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You Want Me to Do What? Stories in Semi-Successful Bystander Engagement

Allow me to set the scene for you: BARCC's office is one block from a major street and subway stop, in an area with a lot of foot traffic. There aren't a lot of places close by to just sit outside, so in pleasant weather, we occasionally turn to the time-honored urban tradition of "sitting on the front stoop."

And so it came to pass that a week or so ago, Steph (BARCC's Youth Outreach and BeSafe Program Coordinator) and I found ourselves taking some air late one Friday afternoon. As we chatted about various projects and meetings, a couple walking down the street toward us caught my eye.

There was a guy and a girl. The girl looked like she was perhaps 15, the guy was taller and a bit older, maybe 17 or 18. I watched them walk from about a block away, right past us, and continue on to the next block. What struck me as odd was the body language, particularly hers. She had her arms crossed over her chest, and her eyes glued to the ground. From a distance, it had looked like his arm was perhaps around her shoulders, but as they neared us, it was obvious that his hand was in fact on the back of her neck, directing (if not pushing) her forward. He was talking to her, but she was not responding, and everything about the situation looked like she wanted no part of it or him.

As they passed us, I muttered to Steph, "Take a look at that interaction and tell me what you think is going on there." We watched them walk away from us for another block, he never letting go of the back of her neck, she continuing with her arms crossed. We quickly ran down a list of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane (teenage couple having an argument) to the horrifying (she was being abducted and was probably at high risk for trafficking or exploitation).

And here's where all the years of training people to be active, engaged, pro-social bystanders paid off: something wasn't right with this situation, and it was making both of us concerned for the girl's safety and well-being.

And then, something else happened. We realized (well, afterward, anyway) that many times, the majority of our energy in bystander trainings is invested in noticing a situation that seems amiss and feeling responsible for intervening. So here we were, noticing and responding, and...we had absolutely no idea what to do.

So we chased them. Obviously.

In fact, it wasn't quite so dramatic , but they were now about two blocks away and headed for Central Square's warren of public transit, shops, and restaurants. We hustled over to the main street, agreeing that we would try to spot them again and get a better sense of the situation with more observation, then go from there. And also we had broken into a run. No big deal.

We caught sight of them up ahead, then lost them again in the crowd. Thinking they had gone into a used book store, we slowed to a casual pace and meandered in ourselves. They were nowhere to be seen. We saunter-jogged to the back shelves. Nothing. The proprietor looked at us suspiciously. Steph asked if there was a downstairs (there isn't) or if he had seen a teenage couple come in just a moment ago (he hadn't). We thanked him and left.

We decided to try the Tex-Mex place next door, and eureka! There they were, standing in line to order. The girl still looked upset, but we were somewhat calmed by the thought that if she was truly about to be lost forever in a trafficking ring, they probably would not have made a pit stop for a delicious chicken super burrito.

Since we had sprinted off the stoop, neither of us had any money on us to try to look inconspicuous by ordering something. At this point, we were experiencing three of the most powerful reasons that people don't intervene in situations: we were afraid we might have misread the situation, there was the potential to look really foolish, and we had no idea what to do. We had to make ourselves ask a question that we we’ve posed to many workshop participants before: "What's the worst that could happen? We look dumb?"

They had moved to sit down at a table, so Steph grabbed a menu and we took a table nearby to game plan. Steph came up with a brilliant plan: there was no napkin dispenser on our table, so when the guy got up to get their food from the counter, she would go over and check in with the girl to see if she was OK.

And the plan unfolded perfectly. He got up, Steph went over, and very nicely said, "Could I just take some of your napkins?" "Oh, sure!" said the girl. "Hey," said Steph. "I was noticing you looked pretty upset. Are you alright?" The girl looked a little surprised and said, "Oh! Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." And smiled a little. Steph brought our napkins back, we sat there for a few more minutes, and then we left.

At this moment, keep reading, but take some time to acknowledge how annoyed you're feeling that you read all this way for the world's most anti-climactic bystander intervention story. Because it's really important that we tell these kinds of stories: the ones where something seems wrong and we feel we have to act, but have no earthly idea what to do. And the ones where we do the best thing we can think of, and either it turns out to be nothing, or our intervention goes a little way but can go no farther.

Both of us walked away from the situation feeling a little silly, but mostly really pleased with ourselves. We joked about how what happened was the reverse bystander effect: rather than hamstringing an action, the other's concern had validated what we were seeing and made us feel able to do something, even if it took a while to figure out what that would be.

It's critical that we keep talking about the action steps that we're asking folks to take as bystanders, and acknowledge what sometimes gets lost: it can be really difficult to figure out what on earth to do, especially if the situation is ambiguous or unfamiliar. And it really does take practice to intervene in things.

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Posted by Meg

Meg formerly served BARCC as its coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. Prior to that, she was involved with various aspects of sexual violence prevention, education, and response at Northeastern University and Williams College. Her work focuses on mobilizing communities to prevent sexual violence.


  1. It's actually a great and helpful piece of info. I'm happy that you shared this helpful info with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Joan TabachnickJuly 11, 2011 at 1:26

    Great story Meg and Steph. And I totally agree that these are the stories that need to be told. The only thing I would add is that the kind comment, are you OK, could have had an impact you can't see. If she was upset (and I am fairly sure that she was from your description) she was seen and notices and for some people, that can be incredibly validating. And you were able to do that in a way that was not shaming. So yes, brava! And keep those stories rolling!

  3. This story needs to be told at bystander trainings! Exactly as written. Hilarious and light and real and exactly the sort of thing that makes people want to be proactive bystanders. Brava.

  4. Thank for you this post. I am always thinking about situations like this.

    @Daniel, can you let me know what your site is so I can keep it bookmarked until its launched. Thanks

  5. CLEARLY what I would do is chase someone down and then sit awkwardly next to them in a burrito shop. Sometimes I do that when it's people I KNOW. And LIKE. So stepping in isn't that different, see?

  6. Daniel Basil HamiltonJuly 01, 2011 at 1:51

    Steph & Meg,
    Great post, I will be starting an interactive site for sharing active bystander stories for the Center for Hope & Healing this year that will feature (the good, the abd, and missed opportunities) for people to share their experiences in taking a stand or getting involved in situations like the one you all saw. Great post and I will definitely let you know when we launch.

  7. Thank you for this! I'm currently re-reading Her Wits About Her, which has me thinking about good strategies for self-defense in the world, and it's super useful to be reminded that awareness about the situations around us extends to other people, too.

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