Modern Manners + Etiquette: Bystander Behavior

Monday, April 04, 2011


View Larger +

Have you ever witnessed bad behavior you didn't have the good manners to stop? “Mind your own business,” that's what most of us were told was good etiquette—along with “Don't talk to strangers.” What would you do if you saw a parent swatting a toddler on a bus or playground, or in a store or airport? Would you say something? Or would you just give the beady eye stare and walk on by?

At some time or other, many of us have wanted to pull out our cellphone and threaten to intervene, “That's not good parenting, stop or I'll call the cops!” But you look around at your fellow bystanders—other shoppers or travelers—for a sense of camaraderie and, sadly, since you can't find that spirit of friendly good-fellowship, you say nothing and walk away—only to later experience, bystander's remorse.

It's called the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome—named after the case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death by her rapist, because 38 witnesses failed to intervene—and refers to the growing social psychological phenomenon where bystanders do not help in a violent emergency situation.

View Larger +

Your parents taught you there was safety in numbers,
well forget that, too. Studies show that in fact the more witnesses to a violent act there are, the less inclined those bystanders feel the need to help. Social psychologists J.M. Darley and B. Latane documented that in an emergency, bystanders tend to monitor the reaction of other bystanders to see if others feel as they do—that “we” should intervene—before deciding whether to take action or ignore the violence.

If we would have been there, would we have helped?

On a more personal note, we all know incidents where a friend, student, employee, or relative has either been raped in her dorm room—unaided by her drunk college roommate in the next bed—or raped in an alley between two buildings while walking home or back to her dorm after last call—accompanied by other nighttime revelers. If we had been there, would we have helped? The US Department of Justice, Violence Against Women, Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that one out of every four rapes take place in a public area or in a parking garage; 31% of female victims reported that the rapist was a stranger—while approximately half of all rapes were committed by friends and acquaintances, 26% by intimate partners.

Bystander behavior: on the rise?

Bystander behavior, the act of observing a disturbing incident and not coming forward to intervene, seems to be on the rise along with what some would call the “death of chivalry” or “the phenomenon of the metrosexual,” however, that's not fair because if her roommate hadn't been dead drunk, she would have reached for her cellphone, clicked on Contacts, and pressed In case of emergency. Right?

According to The Gordie Foundation (created in memory of Gordon Bailey, the 19-year-old college student who was hazed to death during an alcohol-themed frat party hazing), 1824 student lives are lost each year to alcohol related deaths, which makes it not so surprising that one in twenty (5%) female college students reported they were raped (according to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study). In 2009, according to, 97,000 students between the ages of 18-24 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Going back to Darley and Latane's social experiments, bystanders showed compassion and aggressively helped those who had an accident or had, say, tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and fallen or were having a seizure, but when that screaming person was being beaten, attacked, or raped, bystanders rarely felt compelled to stop the violence and help the victim. Call it what you will, pluralistic ignorance, or social proof, but any display of diffusion of responsibility in the face of violence is clearly a matter of bystanders behaving badly to information overload.

Bystander behavior on Facebook

More recently, when Simone Beck in Great Britain posted on her Facebook status a “bye bye everyone” suicide note saying she had taken pills and would soon be dead, none of her 1,082 so-called “friends,” even though many were within walking distance, bothered to call for help—furthermore, there were several mocking and cruel “comments” posted before her body was found the next day. Simone Beck's needless death shatters the myth that a person who talks about committing suicide is unlikely to do it.

Etiquette is about compassion. Forget you were taught to mind your own business.

Because again, according to the Justice Department, one in two rape victims are under age 18; one in six are under age 12; family violence and abuse are among the most prevalent forms of interpersonal violence against women and young children—both boys and girls; one third of all juvenile abuse cases are children younger than six years of age. The sexual abuse of a child, or physical abuse of any nature, should never be “just a family matter.”

When witnessing violence—push emergency on your cellphone to report the location and incident.
Lead others into protecting the victim—even if you're not the strongest, others will join in to help.
Remember, it doesn't matter if the victim and aggressor are related or are in a relationship.

Don't think someone else will take care of this.
Don't let the fear of retaliation stop you from intervening or calling the cops.
Don't forget if the violence isn't challenged, the behavior continues unchecked.

Civility Week at JWU

As a community, we should be proud of the Office of Student Conduct at Johnson & Wales University for organizing their recent annual Civility Week: Changing the Status Quo. According to coordinator Madeline Parmenter, one of last week's featured speakers, film and video producer Mike Dilbeck spoke to the students about bystanders behavior and the importance of coming forward to intervene when witnessing an act of violence (and, by the way, he is credited with the above Dont's). This week, JWU students, staff and faculty are signing the “Wildcat Pact,” a pledge to be positive community members. Bravo.

Didi Lorillard has been a bystander to bad behavior and admits that she has been more apt to give an aggressor the beady eye, rather than become involved in another person's violent act. Didi is most interested in hearing from other former bystanders, or follow her with your opinions and stories on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

To learn about how you can get your school or college hooked-up with The Gordie Foundation, go to and inquire about getting a copy of their must-see movie “HAZE.”

If you valued this article, please LIKE on Facebook by clicking HERE.


Enjoy this post? Share it with others.


Sign Up for the Daily Eblast

I want to follow on Twitter

I want to Like on Facebook

Delivered Free Every
Day to Your Inbox