How to Be an Active Bystander
Omar Mughal
In this article;

Ever been in a situation that doesn’t feel right to you? You could be standing around the coffee machine at work, or you could be on a team night out, but suddenly, you’re witness to an inappropriate situation that’s playing out right in front of you.

Okay, so how do you define inappropriate? It could be a co-worker telling a “borderline” racist joke, a team member getting a little too handsy at work drinks, or a man getting aggressive with his girlfriend at the bus stop.

But what happens when we witness behaviour like this? Well, normally it’s nothing. Normally most of us just stand there as passive bystanders — even when we want to say something or take a stand somehow. (n.b. making faces like this doesn’t count as ‘taking a stand’ 😉)

What is a passive bystander?

It’s the term used for our inaction when we witness inappropriate behaviour, and history is littered with examples of people standing by while abuse is occurring — like the 37 people who witnessed and stood by during the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese. Psychologists have given the phenomenon a name — the bystander effect — and they cite three primary reasons which keep us from intervening when we witness harassment:

  1. If there are other people present we think that someone else will step in
  2. We’re scared that if we do speak up we will get it wrong and others will judge us
  3. We worry that the aggressor will turn on us if we speak up

The bystander effect is so powerful it actually affects how we behave in many day-to-day situations. Check this video out below 👇

So what’s an active bystander?

An active bystander is simply someone who interprets a situation as wrong and takes action to intervene. This could be during, or after, an incident has occurred, but either way, a decision is made to intervene in some way.

The steps to becoming an active bystander are:

  1. Notice a situation — this just means being aware of your surroundings.
  2. Interpret it as a problem — i.e. does someone need help?
  3. Feel responsible to act — this is the hard one, but you can make a difference!
  4. Know how to intervene — we’ll cover this next!

How you choose to intervene can depend on a number of factors, but the most important thing to remember is to put your own safety first!

How to be an active bystander: the 4Ds

Lacking the confidence, words and tools to diffuse a situation is a big reason harmful comments and behaviours go unchecked. But, fear not – there are some useful tips and techniques to help you decide on the best course of action, should you feel empowered to intervene. The 4Ds outlined below is a super useful guide, but remember — always put your own safety first!

  • Direct — express that you think the behaviour you’re witnessing isn’t acceptable by calling out the perpetrator directly. It’s best to stay cool, calm and collected when doing this, and clearly explain why you have a problem with what you’ve just seen.
  • Distract — starting a conversation with the perpetrator is a good way to allow the victim to move away from the situation.
  • Delegate — in some situations, you might not feel safe enough to confront the perpetrator. In this instance, ask someone to help you out or report it to someone who has the power to help.
  • Delay — if a situation is definitely too dangerous to intervene, walk away, and check that the victim is safe when the situation has passed.
A rallying call to action 🗣

Part of the reason unacceptable behaviour remains so prevalent in our societies is that by not calling it out — we’re essentially saying it’s ok, and it can become part of what’s just accepted as normal. We know that the bystander effect is a big reason as to why people don’t speak up — but we need to find a way to overcome it — because unfortunately, harassment is on the rise 👇

An investigation by UN Women UK found that a staggering 97% of women have experienced sexual harassment or violence at some point in their life and 70% of women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate behaviour in public. It points to an uncomfortable truth about how incidents like this play-out. Harassment happens in broad daylight, in full view of others, but the majority of people look the other way.

Being a superhero isn't easy

Being an active bystander is by no means easy. It takes courage to speak up and say something, but if you do choose to speak up, it’s likely everyone around you will breathe a sigh of relief - because you were brave enough to take a stand.

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