What is an active bystander?

We can all be bystanders to harassment, bullying, and unacceptable behaviour. If we witness something that doesn’t seem right, for example someone being harassed, in danger or under threat there’s a choice to make -  do you bear witness, or step in? Active bystanders choose to step forward in those moments and do or say something rather than being a passive observer.

How to be an active bystander

If you find yourself witnessing behaviours that seem threatening or intimidating, you can take action. Your action could be anything from a disapproving look, interrupting or distracting someone, not laughing at a sexist or a violent joke, talking to a friend about their behaviour in a non-confrontational way or caring for a friend who’s experienced problematic behaviour.

Every small action has a big impact

When you witness poor behaviour, the easy thing to do is ignore it. But this sends a message that the behaviour is okay, or tolerated. It allows those that perpetuate poor behaviour to continue doing so without fear of consequence. By stepping up and speaking out. It sends a message that the behaviour is not okay.  You can also help victims of that behaviour know that they’re not alone, at a point in time where they might feel most isolated.

When we intervene, we signal to the perpetrator that their behaviour is unacceptable. If such messages are constantly reinforced within our community, we can shift the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and problem behaviour can be stopped.
There are several ways an active bystander can help someone, and it does not necessarily have to be direct intervention in all cases. If a situation can be dangerous or become worse by directly intervening, please avoid direct confrontation.

Do you know the 4 D’s of bystander intervention?  direct, distract, delegate, delay.

1) Direct Action

Call out negative behaviour, tell the person to stop or ask the victim if they are OK. Do this as a group if you can.

A direct action is an intervention where a person confronts a situation or negative behaviour themselves. You may do this using your body language, gestures, facial expressions and/or words, depending on the situation. Direct action doesn’t have to be confrontational or combative. It just means that you directly approach the person at risk and check-in on them, ask if they are okay or simply, directly ask the perpetrator to stop it.

Note: You should only directly challenge a behaviour if you feel safe to do so.

2) Distraction 

Interrupt, start a conversation with the perpetrator to allow their potential target to move away or have friends intervene.

Distraction is a subtle and indirect way to intervene. You may interrupt or cause a distraction to separate the perpetrator or the target from a problematic situation so that it helps to deescalate the situation. Distraction is particularly useful when dealing with microaggressions and micro inequities. Sometimes distraction or causing that break is more than enough to derail a situation and help someone. It not only helps diffuse the situation but also allows a moment for things to calm down without any fuss.

3) Delegate

If you are too embarrassed or shy to speak out, or you don’t feel safe to do so, get someone else to step in.

Delegating is when you ask someone else to step in and be involved.  If you can’t intervene directly because of any reason, you may be too shy or not feel safe, you can ask for help from someone with more power or authority to deal with the situation.  For example, if the harassment is occurring at a SU bar, the Students’ Union workers will remove perpetrators from their events if made aware of harmful behaviour. 

4) Delay 

If the situation is too dangerous to challenge then and there, just walk away.

Delay is when you may have to choose to pause your intervention. This may be because the situation is too threatening, violent or you may be outnumbered. In such a situation, waiting could be beneficial. You could reach out to the victim afterwards to see how they would like to be supported and make sure they don’t feel alone. Don’t do nothing, it’s never too late to take some action.

Remember: The delay tactic is an important step when witnessing any unacceptable behaviour, and is important to ensure the person targeted understands the support options available to them. 

The RVC has online training on looking out for others as part of our Consent Matters module which has some useful tips and guidance.

Research shows that bystander intervention can be an effective way of stopping sexual assault before it happens, as bystanders play a key role in preventing, discouraging, and/or intervening when an act of violence has the potential to occur.

And remember, never put yourself in danger. Only intervene if safe to do so. In an emergency, call the police on 999.

Talk about it

If you see an incident occur and you think it is problematic, it is important that you are able to talk about it.

Talk to a friend. Talking things through with someone you trust can sometimes help.

For students, the Advice Centre is a free, confidential, service where an adviser can explain what options are open to you and support you through the process if you decide to make a report.

For staff, you can get in touch with Dignity at Work and Study Ambassadors who provide confidential and non-judgmental support to help you clarify your thoughts and take steps for resolution, including guiding you to formal procedures should those be needed. 

Things you can say to the person being targeted:

  • Can I help?
  • Can I call someone for you?
  • Can I walk you home?
  • Is everything OK?
  • Should I call the police?
  • Are you alright?

Things you can say to the person behaving problematically:

  • What you said earlier really bothered me...
  • I don’t like what you just did...
  • I wonder if you realise how that comes across...

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