cannot disagree. It's a place where you agree to act nice, and to come to discussions with good intentions. You can still be a lion, and still disagree with the gazelle or the hyena. Just don't act mean-spirited, belittle them, put them down, attack their character.

And don't be aggressive - that's often the hardest, particularly for younger students; you can be sure someone's wrong, and want to keep going at them until they change their mind, but that's not the right way to go about anything, and especially not in a mutually agreed upon Safe Space. Make your argument, and then if they don't agree, move on, and prove yourself right with actions and time, rather than badgering.

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  • This allegorical definition is perhaps the least exact but most practical. (It's also perhaps worth noting that this aligns closely with the Cambridge definition in that people should not feel threatened.)
    – ZX9
    Aug 22 at 22:07
  • For the ecology of watering holes, see here.
    – ZX9
    Aug 22 at 22:17
  • Thanks for the link and compliment. Of course I mean the "Disney" / Kipling idea, and not the real thing, which is a very different story...
    – Joe
    Aug 22 at 23:28
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There is no standard definition.

Most often, I have seen "Safe Space" used to refer to the office of a person who has completed a specific training on not mistreating people.

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I'm not sure if 'safe space' ever had a formal definition — and clearly it's been contested and co-opted by certain elements of US Rightist media who'd like to use it as a bogieman — but the concept stems from the restorative practices and restorative justice milieu. The general intention is to create a 'judgement-free' context in which actual or perceived harms can be discussed, examined, and repaired, with the goal of fostering healthy and compassionate human relationships between people who may perceive each other as adversaries.

Directly to your last question, restorative practices aim to increase self-expression by restricting the mode and manner of speech. Put simply, it increases the freedom to express content by reducing freedom in how such content is expressed. Language and behaviors are prohibited when (and only when) they have the effect of demeaning, inhibiting, overwhelming, or otherwise silencing others.

Restorative practices are usually used for attitudinal issues: ingrained patterns of behavior that entail sometimes subtle but significant expressions of power. Common subjects are implicit sexism, racism, ageism, or homophobia; bullying or oppressive speech or mannerisms; poor teamwork, be it from leaders, peers, or subordinates. I'm not certain what this would look like within a generic business context (much less your organization, which I know nothing about), but that is (ostensibly) the kind of thing you can expect. But I agree with comments: the organization itself should spell out precisely what they mean and plan to implement, and may even want to have separate meetings specifically to practice restorative methods. Restorative practices are quite difficult to implement, and going into it without a proper game-plan is a recipe for disaster.

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In terms of helping you understand what “safe spaces” means in the specific context in which you’ve seen it used, I would like to suggest the following hypotheses:

  1. The person who used the term does not actually have a very clear idea what the term is supposed to mean, and was using it in a thoughtless, casual manner. So, what it actually means from that person’s point of view is unknowable, since they didn’t actually mean anything very specific.

Or:

  1. The person who used the term thinks they know what the term means, but have the wrong idea. In that case, what they meant is perhaps discoverable by asking them, but is unknowable otherwise.

The thing to keep in mind is that people quite frequently use words and phrases in the sort of thoughtless or misguided manner that I’m describing in these two hypotheses. So, perhaps what’s going on is not such a big mystery.

An additional hypothesis, which seems to be the premise you’re assuming in the question, is:

  1. The person who used the term did in fact use the term in one of its commonly accepted meanings, for example the first dictionary definition you cited.

What’s baffling about this possibility is that in the context of a meeting, designating a meeting as a safe space can be useful only for a very certain kind of meeting - mainly a meeting in which people share their feelings about a sensitive subject and hope to reach some kind of catharsis or relief. On the other hand, for a more ordinary type of meeting in which (perhaps contentious) policy decisions need to be discussed and made, designating the meeting a safe space would appear to be counterproductive — maybe even disastrously so. So my hunch is that this bafflement is the reason for your question, and the reason you feel a need to clarify the meaning of the term.

Now, to address your specific question:

Is it a place where people are able to speak freely, or is it a place where people are forbidden from speaking freely?

I think @AzorAhai nailed it when he said safe spaces are places where a frame challenge or major disagreements are considered taboo. In other words, a safe space is a place where some people are encouraged to speak freely about some specific issues that bother them, whereas some other people who are inclined to disagree with the people in the first group are very strongly discouraged — essentially, forbidden — from speaking freely about their disagreement. So, the idea behind such a space is to shift the dynamics of who feels able to express themselves freely, and what views are considered tolerable and worthy of expression. Again, if that seems at odds with the purpose of the meetings you have been invited to, then I would go back to hypotheses 1 or 2 that I mentioned above as a likely explanation of what’s going on.

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From the existing answers and what I've seen online elsewhere, there seem to be two main movements pushing for safe spaces with their own understanding of it.

a) A space where you should be open to speak your mind in a "civilized" manner.

In particular a space where you are heard out and your personal feelings and experiences not outright dismissed as false. And a space where your opinion is not dismissed explicitly or implicitly just because of who you are/to what group of people you can be attributed to (nationality, skin colour, sex, hair colour, clothing style, gender (identity) etc.). This includes no ad-hominem attacks. Note that this doesn't in its core deny factual discussion, the questioning of facts and depending on context even the questioning of experiences (in a respectful manner) if that is to further the meeting and not just to attack a person/invalidate their view because one cannot emphasize. It may, however, also include to not bring up topics (likely) offensive to a person involved in the meeting or drop a topic that turns out to be hurtful or offensive to a person. And this is then where it gets interesting and a safe space might lean in favour of minority groups (rather avoid topics potentially (perceived as) offensive to them) as a safeguard to skew the balance in their direction as to counter the fact that they might have less power otherwise. Here the free speech part gets a bit more interesting. But 1) for most organizational meetings there shouldn't be much (not necessarily no) risk to steer into that territory and 2) this is a general issue as without the safe-space it's the minorities who might be just shut down by the majority pressure. All in all the core goal is to provide a good open space to discuss, very much in line with an individualistic world view (judge people and their arguments based on their merits not their unrelated attributes). Note that I'm describing the general pattern/core concept, different people might grasp it slightly differently and implement it differently. A bit more on that below.

b) A space to let it all out

Another understanding for safe spaces seems to go more into a therapeutic direction: Allowing everyone to express their feelings, thoughts and experiences - typically centered around a particular topic. This applies to groups of women who want to discuss sexual harassments or trans-people or ethnic minorities etc. It's a space for them to discuss their impression of whatever *isms they experience in their daily life without being shut down because the majority cannot share these experiences, considers them invalid, or questions them as soon as they are brought up. It's not necessarily about finding an objective independent truth but about having a place where to express the respective feelings and potentially find allies. Here, often members of other groups or the group that is considered the main perpetrator are not allowed to speak up (or only in limited way) or even be present.

Variant a) makes (in its ... let's say ideal form) so much sense, it feels to me simply like another term for being a professional decent human. In my opinion all public and work life should follow that concept. Yes there will always be conflict around the fringes or say uncertainty where exactly being "decent" stops, what topics to bring up how in the given social norms or not at all and how to be honest while still being decent. The one spin I could see being special about safe spaces is to take extra care not to ignore and suppress minority voices. However, declaring something a safe space to me is the lazy route in that regard. It would be much more helpful to provide training in mechanisms that encourage minority group members or generally more quiet team members to speak up, e.g. like having the boss/loud group out of the meeting or required to stay quiet for x minutes etc. If someone introduces this variant in an organization as a general concept, the goal and effect is probably to 1) encourage people who feel in the minority/shy to speak up in meetings and 2) to give people who feel being attacked/suppressed an argument to bring that up, e.g. with HR. It can communicate the message that the company wants a respectful environment. Why one would limit that to meetings only is beyond me^^ Obviously the concrete implementation and understanding can vary a bit - but in general this should not hinder free speech in meetings. It might shift the odds slightly in favour of otherwise overheard groups. However, as all policies, ideologies etc it can be misused and perverted in its implementation. If you have a men-hater person in HR, they can get easier fodder now to pursue their victims and construe something (while it might be harder for a women-hater in HR to ignore complaints from women). Also notice that most people are somehow part of a minority, perhaps not one of the big ones, but even pineapple-pizza eaters should be encouraged in a safe space to bring up the idea to have that pizza type stocked in the company's fridge (for example) without being afraid to being ridiculed and shut down.

Now b) also makes sense, but only in dedicated settings. If applied everywhere in an organisation it would likely make that organization blind to factual truth. It could be powerful for political movements to re-enforce the conviction of their members but as it tries to protect one side from being suppressed by the other, it totally shuts out the other and thus isn't a good way to find a balanced solution that works for everyone. So applying this approach to company meetings seems weird.

In general, there seem to be a few main problems when introducing a "safe space" approach that I see a pattern of (second hand only so far):

  • both concepts often get mixed. Safe spaces that are ridiculed and feared by some in universities seem to lean strongly into the b) group (or at least their perception) but applied to a broad range of meetings or even general everyday interactions such that it conflicts with the general purpose of a university (open debate and critical thinking and interaction).
  • Implementations suck. As most good ideas, the implementations often fall way behind of what the authors of the good ideas wanted to achieve. Especially regarding such social struggles where emotions and group behaviour often get in the way of good implementations.
  • Good ideas and concepts can be perverted. Ideologies that are good in essence tend to attract support from people. But that also makes them a good tool to mislead people (consciously or subconsciously). You claim to follow a universally good goal, everyone hops on board and starts rowing, but the steering is totally off and everyone ends up being the voluntary slave rowers of a war galleon going in the wrong direction and sinking their own fleet. An overzealous minority group supporter might for instance just push their own group and agendas with the concept and suppress everyone else having the backing of the public for pursuing the good cause. Or even perverting the concept in prohibiting addressing crucial issues like sexual assault because it might trigger someone else.
  • A good portion of the critique of safe spaces is probably also perception - as even with a good implementation of the a) concept some balance re-adjustment can be made and if it works more minority opinions can be heard. People often don't like their views being challenged and having suppressed minorities speak openly can be a major challenge to a majority complacent in their status quo. And equally a majority member voicing their opinion can easily be misread as an attack if it doesn't comply with a minority position especially in the heated climate some part of the West is currently in regarding some topics.

All in all, no one can tell you in advance whether your implementation of a safe space will be limiting to free speech for you or liberating. It depends on the actual understanding by your superiors of the concept and how well thought out the implementation is. You can maybe gauge by the language used whether it falls more into category a) or b). The more towards b) it goes the more you might feel worried (if it is applied broadly and you care about 'truth finding' in your meetings). Otherwise my advice would be to consider it a reminder to be decent enough to really hear others and respect their point of view. And take it as encouragement to speak up - in respectful ways. Rather questioning and providing your perspective when criticising something that is subjective in nature than assuming your opinion is shared universally. Just because you like Salami pizza, not everyone needs to, is a good thing to keep in mind, in general.

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  • This is the only answer that examines various facets of the term and the contexts in which they are more or less useful. +1
    – henning
    Aug 22 at 6:51
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tl;dr A safe-space is a place meant to promote some desired phenomena by hedging out detrimental influences. The rules of a safe-space will depend on what they're trying to foster; it's not a one-size-fits-all thing.


Safe-spaces hedge out influences detrimental to what they're trying to foster.

A safe-space is a place warded against detrimental influences. Examples include houses, protective cases, fenced-in areas, nurseries, cribs, clean rooms, refrigerators, etc.. In general, the idea is to figure out what sorts of detrimental influences might cause harm, then hedge them out.

Likewise, a social safe-space would be a place warded against detrimental social influences. Exactly what those are depend on the goals of the safe space: is it a place for people fleeing violence, for people with addictions to get clean, for religious/political groups to engage in discussions with like-minded individuals, etc.? The rules of the safe-space will tend to depend on what it's attempting to foster and strategy for hedging out influences detrimental to that cause.

If an organizer doesn't clarify what their safe-space is about, might be easiest to just ask. Since it may be a sensitive topic for them, probably worth considering how the question's worded to reduce potential for misinterpretation.

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  • Creative and nicely written answer, +1. Although I must confess I never heard of a refrigerator being considered an example of a safe space.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 22 at 7:16
  • What are you basing this definition on? All modern-day usages of the term I've seen use a definition that's a whole lot more specific than this (and they all use pretty much the same definition, even though there are some varying interpretations of how to achieve the goal of making a space "safe").
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 22 at 18:28
  • @NotThatGuy: It's a construction of how the term can be used. As for common usage.. it seems under-defined; a lot of folks don't really think such things through.
    – Nat
    Aug 25 at 14:08
  • @NotThatGuy: It's sorta like the issue with making a perfect self-driving algorithm, where someone might naively miss that such an algorithm would generally need to have solutions for the general space of trolley-problems.
    – Nat
    Aug 25 at 14:10
  • @Nat But someone were to see some code for a self-driving car and ask you what it's for, it would be rather strange to only talk about the general space of trolley-problems without mentioning cars at all.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 25 at 17:13
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I think the Merriam Webster definition you referenced is pretty decent, but let's break down exactly what it's saying.

a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations

A "safe space" should be free from:

  • Bias: an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.

    Prejudices, especially unfair ones, against people inside or outside the meeting and against ideas shared in the meeting can make people feel like others dislike them and their ideas and they shouldn't share their ideas.

    Bias in itself is a rather large topic in society in general and workplaces in specific and is generally concerned with how we treat people differently based on their race, gender, culture and religion, whether they have disabilities, etc.

  • Conflict: a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.

    This is about serious disagreements, not all disagreements. Simply politely disagreeing with an idea is not really "conflict". Conflict is a much more tense and heated disagreement that's certainly not something you want in a meeting and it can certainly make people uncomfortable.

  • Criticism: the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.

    This is not about simply disagreeing. It's about highlighting flaws in something, often in a harsh and mean way without offering any better suggestion and tends not to be too constructive.

    Constructive criticism may or may not be considered separate from this, and can often be very valuable. But this generally implies a position of authority or knowing better and a discussion among equals might not be the right place for that. Even if you are their superior, discussions in meetings are often (more productive when they are) treated as a discussion among equals.

    Whether constructive criticism is acceptable is probably something you'll have to judge based on your workplace. Although it's also worth keeping in mind that the problem here is very much one that makes it less likely for people to speak up, so it's going to be far from obvious when people aren't happy with the status quo.

    Asking questions to understand the other person's point of view is often received better, because it shows that you actually care what they think. From there you can dig deeper and find the root cause of why they believe something different from you, and correct them. This may also result in you finding out you were wrong instead and may also lead them to figuring out the problem themselves without you having to explicitly point out the problem.

    Which of the below would you prefer to be told after first presenting an idea?

    Wow, that's a terrible idea. There's no way that will scale. (Pure criticism)

    OR

    I don't think this will scale well because ... (More constructive criticism)

    OR

    How will we scale this? / How well will this scale? (Not criticism)

    They should all lead to the same place of them either justifying why they think it will scale well, or realising that it won't. Although the first may also lead to them just sitting down and shutting up without improving their technical understanding of the subject nor presenting their justification for suggesting it in the first place. The second may seem much more innocent and many people may not have a problem with it, but it can still lead to the same result as the first if that's the first place you turn to when someone presents an idea.

    Of course you can say "I don't think X is true because ..." if they assert that X is true at some point after digging down to figure out the root cause of the disagreement. The point is not to avoid such statements completely, but instead to not jump straight into "this won't work" (because you think you know better than they do) as opposed to first trying to figure out why they think it will work (which seems much more appropriate if you believe the other person is competent).

  • Potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations

    I would define threatening actions as basically just being threats. This should go without saying, but don't threaten people.

    I can't find any definition or example of "threatening ideas" or "threatening conversations" anywhere. I presume definitions will vary, but I would say it's something "should we kill all pointy-eared people?". This is obviously a blatant and extreme example, but there may be some ideas that are threatening in more subtle ways (like saying "pointy-eared people are less intelligent", which may lead to mistreatment and hatred of pointy-eared people). Again, probably pretty self-explanatory why that's bad.

    Arguably any idea that challenges (i.e. "threatens") any belief someone holds would be a "threatening idea" (even if their belief is, say, bigoted), but I wouldn't say that's what the definition of "safe space" is talking about. I would say it's more about things that could be threatening to people's lives, well-being, health, etc.

    If someone is particularly prone to seeing negativity and malicious intent where none was intended, they may see an unreasonable amount of things as "potentially threatening", so it's probably not something you should try to avoid at all costs under all circumstances to the point of potentially never saying anything at all. But avoiding potentially threatening things is a sound idea in principle.

(definitions taken from Google’s English dictionary)

In conclusion, the above things are not conducive to effective meetings where people can share their perspective openly and refraining from doing any of them should not prevent you from respectfully disagreeing with anything said.


Some may go to more extreme lengths to keep a space "safe". This may include excluding people of certain races or genders from "safe spaces" because they feel including them may invite the bias, conflict, etc. into the space. In other cases any form of disagreement and anything other than the most kindest and gentlest of words may be disallowed.

I don't feel those interpretations would lead to productive meetings, or make much sense in a workplace or academic setting in general (or possibly even anywhere else), so I'd assume those don't apply to any "safe space" until I have evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of course it should also be acceptable to ask for behaviour guidelines for such spaces if you're looking for more explicit clarification.

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  • Yes, the point about treating other people as peers is very important. Of course, if one's boss is temporarily pretending to be more respectful than you know they'll be the next day, it amounts to entrapment. Depends a lot on the people involved. Aug 20 at 22:37
  • 3
    "Which of the two below would you prefer to be told?" - That depends on whether the meeting wants to reach a practical solution to a problem, or just have a nice long touch-feely discussion about nothing in particular. A genuinely "terrible idea" isn't worth wasting time on.
    – alephzero
    Aug 20 at 23:59
  • 2
    @alephzero If you sincerely don't mind at all if someone calls your idea "terrible", that's fine, but you'd very much be the exception to the rule. Asking someone how some solution would work in a specific situation seems about as technical and objective-focused as you can get, so I'm not sure how that would be "a nice long touch-feely discussion about nothing in particular".
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 21 at 1:04
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    Trouble is, in certain types of meetings, the usual case is that the person proposing the terrible, non-scalable idea is powerful, in the sense that the committee will, by default, vote in favour of implementing any idea that person proposes, unless someone makes a compelling and explicit case against it. In that case, the powerful person, confronted with the question "How well will this scale?", can just give an evasive and/or weasel-worded answer which does not contain any clear assertion X to refute, and the terrible idea gets implemented. Aug 21 at 11:53
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    @DanielHatton My intention was simply to define what a "safe space" is, explain why this should generally not be an objectionable thing and give suggestions in line with that. Whether and how the behaviour of coworkers justifies acting contrary to this definition is something you'll need to judge for yourself. I did say constructive criticism might be acceptable, but I can't think of a plausible scenario where pure criticism would ever be appropriate for any sincere and respectful suggestion or idea.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 21 at 20:36
3

A safe space is a playground of sorts, where one can (pretend to) wield power without any form of accountability or responsibility. It has two applications to beware of:

  • Getting gullible participants to speak freely enough to give the organizer leverage over them.
  • Silencing all opposition to allow the organizer to push any decision they like.

I cannot judge for you whether the organizer has one of these applications in mind, or perhaps both. Even if the organizer does not have these applications in mind, it is not difficult for participants to recognize them, and use the lack of safeguards against such abuse to their own advantage if they wish to do so. In any case, a safe space is a minefield. Think very carefully before agreeing to participate in such a safe space, and extremely carefully before speaking.

As for your specific question; the precise meaning of "Safe Space" differs from person to person, and from organization to organization. Beware that if others feel you are not acting in the spirit of the "Safe Space", they may respond extremely aggressively, and there may be serious consequences. I advise you to ask the organizer what they mean precisely when they say meetings are "Safe Spaces", and ask for concrete rules and the purpose (or 'spirit') of these rules.

Stick to these rules, keep your head down, don't say anything that can be used against you, and make sure the meetings are documented well so that they are not abused to circumvent the existing decision-making processes.

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  • 5
    @NotThatGuy I'm not suggesting that anyone would openly define a safe space in this way; that would defeat the entire purpose (if one of these applications were the purpose of the organizer). In my admittedly limited experience with safe spaces, they usually devolve into one of these two cases given enough time and people. It doesn't take a genius to recognise the potential, although it does take some tact to make use of it.
    – Servaes
    Aug 22 at 19:09
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    @Servaes What I'm alluding to is that if they're misusing the definition (or it having devolved from how it started), then this is not what a "safe space" "is" (in a general definitional sense) and I would probably suggest editing the answer to more clearly separate the definition of the term from how people misuse it. If someone were to, say, ask what communism is, one could (and probably should) mention some of the atrocities committed in the pursuit of, or under the guise of, communism, but starting off with the actual definition would arguably be best.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 22 at 19:54
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    @NotThatGuy I agree that a naive definition would also be in place here, but unfortunately I do not think I am able to phrase that nearly as well as many of the other excellent answers here do. In my humble opinion, a safe space is even more fundamentally a tool of oppression than communism has turned out to be, as it does not have any safeguards against abuse of power by design. (Just clarifying why I'm not cut out to give a naive definition, not looking to start a heated debate)
    – Servaes
    Aug 22 at 20:05
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    The first suggestion sounds very like en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign
    – DrMcCleod
    Aug 22 at 21:14
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    This answer's description of "safe space" meetings sounds very much like a description of regular meetings in some organizations, and the suggestions for suriving them are the same. Except of course where such meetings are the normal thing the managers of them are not "pretending" to wield power.
    – cjs
    Aug 23 at 2:01
3

This is an interesting thread and it has attracted a diverse range of answers. Part of the variation in the answers reflects the fact that the concept is sometimes presented in a rather vague way, and this leads to multiple divergent interpretations. However, I think the diverging answers here on what a safe space is mostly reflect the fact that the concept itself is named and defined a way that allows it to be defended with the infamous Motte and Bailey argument. In that context, defenders of the practice often have two incongruous meanings of the concept; one being the defensible version that is less controversial and the other being the way the safe space is actually practiced.

In my view, the very helpful answers by AzorAhai and DanRomik reflect the reality of what a safe-space does (i.e., the Bailey) in most cases, whereas many of the other answers reflect the “brochure description” that is used to justify the existence of the practice. I suggest that the two meanings commonly attributed to the concept are roughly as follows.


The Motte: A safe-space is a non-threatening space where people are free to be themselves and there is a requirement to be civil, courteous, and an expectation to avoid conflict and criticism.

The Bailey: A safe-space is a space where certain ideas and assumptions are favoured and are allowed to be expressed freely without being subject to challenge. In an academic context, it is often ---but not always--- the case that the favoured view consists of ideas that conform with notions of “social justice”, “wokeness”, etc. People advancing the favoured ideas are encouraged to speak freely and people opposing these ideas, or challenging their premises, are discouraged or forbidden from expressing their dissenting views. The onus is on dissenters from the favoured view not to create conflict by expressing their own views in a way that would contradict the favoured view.


As you can see, the notion that such a space is “safe” depends on the definition being presented. In the former case the space is defined to be generally non-threatening and courteous, but in the latter case it is practiced in a way that makes it “safe” for one group of people (those with favoured views) and “unsafe” for others (those with disfavoured views). One of the frustrations that people sometimes have with safe spaces is that there is ambiguity over the meaning of the concept and consequent expectations, and consequently the actual practice of such spaces is sometimes hostile and to people whom it does not favour (e.g., per the Motte and Bailey tactic).

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  • This answer presents a very broad notion of safe space as given and applies it to a very broad setting where it might not be useful.
    – henning
    Aug 22 at 6:55
  • @henning: I'm not sure I understand your comment. Can you elaborate? (I presume you are talking about "the Motte" definition above?)
    – Ben
    Aug 22 at 6:58
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    When it comes to U.S. campuses, I think your Bailey description is the only one in this entire thread that is accurate. Safe spaces in the current climate originated in the same sphere that "trigger warnings" and "micro-aggressions" did, namely social-justice leftism post-2012. You will not encounter safe spaces where conservative-leaning students are allowed to speak freely. I don't have enough rep to post my own answer, but I'd recommend reading "The Coddling of the American Mind" for the context on "safetyism", as well as the NYT article it mentions.
    – Mew
    Aug 22 at 23:56
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    @JSLavertu Haidt and Lukianoff, the authors, are not conservatives at all, and if you think the title is unfitting or dismissive, I suspect you haven't read the book yourself. In any case, you are confusing cause and effect: safe spaces provide political and ideological isolation for left-wing students. Conservatives don't go there because they aren't allowed in the first place -- they aren't considered politically tolerable by those for whom the safe space supposedly shuts out adverse opinions. By the way: rhetorical questions only have proper rhetorical effect when applied sparsely.
    – Mew
    Aug 23 at 15:47
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    @JSLavertu: I don't think it's true that they don't want to be part of those conversations; they want discussions of issues that are of interest to them to be conducted in an open manner where anyone (including themselves) can voice their opinion. The reaction isn't "I don't want to be part of this space", it is "This type of space should not be used for this purpose, since it excludes my ability to participate effectively".
    – Ben
    Aug 23 at 21:24
0

A safe space is a place, where the identity is usually protected. In other words, you are protected (I never understood how). The only reason I can think of it being introduced in meetings is to make it possible to not have personal negative feelings after a disagreement. This may be due to your ego or such but this does have an effect.

Another definition used by others is usually when there are sensitive topics such as racial discrimination or sexual harassment which might make people disagree on really high ends.

These are the only definition that ever comes to my mind.

edit : My explanation is a little less intuitive than the best answer here by Bryan Krause.

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  • 4
    "A safe space is a place, where the identity is usually protected".... I don't understand what you mean by this.
    – DrMcCleod
    Aug 22 at 9:37

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