On a cold winter's night, an international student finished her evening shift at a restaurant in a neighbouring town. As usual, she caught the night bus back to her campus. Along the way, the bus picked up other students, all men, who had finished their shifts too. Exhausted from morning classes and evening work, she leaned onto the window, closed her eyes, and took a moment's rest.
Soon after, four British students got on the bus, two men and two women. Drunk, disorderly, loud and rowdy. As soon as they got on the bus, a tall, lean blonde man sat next to her. Awoken from her rest, she froze immediately. He spoke in his intoxicated slur. But all she could focus on was his breath on her neck and the rancid smell of alcohol.
A student at the back of the bus shouted at him. He got up and started arguing with him. Other students intervened to prevent the fight from escalating. Soon after, the bus conductor locked all doors and drove to a nearby police station.
Active vs Passive: What is the difference?
A bystander is a person within the vicinity of an event. They are a witness to the event and have an understanding what is happening. The event can be a conflict or a crisis situation, and a bystander is in a powerful position to intervene, protect and provide support to those who need it. Yet, the choice to intervene defines whether the person is an active or passive bystander.
The word passive means more than inaction. It can also mean receiving, accepting or submitting without objection. And so, a passive bystander is a person who is a witness and only observing a conflict or crisis event, choosing not to respond to the situation. A passive bystander's reaction can range from ignoring, walking away or laugh.
There are two significant reasons why a bystander chooses not to respond. For one, the bystander accepts the conflict or crisis situation. Maybe they accept strange men harass women in public1. Or a leader swears at their employees in public2. Or allowing customers without masks to shop in times of COVID3.
The word passive can also mean being acted upon an external agent. Hence, another reason for the passivity of bystanders is that they experience emotional or psychological impact in witnessing the event. It is normal to feel uncomfortable or freeze in an awkward or difficult situation.
The word active is the opposite of passive; action, response, engagement or movement. Active bystanders are people who identify the need for help and respond to a conflict or crisis situation. For example, pretending to know and talk to a distressed woman while pulling her away from a harm doer. Or speaking directly to an adolescent who is bully another. Or telling a customer to wear their masks while indoors.
By being an active bystander, you help to ensure that the people around you is physically and emotionally safe. We all need to do our part for everyone to live without fear. However, in certain situations, being an active bystander can be difficult and requires moral courage.
Why is it essential to be an Active Bystander?
Active bystander-ship is the responsibility of all members of society. A society cannot be safe, inclusive and equitable if its members do not have the moral courage to uphold justice. Active bystander-ship is a demonstration to the community at large that harmful words and actions are unacceptable.
Being an active bystander can have a tremendous impact on society. The immediate benefit is that harmful words and actions will be stopped, thus, protecting those being harmed. Active bystander-ship reduces the likelihood of the repeated harmful action in the future. The harm doer is made aware that their destructive behaviour is unacceptable.
The presence of an active bystander not only gives the target a sense of safety. Also, the target will feel connected to others, supported and more confident to stand up to other harm doers in the future.
Most importantly, bystanders need to take action. Being passive does not only mean allowing harm upon the target; it can also bring harm onto yourself. It is normal to feel uncomfortable and freeze during such situations. Sometimes people laugh out of nervousness or because they don't know what to do. However, laughter can be interpreted as being complicit in the harmful act, which other witnesses may use against the passive bystander.
How to be an Active Bystander?
For some, active bystander-ship comes naturally. For others, it might take some effort to overcome the sense of nervousness and freeze. It is not difficult to learn to be an active bystander. All you need is to gain the skills and practice.
The Active Bystander Model was initially developed by Hollaback4 in collaboration with GreenDot in 2012. Since then, the model evolved from the initial 3D model to the 5D model today. The 5D model encompasses 5 strategies a bystander can take to intervene in a conflict or crisis situation.
Some incidents can happen too fast to be acted upon. Incidents such as a snatch thief or verbal abuse by a passerby, or public molestation can happen all too quickly. By the time anyone is aware or realises what has occurred, the harm doer has left the scene. The Delay strategy is when the active bystander checks in and speaks to the targeted person after the incident. The active bystander can check in by asking one or some of the questions below
- I saw what happened and I'm so sorry. Are you okay?
- Would you like me to accompany you for a while?
- How can I help?
- Can I call someone for you?
Sometimes you might not feel as comfortable or confident to intervene in a situation. In such cases, the strategy of delegation might be more suitable. The Delegate strategy is where you request assistance or resources from another person. The other person can be a friend, another bystander, or a person of authority.
For example, you inform the supervisor after witnessing harassment in a supermarket. Or you seek the help of a security guard to stop the adolescent bullying.
If you have the confidence, you may opt for the Direct strategy. Being direct is when the active bystander addresses the harm doer directly. This can be done by confronting the harm doer by saying, "This is unacceptable/disrespectful behaviour." Or "Leave them alone."
You can also name the situation by saying, "Hey, that's racist, sexist, etc.". This brings awareness of the incident to the target, the harm doer and other bystanders.
However, the direct response can be risky as the harm doer may redirect their abuse towards the bystander. Before being direct, the bystander will need to assess the situation and decide whether it is safe to use this method.
The Distract strategy is a way to redirect attention, disrupt and deescalate the incident. The primary purpose of this strategy is to help guide the target away from the harmful situation. The active bystander can be as creative as possible when using this method. Here are some examples
- Asking for the time
- Pretend to be lost and asking for directions
- Dropping something near the target and apologising to them
- Pretend to know the target and start talking to them about an unrelated matter
Almost everyone in the world has smartphones, and smartphones have the ability to video record an incident. When someone else is intervening, one way to support is to document with your smartphone. When video recording, make sure the camera is focused on the target. Capture signages or landmarks in the area and state the time and dates in the recording.
The most important thing to remember is to NEVER post or share the video anywhere online without the target's permission. As an active bystander, your role is to support the target, not get viral views on your social media.
What can you do?
Ready to be an active bystander? As mentioned earlier, active bystander-ship requires practice. Here are a few places to start.
Talk to others
Talk to your family, friends, neighbours or colleagues about the importance of being an active bystander. Have meaningful discussions about the incidences that commonly occur in your area. Plan, role-play or strategise what you and your community can do to address these incidences. You can use this article as a starting point.
There are many videos, books and programs about active bystander-ship, like the one above. Look for them. Share them. Talk to others about them. By getting educated, you gain more knowledge and confidence. You also help increase awareness of active bystander-ship in others.
Share this article
In the spirit of getting educated and starting discussions, one of the easiest things to do is share this article. Share it on your social media. Share it via email. Share it in your team meeting. Wait and see who responds to your sharing. This person might be turn out to be your ally, or the active bystander when you are in a tight spot.
As a bystander, we all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the people around us. Thus, it is essential to learn the right skills and practice to be an active bystander. The incident on the bus that took place many years ago was an important lesson in the student's life. As for me, I will forever be grateful for the student who intervened on my behalf and prevented further harm.
- ABC News. (2014, October 29). Hidden Camera Captures Woman Being Harassed.
- WKYC Channel 3. (2020, April 28). Undercover video shows grocery workers, customers without masks.
- Dominique Wong. (2021, July 27). AirAsia Thailand CEO talks down staff at Virtual Townhall.
- Together We Have the Power to End Harassment (n.d.). Hollaback!
- UN Women Asia Pacific. (2015, November 24). Active bystander.