What to do when you see someone being bullied
April 14, 2010 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Do you know of any helpful resources about how to handle being witness to an uncomfortable and/or scary public conflict?

I'm thinking of scenarios where two people are getting into it on the bus you're riding on, or some teens are picking on someone younger, or a guy is publicly berating his girlfriend, or a customer is going off in a scary way on a customer service person, etc. The conflicts I'm thinking of generally seem to involve people of different ages, ethnicities, subcultures or genders, and they feel particularly loaded and uncomfortable in part because of this.

I'm wondering if any researcher or journalist has tackled the issue of how the witnesses to these conflicts react - and what reactions or interventions bring about what results. Obviously, we've all got our opinions about the best way to deal, but I wonder if someone's thought about this from an angle that goes beyond personal opinion.

In my experience, most witnesses just watch in quiet discomfort and perhaps fear. Some people intervene though, and I've seen that diffuse the situation in some cases, or further agitate one or both people involved in other cases.

Again, I'd love to know what has been written about these dynamics, to help inform how I participate in these sitautions.
posted by serazin to Human Relations (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Bystander effect

It's fascinating stuff for sure.
posted by keep it under cover at 2:08 PM on April 14, 2010

Here are some comments and a post on a related subject from another blog, with links to a NY Times article. It comes from the perspective of witnessing an adult strike a child, and the decision about whether to intervene. It's not the kind of in depth research you may be looking for, but might be interesting.
posted by bunnycup at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2010

This is mentioned in the wikipedia link that keep it under cover provided, but the Kitty Genovese murder is an excellent example of how bystanders respond to (or ignore) obvious signs of public violence.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:36 PM on April 14, 2010

Someone posted this awhile back: The Kitty Genovese story is a myth, which isn't to say the Bystander Effect is.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:56 PM on April 14, 2010

Oops- here's what I wanted to link to.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:58 PM on April 14, 2010

Response by poster: Huh, I hadn't known there was a name for the "bystander effect". These links are interesting, and thank you folks for posting them, but they seem to illustrate the more extreme end of the dynamic I'm thinking of. Usually I don't see people getting raped or killed. I wonder if there's anything written about more everyday interactions and conflicts.
posted by serazin at 3:01 PM on April 14, 2010

Bunnycup's link is pretty fascinating, and just shows how loaded this topic is -- the kinds of interactions you describe are situations where humans with different moral codes rub up against each other, in a gray area unguided by the law.

Since what you're describing are essentially random events, academic studies will probably come up short in terms of giving you a personal Batman-Or-Not code to live by. As a counterpoint to the Kitty Genovese story, consider that when a well-meaning college classmate of mine intervened in one of those "guy is publicly berating his girlfriend" scenarios, he got stabbed in the heart and died.
posted by turducken at 3:15 PM on April 14, 2010

It's been a while since I read it, but I remember James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds having a good discussion of this effect.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 3:38 PM on April 14, 2010

I highly recommend what bunnycup linked to. I read it a while ago and it was the first thing I thought of when I saw your question because of a really powerful point a few commenters made there:

If you can intervene in some (even tiny) way without putting yourself in danger, you are able to tell the victim that the situation is not normal. This can be really powerful when a child is involved, because a child victim of abuse can easily grow up feeling like the abuse is wrong, but thinking that it's normal due to being told over and over that it is. When a stranger steps in to say "This is not okay," it can really empower a child to stop thinking "there is something wrong with me, and I deserve this" and start thinking "I don't deserve this, it is not my fault, and there is something wrong with my abuser."

There are also good points made there about why/when not to intervene, but I think about that reason to intervene all the time.
posted by sallybrown at 3:38 PM on April 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

a personal Batman-Or-Not code

Thank you for this awesome succinct description.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:54 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

ABC has an interesting series about this sort of thing....What Would You Do? They hide cameras and then stage certain types of confrontations, like "Shopping While Black", to see how bystanders will react.
posted by Oriole Adams at 4:13 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

a few years back i was awakened (awoken?) by the sounds of yelling somewhere around 2 am. i looked out my window to see a couple fighting. i can't remember if he hit her or pushed her, but she was on the ground screaming at him something to the effect of 'go ahead, you coward! hit me!' & he was pulled back & ready to hit her again. i was in a panic trying to decide if i should rush out there to try to intervene* or call 911 when my neighbor, tina, opened her window & yelled 'hey! knock it off before i call the cops!' the man whipped around to look, then extended his hand & helped the woman to her feet. they were both muttering as they rounded the corner, but it appeared to end their disagreement for the time being.

no telling what happened later, but i didn't witness a beating that night. and i was in awe that something that simple could be that effective.

*not recommended
posted by msconduct at 4:43 PM on April 14, 2010

most witnesses just watch in quiet discomfort and perhaps fear. Some people intervene though, and I've seen that diffuse the situation in some cases, or further agitate one or both people involved in other cases.

That's the size of it. You really don't know what will happen - I've heard of police intervening in domestic violence cases and the victim assaulting/stabbing the officers for getting involved.

to help inform how I participate in these sitautions.

Here's a recent situation I got involved with. The mefi vote is that it was handled pretty well. I saw something sketchy and jumped in. Not the safest course as Turduken points out but for me there was no deliberate decision making.
posted by anti social order at 5:29 PM on April 14, 2010

I have waded in yelling twice when I saw a man hitting a woman (once in a hospital where I was working, and once in the parking lot at the movies, and the men stopped. One left, one continued arguing with the woman, but stopped the physical stuff.

But I was an uncomfortable bystander when a mother was screaming at her little boy and threatening him with her belt because he was scared to get on the elevator. Afterward, I reported it to the store security people, but they wouldn't confront her either. I don't know what accounts for the difference in my behavior, but I am ashamed of not stepping up for that little guy.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:02 PM on April 14, 2010

If a parent is losing it, it's okay to say "You sound like you're having a terrible day." It reminds her that people are watching, but sometimes there's a backstory, so it's nice to withhold judgment. My son had wild, screaming tantrums way beyond a reasonable age. I used to sit on the porch so the neighbors could see I wasn't beating him.

One great thing about mobile phones is that it's easy to call the police, and most phones have cameras, so take pictures. Just be sure to be safe. You don't need to be Batman. You're being a good neighbor.
posted by theora55 at 11:32 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older How to find episodes of the BBC comedy The Thick...   |   Comprehensive Spanish resource? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.