Effective ways of intervening with strangers?
June 20, 2018 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Two years ago I saw a man screaming really horrible things at his presumably girlfriend, and when she tried to back away he grabbed her in an aggressive fashion. I'll give more details inside, but I'm still haunted by how ineffective I was, and I want to know ways to more effectively intervene in situations where I see one stranger harassing another stranger in public.

This was out on the street, but there weren't any other people within a short distance (a block away there was a shopping center). I at first told myself it wasn't my business, then walked back and stepped in close-ish and asked him if he thought it was OK to act like that. He cursed at me and told me it was none of my business, and I didn't really know what to respond, so I just stood there lamely for a few seconds and then walked away.

I don't think I could have safely physically intervened as I'm quite small. Since then I've taken some self-defense lessons but I'm still definitely weaker than most aggressors I'd encounter.

Afterwards I thought maybe I should have turned to her and suggested she come with me to get away from him, but I'm not sure that would have worked.

I'm also worried that maybe stepping in so ineffectively just made him more likely to be more horrible to her later.

Ever since then the incident hasn't left me. Although this specific example involves what was presumably abuse in a romantic context, I'd really appreciate guidelines for any situation involving abuse/harassment in a public space, not just this specific one (I recognize the guidelines might be situation-specific, I just mean that I'm not looking for only this situation)

If there are resources or guides out there for what one can do to be maximally helpful, I'd appreciate them. And if the answer is "sometimes you can't, stay away", I'd at least like to know how to tell between situations where I can help and situations where I can't. Especially any kind of non-violent thing like stuff to say, should I have gone and gotten someone else? I just want to not go blank if it ever happens again...
posted by Cozybee to Human Relations (21 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The advice I've seen is to ask the victim if they're OK and go from there.
posted by rhizome at 10:07 AM on June 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you live in a decently populated area you should look in neighborhood Facebooks, bulletin boards, etc for Bystander Intervention training.
posted by griphus at 10:12 AM on June 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

You will always be risking yourself when you intervene in an angry, potentially violent situation. You have no way to predict what will happen. The safest course of action is to call the police and report it. Telling them you're calling the police also puts you at risk. So you need to always be aware of that. Always. The story that comes to mind is when two men were fatally stabbed trying to stop a man from harassing a Muslim woman. Those men were heroes, but they're also dead. Yahoo News Article

I don't really know what else to say... you can ask the person if they need assistance, say you're calling the authorities and then call the authorities or you could do it without asking which 1.) Doesn't escalate 2.) Doesn't put you at risk. There isn't a magic bullet. If you wanted to always be ready in case you or someone needed defending from violence, I would carry something non-lethal like pepper spray, assuming it is legal wherever you are.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:12 AM on June 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Would pulling out your phone and recording the incident help in this kind of situation? I can see the aggressor potentially backing down if they know they are being recorded, but also I can imagine the flipside where they turn their rage on you. Is recording something that's discussed in bystander intervention training?
posted by basalganglia at 10:18 AM on June 20, 2018

One time I observed an older child harassing a younger child in a doctor’s waiting room. I had been sitting in a seat clear on the other side of the mostly-empty waiting room. Without saying a word I moved to sit in the seat right next to the offender. They were so unsettled by this that they didn’t say another word until I was called in to see the doctor. I think this only worked because of the status difference (adult vs child) and because the empty room made it such a transgression of unspoken rules on my part, but at least in a similar context, I think it’s worth a try.
posted by eirias at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Couple of times, when I've seen people in obviously high-stress or upsetting situations, I've approached them & asked quietly if anyone needs any help. The times I can remember doing it, the answer has been "no", delivered in a way that made me feel like - ok, whatever is going on here is maybe not something that a random approaching person can help very much with.

But I guess it made me feel like I was doing something? And at least it's a way of offering a reminder that other potentially friendly or potentially helpful third parties might exist outside whatever situation is going on for those people - like, it's maybe not utterly futile to reach out for help.
posted by rd45 at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have done an active bystander training, and it's potentially useful for all kinds of harassment. Some of the basic principles are:

1) Engage with the target and not the harasser - this keeps them from feeling powerless or embarrassed and centering the wrong people (e.g. I'm white and if I were to shout at a white person for using racial slurs it becomes about white people which is still bad), and it also cools things down a bit instead of making it you and the harasser shouting at each other

2) Offer help but let people choose whether they want to accept it - it's not up to you to dictate what the target neds

3) Deëscalate - This goes along with supporting the target instead of engaging with the harasser

So in a situation like this, you might go to her and say something like "Hey, I was going to head to that cafe down the block for some coffee, do you want to come?". That gives her the option of saying no and puts her in control of the situation. Even a simple "hey, you okay?" can help. This comic is specifically about how to handle Islamophobic harassment but a lot of the principles still apply.

I hope this is helpful! It's awful feeling unsure in these kinds of situations and knowing what to do is extremely empowering. Also, apparently it's genuinely helpful if you practice what you're going to say, so feel free to daydream about how you'd handle challenging situations like this. When I'm having trouble falling asleep sometimes I'll picture different scenarios like being on the Metro with a harasser or someone being challenged on which bathroom they use and how I'd handle it so that if it ever comes up I'm ready to help.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:36 AM on June 20, 2018 [41 favorites]

Only good in a specific situation, but a (female, middle-aged, middle class, white, non-threatening) friend of mine was on a subway, and an older man had cornered/was harassing a younger girl, demanding her number, alternately telling her she was beautiful and calling her names for not responding to him when she was terrified, the whole nine yards. So when they were close to a stop, my friend got up, made eye contact, and then tapped the girl on the shoulder and said something like, "Hey, I'm glad to see you again! It's been a while. This is our stop coming up, right? Let's get coffee!"

She timed it so that they were just pulling into the station, so the girl grabbed her bag and followed her off the train. The dude was too flabbergasted to follow them off.

The girl was super, SUPER grateful, and they just caught the next train because it was not anybody's actual stop.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:03 AM on June 20, 2018 [45 favorites]

I just wanted to thank you for intervening at all and tell you not to torture yourself about your effectiveness or lack thereof. Also ... great comments.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 11:23 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Southern Poverty Law Center has this guide to bystander intervention (pdf). It's geared towards campuses but there is useful information there.
posted by jessamyn at 11:24 AM on June 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

I've witnessed some encounters like this in public and in semi-public spaces and tried or had to intervene and it's often the case that neither party really wants your involvement, so it's good to accept that you aren't failing if you don't get the response you want. Even in cases where one person is more physically threatening than the other or even when there is violence, their relationship may take a form where that is somehow an accepted part of it so interference may lead to both ignoring you or even turning on you for butting in. So be careful since your idea of what is happening and theirs might be at odds.

At the same time of course there are times where one of the pair may be in danger and be looking for help. If you see them looking for other people, that is a good sign they are scared and hoping for an intervention, but that isn't always going to happen. If you do decide you need to get involved, try to have a phone ready with the emergency number at hand so you can access it quickly if things go wrong. Sometimes seeing the phone of hearing the threat to call authorities can make a difference by itself, but calling authorities too quickly for a verbal dispute can go badly as well, so it may not be good to rush to it if the conflict is mostly posturing.

The suggestions above about deescalating the situation and offering a way out to the person being threatened awareness of the one being threatened can be a good way to try to see if and how they'll acknowledge the awareness others are watching. Addressing the one doing the threatening can sometimes work if it comes from a position of situational authority, like a manager of the location, if its done under the auspice of that authority as people tend to at least have some recognition of there being a right to get involved in those instances if things haven't gone too far already. The recognition also can act as a distraction and help calm or refocus the emotions.

If you're around other people, know that many of them may also be concerned about the situation, so asking for others to join you in getting involved can be helpful if things look more dangerous. But if you do, try to make sure you're the one doing the talking so some guy doesn't decide to take matters into his own beefy hands and settle things physically. It's more to have a group bearing visible witness that's needed than that kind of "help" unless violence is already involved. Once violence is involved or almost certain to happen, call the police and announce you've done it from safety as the other options are gone and people are in danger.

I'm not by any stretch claiming special expertise or training in this, just that I've had to deal with these sorts of things often in my line of work, so this is only my experience, not anything more, so use those resources first if they seem to fit your situations and just take my experiences as anecdotal data from someone who deals with this stuff. (A someone who's a fairly sturdy, but not exceptionally threatening man I might add, which also can change the picture.)
posted by gusottertrout at 11:30 AM on June 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Mary Rowe at MIT has done some research in this area, and the excellent "Fostering Constructive Action by Peers and Bystanders in Organizations and Communities" is linked on that page (or just go straight here - pdf warning). It's not so much a how-to, but it has a lot of information about what is going through people's heads when they decide whether to intervene as a bystander, which on its own can be helpful for your self-reflection, and it further has some suggestions that might help guide your research into more concrete resources for developing your skills in being an active bystander.
posted by solotoro at 11:33 AM on June 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot to mention that if you can get the parties to notice of focus on anything else that can do wonders. Sometimes even a stupid joke can be a real tension breaker.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:41 AM on June 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot to mention that if you can get the parties to notice of focus on anything else that can do wonders. Sometimes even a stupid joke can be a real tension breaker.

True story: My mother had a friend in college (who was pursuing a criminal justice degree) who once broke up a full-tilt prison riot by accidentally slipping and falling slapstick-style on a spilled bowl of Cheerios. Physical comedy can defuse physical confrontation.
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:12 PM on June 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have found great results by looking somewhat dispassionate and saying, “Hey buddy, what’s going on here?” Somehow it tends to read as “off duty cop” about 50% of the time, in a way where people just really don’t want to continue. The other 50% of the time you can follow it up with active listening and just de escalate everybody. “So it sounds like you’re angry because you think X, huh?”

But it’s absolutely physically dangerous, every time.
posted by corb at 1:05 PM on June 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is a very neccessary question. Thank you for asking it.

The one time I experienced really harsh verbal abuse, I was in a restaurant with the abuser, and the timing was such that I felt I had nobody I could turn too or call. I was too distraught to collect myself to think of calling for an Uber or something, so I just sat there and started sobbing, loudly, in public, something I have to be pushed to extreme emotional limits to do. What happened was that the majority of people, including the waitstaff, gawked with wide eyes but, I think, had no idea how to stop him or to help me, even if they had an impulse too. A couple people asked him timidly if I was all right, to which they received soothing, she's-just-sick replies, but nobody actually asked or talked to me at all. I remember feeling very much alone, and of course, when one is experiencing that kind of thing, I felt like I deserved his criticisms, accusations, name-calling, and outright paranoid behavior. When, of course, everyone just stares at you as you experience your meltdown, that makes you feel like you deserve it even more.

What I wish is that someone had said to me in that moment, "you don't deserve this." Not to ask if I was okay or ask him if I was okay, because the answer would be, of course, everything's fine, now go away. What I needed to hear, in that moment, was reassurance from someone, anyone, that I was a worthy person, that nobody had the right to treat me that way, that I was strong enough to get him to stop doing it (which turned out to be true, but that happened later.) Maybe not even in his line of sight, since I understand nobody should risk themselves or risk getting yelled at (or worse). I got away once to use the bathroom, maybe someone could have come in there with me, said it then.

The reality though, is that there is very little a stranger-bystander can do, in a society which discourages strangers from being naturally concerned for one another. I learned that during this experience. Abusers draw webs around their victims, and very often the victims are so dazed by their mistreatment, and half-believing/Stockholm-Syndromeized of the horseshit the abuser feeds them, that they may not be able to even hear, from a stranger, a phrase as simple as "you don't deserve this." In fact, it may take years before an abused person is able to understand, let alone accept, a phrase such as "you don't deserve this."

But, if I ever see this happen to a woman, or any person clearly being abused, I will say it anyway. Because even if it doesn't sink in then, in that moment, it may sink in later. And that is about as much help as any stranger can give.
posted by Crystal Fox at 3:15 PM on June 20, 2018 [17 favorites]

A friend of mine developed a bystander intervention training that has become popularish nationwide, and it's available free of charge for noncommercial purposes. The philosophy is basically the same as what Mrs Pterodactyl described above. Materials here.
posted by duffell at 5:23 PM on June 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm going to have to disagree with everyone saying that bystanders should always address the target and not the perpetrator. If I was being screamed at by my spouse in the middle of a crowded street, I clearly need help but I would never be able to ask for it. Because I have to go home with this guy, and you're a perfect stranger, and what do you think he'll do to me if I tell you I need help?!
posted by MiraK at 12:11 PM on June 21, 2018

I'm going to have to disagree with everyone saying that bystanders should always address the target and not the perpetrator.

I totally agree with you fwiw; that appears to be a minority opinion in the thread, and the linked resources also mostly include addressing the harmdoer as a potential strategy, depending on the context. That context including among other things the bystander's comfort with risk (as noted by corb); for many people it's not always an option, and for some people it may never be, but you are entirely right that there are situations in which and harmdoer/bystander conjunctions for whom it is an available and perhaps even best course of action.

Came back to add a couple more resources I thought of, though they are Massachusetts-specific:
  • Impact Boston offers several trainings that provide skills in this wheelhouse. They are more designed to assist persons who are themselves targets, but of course many of the skills are very transferable. Check out the description of their "Self defense" courses - it's not the curriculum you'd expect from the name.
  • Quabbin Mediation has developed a curriculum that they offer mostly in central Mass, where they are located, but I recently found it offered in the Boston area for free, and I'm told it wasn't the first time. I found the two-hour course to be a bit more basic than I was hoping for, but then again it was only two hours, and it was free.

posted by solotoro at 12:34 PM on June 21, 2018

So if you are going to do this, you need to understand a couple of things.

1) there is no "perfect" way to intervene. Because your knowledge of a situation is extremely limited, it is impossible for you to know what the effects of your intervening will be. You go forward with the understanding that you will make mistakes. Go forward anyways.

2) It is true that the apparent victim might lash out at you or deny that they need help. The apparent perpetrator might lash out at you or use it as an excuse to continue perpetrating.

However, remember abusers will ALWAYS find an excuse to abuse, and the simple acknowledgement that what is happening to the victim is not ok may one day help them leave. I do not let these things deter me. I try anyways.

3) you will feel humiliated, uncomfortable, afraid, ineffectual, and uncertain. Those feelings don't mean that what you are doing is worthless.

4) you probably won't get a satisfying resolution that lets you know you did the right thing. That is part of why intervening is so unsettling. You don't have to be the movie hero tough guy who makes everything right.

It's okay to intervene quietly, gently, uncertainly, as you did. In fact in most circumstances I suspect it is probably better. Gentleness can defuse high tensions and can feel a lot less threatening to both the victim and perpetrator.

I have humilated myself countless times intervening in situations. 99% of them, it was made clear that I was unwanted. It is worth it to me for the 1% where I am completely confident that I did the right and necessary thing.

I'm not a fan of the distraction approach personally because I feel it makes me complicit in the denial/violence cycle. To me, it is important to be explicit that I'm intervening because what is happening seems like it is Not Ok. To me, this validates the victim if they should later decide that it's not ok. That's the choice I have made based on my own experiences as a victim.

That said, I never expect victims to explicitly affirm that they need help; I know I couldn't. I believe it is worthwhile anyways. Indicating social disapproval is powerful to social animals.

However, in situations where it seems too dangerous to intervene directly, I will use indirect intervention or call police/security for help.

I try not to be hypervigilant about this stuff and listen carefully to determine if something that is happening is Bad or just bad. But if my inner voice tells me it's Bad, I don't regret intervening.

This isn't just emergency situations but also, eg, people crying on park benches, overhearing convos about needing help/resources that I have knowledge about, (unobtrusively) checking to make sure homeless people aren't dead, etc. Yeah, it's nosy and awkward. But I have faced a lot less hostility than you might think. A lot of people do want someone to care. Thank you for caring.

(I know the language of "victim" and "perpetrator" is problematic but for brevity and clarity used it here. My apologies.)
posted by windykites at 3:15 PM on June 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

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