Some have found themselves in the unfortunate and often uncomfortable situation where a person around them deliberately or unashamedly engages in wrong or offensive behaviour while acting as though they have done nothing wrong. For example, friends or colleagues making sexists or racist comments or engaging in derogatory behaviour while laughing about it.
The spectator, despite being uncomfortable, may find themselves at a loss for appropriate words or actions and ultimately fail to call out the offensive act.
Although we may imagine ourselves as courageous people who would do the right thing, it is not always that simple, often, one may realise the offensiveness of the behaviour at hand, but finds themselves more comfortable being silent. At times the fear or worry about the potential consequences leads to people holding back.
But the good news is that we can refine specific skills for challenging bad behaviour when we need to, without unnecessarily placing ourselves in a compromising position. This may prove especially important when the offender is someone who yields power over you, such as a supervisor or manager. A few ideas on calling out bad behaviour are:
1. Find a short and clear way of expressing concern or disapproval.
While the thought of a long lecture or humiliating the other person may deter you from speaking out, a calm but direct comment can be very effective. You can call out a rude co-worker by simply telling them, “What you are doing/saying is not right!” This is a simple, direct yet effective way of bringing attention to the perpetrator, and those observing, that the behaviour is not acceptable. This is an essential first step in creating new social norms.
2. Make the discomfort about you, not them
Revealing a personal connection to an insensitive remark often stops the conversation from spiralling out of control. It also highlights the inappropriateness of the comment or action. For example, you can stop offensive comments by pointing out, “A close friend of mine was sexually assaulted, so jokes about rape make me uncomfortable.” This reduces the risk that you will make the person feel defensive, but it also clearly indicates that their comment or behaviour was wrong.
3. Find an ally who shares your point of view or concern
It is true that, there is strength in numbers. “Solidarity,” is described as an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards and sympathies, creating a psychological sense of unity in groups. For those of us who are not naturally courageous, finding a friend to stand by our side can be essential when challenging prevailing social norms.
4. Find a way to disarm the comment
You can also disarm a speaker by assuming they are only being sarcastic or trying to be funny. For example, you could respond to an offensive statement by stating, “I know you’re just trying to be funny… but sadly some people really do think that women are too emotional to lead …or are too weak to be a mechanic!” This is a clear indication of your disagreement with the comment, yet it does not make the person who made the remark appear stupid or bad.
5. Make the offensive behaviour personal, place yourself in the victim’s shoes
Speaking up and risking the consequences can be far easier if you can see the world from someone else’s perspective. Although empathy comes naturally for some, others need to actively cultivate it. Deliberately taking the time and energy to cultivate empathy, teaches one to be more empathetic and more likely to speak out. After all, if you were being bullied or sexually assaulted, wouldn’t you want someone to stand up and help you?
6. Practice speaking out against offensive behaviour
This is especially useful where the offensive behaviour is not a once-off occurrence. If your workplace or environment is characterised by unethical and offensive behaviour, learning different techniques for confronting bias or unethical behaviour, can make a difference. Practising helps reduce self-consciousness about speaking up and makes responding feel more normal. It also increases confidence and enables you to intervene safely when confronted by an unacceptable situation.
7. Diffuse the situation by offering support to the victim
Even without engaging with the person who is causing harm, it is possible to de-escalate the situation at times simply by engaging the person who is being targeted. Instead of concentrating on being perfect or “saving” someone, it is important that you focus on being supportive of someone experiencing harassment or violence and whenever possible taking the lead from them. You may ask:
Remember that rarely will you change someone’s behaviour immediately simply by calling it out and naming it as unacceptable, but you do have the opportunity to stop that behaviour in the moment. This can demonstrate to those around you that you refuse to normalize harmful actions.
Put in the effort and make the difference. Remember that if you are not part of the solution, you are likely part of the problem, and when you ignore a problem long enough, it can multiply 10 fold. We all know the old adage that ‘a stitch in time, saves nine.’ Remember this when tempted to be silent on issues that really matter.
We can all learn to speak up in the face of bad behaviour. If enough of us do so, we can change the culture to one of courage and action instead of silence and inaction. What would it take to create a culture in which we are expected to act when we hear offensive language, witness harassment or sexual misconduct, or workplace fraud? Sometimes just a single voice can be enough, especially when that one person gives others the courage to speak up.
By broadening our methods of bystander intervention we can start to see the everyday ways that we are able to take part in the creation of a culture change, away from violence, harassment and oppression towards respect and care.