Chapter 2 - Power Subchapter: Bystander action

Taking action as a bystander

A bystander is somebody who observes disrespectful behaviour. A bystander is not directly involved in the situation but is aware of it occurring.


An illustrated character is walking their dog while whistling. They approach a scene where two characters are bullying someone.


Disrespectful behaviour could include:

  • derogatory or discriminatory comments
  • bullying
  • verbal, emotional, physical or sexual harassment
  • physical assault or sexual abuse
  • online harassment, trolling or cyberbullying.

A person could find themselves witnessing disrespectful behaviour anywhere—public transport, school, party or music festival, getting a pizza, online gaming or walking the dog at the park.

You don’t get to choose to be a bystander. If you notice unacceptable behaviour, then you are a bystander.


Importance of bystander action

People often watch a disrespectful situation and do nothing to stop it. They might even join in because they’re scared that they might also become a target.

In bullying situations bystanders can play a significant role. For many perpetrators, an audience is encouragement to continue the bullying. When others watch on without taking any action to stop or prevent bullying, a perpetrator can see it as an endorsement of their behaviour, even encouragement for it to continue.

When bystanders stand up to bullying behaviour by speaking out, distracting, or discouraging the behaviour, there’s a good chance the perpetrator will stop.


The same scene with the illustrated character walking their dog, now the character says something to intervene. Speech bubbles are shown: "Hey!" "Who wants to pat my dog?"


Being an active bystander

An active bystander is a person who observes disrespectful behaviour, knows that it is wrong, and does something to intervene.

Being an active bystander doesn’t have to mean putting yourself at risk by intervening in an aggressive or violent situation. You can also be an active bystander in common, everyday moments. A verbal slight or a racist or sexist joke. That’s not fair. That’s not cool.


Having knowledge of a disrespectful situation and deciding to act is not always straightforward. A number of factors can play into a person’s decision to take action:

  • Is the behaviour really that bad?
  • Is this any of my business?
  • What will everyone else think if I intervene?
  • Is it safe for me to intervene? Would I become the target?
  • Surely someone else will doing something to stop it?

Silence, or failure to step in, can be seen as acceptance or approval of disrespectful behaviour.


What makes a bystander decide to step in?

Five key characteristics will determine whether a bystander will take action to intervene in a disrespectful situation.

1. Believe the behaviour is wrong

Shouting, aggressive or violent behaviour is easy to detect as a problem, but other forms of disrespectful behaviour like a snide look, an offhand comment, unwelcome touching or stalking can be more difficult to recognise. It might happen so quickly that you wonder if there was any problem at all.

Being an active bystander means having an awareness and understanding of what is disrespectful and unacceptable, so you know it when you hear or see it.


Ask yourself, how would you feel if you were the target of this behaviour?


2. A shared responsibility to step in

It’s easier to find the confidence to be an active bystander if others recognise the situation as a problem and are also willing to step in. If you can recruit others to help disrupt the behaviour, that can be a less confrontational way to intervene.


Ask yourself, are there other bystanders who will help you stop the disrespectful behaviour?


3. Confidence to take action

Standing up to another person can be difficult. It takes courage to go against accepted group norms and you may have doubts about how to intervene.


Ask yourself, what could I do to help? Do I need to try and stop the behaviour, or can I help the target leave the situation?


Direct action signals to the perpetrator that you’ve noticed their behaviour and are responding to it.

  • calling out the behaviour
  • interrupting the behaviour
  • involving yourself by explaining how the behaviour makes you feel
  • involving the perpetrator by asking how they might feel if the situation was reversed.

Indirect action allows you to take action without becoming physically involved:

  • seeking help from others
  • filming, documenting or reporting the incident
  • privately supporting the victim.


4. Ability to have a positive impact

It’s natural to wonder how one person can successfully go against a crowd. Or, if it’s group against group, be concerned that any intervention will escalate the situation. Don’t make a fuss, don’t cause trouble, look the other way, it’s probably nothing.


Ask yourself, if your decision to step in helps someone, even in a small way, isn’t that a much better outcome for everyone?


5. Support from others

Sometimes all it takes is for one person to step up for others to follow their lead. Other times, a disrespectful situation requires the intervention of a group to make a difference.

By working individually and as a team, we can stand up to disrespect, bullying and abuse by creating a shared culture of responsibility and respect.


Now there are two other characters who appear to be bystanders laughing at the character intervening.


Bystanders that are prepared to step in and speak out against disrespectful situations can:

  • help the victim
  • educate the perpetrator
  • signal to everyone that the behaviour is not acceptable
  • encourage others to stand up for others as well
  • model the correct behaviour.


If we want to live in a respectful community, we all need to take steps to challenge disrespect, in all its forms. This can be as simple as calling out sexist or racist jokes, challenging bullying behaviour, not tolerating cyberbullying, or just modelling respect in your interactions with others.