Help someone in need. Be an Active Bystander.

You were passing by and noticed a stranger being harassed. What do you do? The choice to intervene defines whether you are an active or passive bystander.

Help someone in need. Be an Active Bystander.
Photo by Nadine Shaabana / Unsplash

On a cold winter 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. They were drunk, disorderly, loud and rowdy. As soon as they got on the bus, a tall, lean blonde man sat beside 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 witnesses to the event and understand what is happening. The event can be a conflict or a crisis, and a bystander is in a powerful position to intervene, protect, and support 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. So, a passive bystander is a person who is a witness and only observes a conflict or crisis event, choosing not to respond to the situation. A passive bystander's reaction can range from ignoring to walking away to laughing.

There are two significant reasons why a bystander chooses not to respond. For one, the bystander accepts the conflict or crisis. Maybe they accept strange men harassing women in public. Or a leader swears at their employees in public. Or they were allowing customers without masks to shop in times of COVID.

The word passive can also mean being acted upon by an external agent. Hence, another reason bystanders might be passive is that they experience emotional or psychological impact in witnessing the event. Feeling uncomfortable or frozen in an awkward or difficult situation is normal.

Active is the opposite of passive: action, response, engagement, or movement. Active bystanders identify the need for help and respond to a conflict or crisis. For example, they might talk to the distressed woman and pull her away from harm, speak directly to an adolescent who is bullying another, or tell a customer to wear their masks while indoors.

By being an active bystander, you help to ensure that the people around you are physically and emotionally safe. We all need to do our part for everyone to live without fear. However, being an active bystander can be difficult in certain situations 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 bystandership reduces the likelihood of repeated harmful actions in the future. The harm-doer is made aware that their destructive behaviour is unacceptable.

The presence of an active bystander gives the target a sense of safety. The target will also feel connected to others, supported, and more confident in standing up to other harm-doers in the future.

Most importantly, bystanders need to take action. Being passive does not only mean allowing harm to the target; it can also bring harm to 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 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, overcoming nervousness and freeze might take some effort. 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 Hollaback 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 five strategies a bystander can take to intervene in a conflict or crisis.


Some incidents can happen too fast to be acted upon. Incidents such as a snatch thief, verbal abuse by a passerby, or public molestation can happen all too quickly. When 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 approaching and asking about their situation. Here are some example questions.

  • 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 feel uncomfortable or less confident intervening in a situation. In such cases, the delegation strategy 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 might inform the supervisor after witnessing harassment in a supermarket or 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 and 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 de-escalate 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 ask 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 can video record an incident. When someone else is intervening, one way to provide support is to document with your smartphone. When video recording, make sure the camera is focused on the target. Capture signage 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 incidents that commonly occur in your area. Plan, role-play, or strategise what you and your community can do to address these incidents. You can use this article as a starting point.

Get educated

​Like the one above, many videos, books and programs about active bystander-ship exist. 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. Please 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 turn out to be your ally or an active bystander when you are in a tight spot.

As bystanders, we are all responsible for ensuring the safety of the people around us. Thus, learning the right skills and practising being an active bystander is essential. The incident on the bus that took place many years ago was a necessary lesson in the student's life. As for me, I will forever be grateful to the student who intervened on my behalf and protected me from further harm.

This post is updated from the originally published post on Culture Spark Global on 7 October 2021 and written by the same author, Ling Ling