Imagine you’re riding the bus and you see something that gives you pause. A man a few rows in front of you is snarling at the woman next to him, and you can see that she’s uncomfortable. You’re not sure if this is a minor squabble, or whether her safety is in jeopardy. And you don’t know if it’s your place to intervene — so you put your head down. Once you get home, you regret not doing more.
“When we see people experiencing harassment or hate, too often we freeze. We don’t know what to do,” explains Emily May, cofounder and executive director of Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization that combats harassment. “Bystander intervention is simply overcoming that freezing instinct to get back to our core human desire to take care of one another.”
One result of that freezing instinct is the bystander effect, a social-psychological theory suggesting that individuals are less likely to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby. It’s a complex phenomenon: When in a crowd, people typically don’t act, because they believe it’s not their responsibility. They’re also following a social norm — because no one else is stepping up, either.
Certain individuals will also be less comfortable intervening depending on their identity. May explains that people of color, queer individuals, and other marginalized groups face more challenges when encountering harassment.
Psychologist Catherine Sanderson, PhD, author of Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels, describes three common reasons people avoid intervening when they witness harassment:
Ambiguity about what is going on. “So you hear or see something, and you’re like, Is that person in serious medical trouble? Or are they just kind of joking around?” says Sanderson.
This ambiguity extends to other situations, too: Is that person just playing in the pool or is he drowning? Is that joke funny or is it actually kind of racist, sexist, or homophobic?
Diffusion of responsibility. When you see something you know is problematic, but you’re in a big crowd, Sanderson says, it’s common for people to look to others to take responsibility.
Concerns about the consequences. She believes this is the top reason people choose not to intervene, whether it’s social consequences or fear of physical harm.
May has been working to combat harassment for 15 years, and she reports a shift in the perception of bystander intervention. “Fifteen years ago, people didn’t even see harassment as a problem. If it wasn’t physical violence, there were practically no resources to deal with it,” she recalls.
“And now people are watching this rise in hate and harassment and saying, actually, ‘That’s not enough. I want to do something more than just not hate or harass other people. I really want to be proactive in addressing this.’”
The five Ds described below are various bystander intervention methods from Hollaback! They can help you support individuals who are being harassed, show that harassment is not OK, and set an example for others so we can all learn how to make our communities safer.
The Five Ds of Bystander Intervention
Hollaback! intentionally lists the intervention methods in this order. As you move down the list, your level of personal involvement may increase, with the fifth tactic being the last resort.
Creating a distraction can indirectly deescalate a situation. Try starting a conversation with the person who is being targeted. This helps create a safe space for the victim while starving the harasser of the attention they’re looking for.
You can also create a physical distraction by dropping something you’re holding to momentarily shift everyone’s focus.
Do: Draw attention away from the harasser, perhaps through conversation with the target. You can say something simple, like “Do you know when the next bus is coming?”
Don’t: Start a conversation with the person who is harassing the victim. Though it could still de-escalate the situation, May says, it leaves the victim alone and likely upset.
If you can, find someone else to help you. Look around and see who else is present. If you can, let that person know that someone is being harassed, and ask that person for help.
Do: Try to find someone in a position of authority (like a bus driver, teacher, store manager, or flight attendant). Then, check in on the victim.
Don’t: Call the police without the express permission of the victim. “We caution folks not to contact the police unless they have checked in with that person first, because many communities do not feel safer with police presence,” May explains. If you’re not able to ask the victim directly whether you should call law enforcement, use your judgment to make a decision.
It can be helpful for the target to have video of the encounter, which can be used as evidence. Just recording can even deter the harasser. It is generally legal to record someone in public, but check your local laws to be sure. Be mindful if you’re on private property, since it is likely illegal to take video or photos.
Do: Ensure that the target is getting aid and that you are safe before documenting. “You want to make sure that somebody is doing something,” May says. “You don’t just want to put your camera in somebody’s face when nobody is stopping the harassment.” Maintain a safe distance, state the date and time, and record landmarks to identify the area.
Don’t: Share the footage without the victim’s consent. Give the victim the choice of what to do with it.
After the incident is over, check in with the victim to offer support or resources. A great place to start is asking questions like these: “Are you OK?” “Can I sit with you?” or “Can I help you report this incident?”
Do: Acknowledge the victim and communicate your willingness to support them. “Our research shows that as little as a knowing glance can reduce trauma,” May explains. “Nonverbal connections are also really effective if you don’t speak the same language as the person being harassed.”
Don’t: Focus on your potential guilt about not intervening sooner. Make sure you focus on helping the person who was targeted. You can still make a difference in the victim’s experience, even after the situation is over.
As a last option, sometimes you do want to confront a situation directly. In those instances, assess your safety and then speak out firmly and clearly about the harassment you are witnessing. You can tell the harasser that what he or she is doing is inappropriate or ask the harasser to leave the target alone. You can also address the target and ask whether he or she would like to be escorted away from the harasser.
Do: Gauge your own safety and the safety of the target before intervening. Keep your message short and succinct.
Don’t: Argue or debate with the harasser. “We don’t want you to get in a back-and-forth with the person doing the harassing,” says May. “Instead, we just want you to clearly, firmly set that boundary.”
The FIVE Ds are an amazing tool, but May emphasizes that we must also be sure to check our own motivation. “The biases of the bystander can show up in how they perceive danger or harassment or harm,” she says.
One common mistake May sees is bystanders viewing a man of color as the most threatening person in any scenario, which can distort both your understanding of the situation and your sense of safety.
It’s also not about heroism, Sanderson notes. “The key to bystander intervention is that it’s not jumping into the burning car,” she explains. “It’s not being a big hero.
“There are little, tiny steps that we can take that are about intervening, distracting, and changing the narrative in ways that can make a big difference.”
This article originally appeared as “More Than a Bystander” in the December 2021 issue of Experience Life.