How To Be An Active Bystander

Knowing how to be an active bystander is a great way to look after your mates, keep an eye on strangers and stop something escalating.

Being an active bystander means doing something when things don’t feel right. It's looking after your friends and loved ones but also strangers. It means using your privilege to benefit others. You can take several actions depending on the situation, but make sure it's always done safely. 

How should I approach a situation?

Notice what is happening 

Be present and take note of what’s going on around you. Ask yourself the following: What is happening? What do your friends tell you? How are others behaving? 

Identify whether the situation is a problem 

Before jumping in and acting, reflect on your perceptions and attitudes towards others. Ask yourself the following: Would you behave in the same way? Would this behaviour be okay if it happened to a friend or family member? Does everyone involved feel comfortable with what is happening?

Assess your personal safety

Before you jump in and act, you need to assess the situation and make a sensible plan. Knowing that you can take bystander action at any time is essential. It doesn’t have to happen now but can happen after seeing or hearing about the incident. So doing your part can be anything from sending a disapproving look to submitting a formal report. Each situation you’ll come across will be different. What you do in one case may not be safe or appropriate to do in another. So decide how you will intervene, whether it's stepping up at the moment or at later date.  

Take action and step up 

There are many ways to act. Just remember to be respectful and careful in whatever approach you take. It might not always be helping and listening to the victim. It could also be choosing to leave a situation or calling out your friends on their behaviour.

What actions can I take to intervene?

Call it out

Remember not to get personal when you address their comment. A good tactic is to help the person who made the comment or action try to make connections to their own experience or that of loved ones. One way you can do this is by asking questions about their statement to get them to reconsider it. You can also gain the support of others around you by using a “we” statement. 

Take non-verbal action

Does straight-up challenging or confronting someone about their behaviour seem intimidating to you? That’s fair. You should always act within your comfort zone. So as an alternative, you can try stepping in with non-verbal action. You can sigh, walk away, and look down among other gestures to signal that their act is not on. 

Act later

Being an active bystander doesn’t mean you always have to step up at the moment. Sometimes the best you can do is file a report after hearing about the incident. If someone you know has acted in a way that needs to be called out, you can bring it up directly with them in a less public setting. 

What do I do in high-risk situations?

Scope out the danger and risk posed to you as an active bystander. Understand when you might be in an environment where bystander intervention may be required. Your safety is your paramount concern. Do not intervene in a situation if you may be harmed or your intervention may negatively affect the safety of others. 

Assess whether the situation would be dangerous for you to step in and say something

  • If you decide to intervene, stay calm, keep your tone neutral and body language non-threatening. Try to come up with a plan with others around you. Have an exit strategy in mind before intervening. 
  • Directly address the aggressor and/or ask the victim if they are OK. 
  • Be creative to diffuse the situation. This may allow everyone to cool down or the victim an opportunity to get out of the situation. 
  • Get someone else to help, e.g., a friend, staff member, security, police, etc. 
  • In some situations, the best action is to ignore the instigator, sit with the victim, and show your support. This might look like sitting with a victim on public transport and discussing a random topic like the weather. 

Being an active bystander does not always require confronting the situation yourself directly. Sometimes your best move is to inform someone in a position of authority that an incident might occur. If you are on campus, call UNSW Security (02) 9385 6000 or the Police (000).

Speak and step up, not over

Your effort can go a long way when you listen to and align yourself with someone targeted by exclusionary and disrespectful behaviour. That being said, remember to stay in line. As an active bystander, you're here to speak and step up, not over. Avoid taking over a situation on behalf of someone. This means not inadvertently cornering those affected to expend further effort or be more vulnerable than they already are. Any meaningful intervention comes from knowing how to read the room and acting boldly yet humbly.

How to respond to ‘jokes’

Sometimes our mates might be guilty of making wrong or off-colour jokes or comments. It happens, and it’s okay. Naturally, keeping them in check can be daunting and uncomfortable, but part of being a better human is a commitment to make sure that you and the people around you do better. If you make a stand, remember that it's always better to call out the behaviour as inappropriate rather than personally attacking the person doing it. 

Here are some ways to call out your friend's joke or comment to let them know that it was unacceptable.  

  • "I don't find that funny. It’s not really on." 
  • "I know you didn’t mean it, but I’m not too comfortable with that." 
  • "Hey, can you explain what you mean by that?" 

It's not surprising if you find yourself stumbling with what to do at the moment at the risk of facing alienation. Although it might seem socially safer to remain silent and let it go unchallenged, it’s always worth saying something. 

What should I do if something’s happened on campus?

If there has been any kind of incident or an emergency on campus, Security Services should always be your first contact point. UNSW Security Services provide a free escort service available to students, seven days a week, all year round. All reports remain confidential, and you’re given many options about how to respond to the case. 

Get in contact with Campus Security
General Enquiries: 9385 6000
Emergencies: 9385 6666
Report: Estate Management Website
Visit the Security Office at Gate 2, open 24/7