Bullying – the bystander

We often encourage young people not to be a bully bystander. I have even heard some adults tell young people that they are as bad as the bully if they choose to be a bystander. But what does bystander really mean? An onlooker, someone there in the moment. We often associate the need for the bystander to step in when bullying is occurring. As an adult can you stand up and confront the bully when you are in this position? What does it take? What costs do you consider? If you don’t stand up in the moment, what is it that stops you? Is standing up in the moment the best response? These questions have been circulating in my head of late due to some situations that have occurred where I was a bystander, I did not stand up in the moment. I was there, I saw it. What would have happened if I had have stood up to the bully at the time of the belittling onslaught, would the situation have stopped? What reaction would have occurred? What would be the situation now?

Reflecting on the situations left me saddened at the time, that I did not actually step up, in fact I was mad at myself. If only I had stood up then and there, when the belittling comment was made to a graduate student from the bully to position themselves. I sat there in silence and was somewhat stunned. I was frozen. An early career teacher’s need to be supported and empowered were not understood, rather it was about needing to usurp control and power. In considering this, would voicing my thoughts in the moment have disempowered the victim even more?

Later on in a different situation, where communication was being undertaken via a Google hangout, the bully took the opportunity to exert power through the dressing down of a contracted employee. Attempts were made to distract the situation by those of us viewing the onslaught, but were not effective. The very next day I was called to a Google hangout with the person who took the powerful position. I didn’t want to talk to them, I felt nervous about talking to them alone. Yet I felt that I had to ignore my fears and just answer, I also decided that if I had the opportunity that I would express my concern. In this Google hangout I was told that I should be appreciative of being able to watch such interactions as that was a good demonstration of how to handle things. I expressed that I felt extremely uncomfortable and that is was not appropriate to instigate a dressing down of a person regarding their employment details in that setting, with that audience or in that manner. To this I got told again that this was a good example of how to deal with an employee.

Although I expressed my thoughts regarding the second situation I felt completely powerless to intervene when the situation occurred in a manner that was effective. It was like my voice had been stolen, almost like I could not speak. I was in shock and was trying to process what was going on. The closest thing I can align it with is how I tend to react when I am a passenger in a car and there is a potential accident about to unravel before my eyes – I can’t get the words out of my mouth.

So is it easy to step up? And is stepping up in the moment always the right response?  To empower myself for potential future situations I practiced in my head what I could say or do. I considered a range of scenarios with regard to the situation and environment I was in, taking into consideration the reaction of the bully – their personality. I did this so that I was not caught in a frozen state and that I wasn’t going to inflame the bullying. I did this to ensure I was empowering those who found themselves on the receiving end. Part of this meant I investigated other paths to take, as sometimes  stepping in (there and then) can make a bad situation even worse. Reading the situation in the moment is important. Being aware of personality is also important as it has a huge role to play. Having a range of avenues to express concerns and report enables bullying to be effectively dealt with, they need to be openly discussed so people are aware of what they can do. Knowing that you are safe to report is vital. The bystander needs to feel empowered to act, and act in a manner that is supportive of the overall situation.

Bullying can be insidious and when it is undertaken in a manner that is highly manipulative, and has high stakes attached for those who are involved (including the bystander), it is very difficult to deal with and stand up against.

While I write this I am reflecting on a situation that occurred to me a number of years ago. I was bullied and it occurred in the workplace. I felt let down by some people at the time, due to thinking they were just being bystanders, and I lost a huge amount of trust for people. They weren’t ignoring my situation. They were being human. Each of us brings a range of experiences to the table and those experiences shape us and our responses. Their responses did not equate to them being bullies. A bystander is not a bully, rather they are in a unique position, one where they are on the cusp of being able to make a difference through taking appropriate action. Often the one being bullied may not be aware that they are being supported by the bystander. I am much stronger now due to the bullying I encountered, thanks to those who took time to care for me and allow me to be empowered.


  1. K. Machtmes says:

    Many times we are just shocked that such bullying would occur in a given setting. By the time we recover the ability to step in is gone. But we need to be alert that this person behaves in this manner and watch future interactions.

    • dbatty1 says:

      Yes, and that is the thing, we are often in shock when it occurs. To start with there is often a disbelief, a disbelief that one would act that way. There is so much processing that goes on in that initial moment. How we deal with future interactions is so important.

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