Why Is Being a Bystander Still Acceptable?

Last Saturday night (Sunday morning) just before 3 AM, I took my visiting friend to the train station to catch her shuttle to the airport. I saw a girl sitting on a bench nearby but didn’t think much of it, until I was returning to grab a city bike home when I saw her curled up and laying down. 

“Excusez-moi, puis-je vous aider Madame?” I asked her. 

She responded in German, so I quickly switched. “Do you speak English? What’s your name? Are you okay? Do you need any help?”

The girl broke down in tears and said, “Yes, I speak English. I’m scared and really confused. I was in a night club with my friends, and there were a bunch of guys buying our drinks; I only had one and I fell asleep or something, I don’t remember anything; I woke up because the bouncers were kicking us out of the night club. My friends, my coat, my phone, my bag, my things, were gone. I think someone may have put something in my drink because I completely blacked out even though I only had one drink. I know I have a bus at 4 AM around here, back to Paris, but I can’t get in touch with my friend. I don’t have a ticket or anything with me, and I don’t know what to do. So I found my way back here.”

I sat down next to her, and then took her into the hotel across the street. We sat on the two chairs just inside the entrance, to warm up a bit. I asked her if she needed a hospital, or the police, or anything, but she said no. She said she just felt extremely dizzy and disoriented (I think she was still quite drunk.) I gave her my iPhone so she could go on her Facebook and try to contact her friend via messenger. Turns out, her friend had messaged her and was waiting for the bus as well, but on the other side of the street. I escorted the girl down to the other end, and sure enough, her friend, who was English, was waiting for her with another nice guy who had helped them out.

“Thank you so much. I’m crying because I’m scared, but because you helped me. It was too kind of you; most people wouldn’t do that.”

Last week Thursday I was out getting a drink with a few new friends. We were on an extremely busy street with tons, and tons of people out and about. On our way to the next destination, I spotted a girl sitting on the curb, with her jeans and panties around her ankles, sitting in her own piss. Again, people were present on the streets, but no one was helping her. So, I made a detour and crouched down next to her. I started speaking in French, “Excuse me, miss, are you okay? Did something happen to you?” She looked at me, phone in her hand, and replied, “Non, c’est bon, it’s fine.” 

“Please, let me at least help you pull up your jeans. It’s cold outside and it’s probably better that you wear your trousers.” 

“No, no, no, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Are you waiting for someone? Is someone coming to get you? Can I call someone for you, or take you somewhere, home maybe?”

“No, no, please. Someone’s coming for me; a guy. Please, I’m fine.”

Exasperated, I said, “Please, let’s pull up your pants and zip them up. I can help you,” and I extended my hand.

“Please, go, just go.”

I could tell she was no longer comfortable. She seemed coherent, but then again, she was in the middle of a crowded street, sitting in her own puddle of urine with her lady bits exposed and her pants at her ankles. So, clearly something was very, very wrong. She did, though, eventually stand up, button her trousers, and awkwardly slipped away.

I felt like a failure. I tried, but I didn’t help. What was going to happen to this young woman? And WHY on EARTH did no one else (like, the hundreds of people in the street, for example), offer to help?

This past June, I went to Brussels and visited Delirium Cafe. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I felt like I had just stepped back into a frat house. Upon arriving I desperately needed the toilet, so I fought my way through the crowds and up the two flights of stairs to the lavatory. Before my eyes was an unconscious, unresponsive young woman around the age of 20, and her extremely wasted friends (all American) attempting to take care of her. I decided to step around the situation and relieve myself, but eavesdropped the entire conversation. It was obvious almost immediately that this was a dangerous situation. I quietly slipped out of the WC and ran down to find two bar tenders, and told them that there was an unconscious girl on the bathroom floor upstairs, and that an ambulance needed to be called. I followed them back upstairs and also translated a bit back and forth, before finally coming back down to enjoy my beer– which was offered for free thanks to my help. I was grateful but shocked– wasn’t that the normal thing to do?

Whilst living in Toulon, the man living below us was physically abusive to his wife. Episodes lasted anywhere between 30 minutes to over an hour, at least once a week. They shook and disturbed the entire building. Before I moved in, no one in my house, or as it seemed, the entire apartment block, had EVER called the police.  When I did, I was told it was considered risque to be interfering with private business (By the way, what the heck, France? Is it 1957?)

Back in college, when I was living in a sorority house, I was unloading groceries in my driveway at an ungodly hour of the evening. I heard a woman’s scream. I looked down a street to see a man trying to drag the girl away. Without hesitating, the two of us ran down the street to see what the problem was. It turns out, this girl was just extremely wasted, and this guy was trying to get her to go back to her house instead of back to the bars. She was emotional because of some sort of boyfriend drama. We offered to escort the young woman home, just in case, but she didn’t want to go with us because she “didn’t know us” (understandable.) We were told that other people had walked by but we were the only people to check up on her, as they understood that in the eyes of any onlooker, the situation looked sketch.

The Bystander effect, as defied by Wikipedia, is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In other words, the more people present, the less likely that any one of them will help. Several variables help to explain why the Bystander Effect occurs. These variables include ambiguity, cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility.

Ambiguity refers to the idea of not knowing whether or not the person is in need of assistance (i.e.: fallen but not sure they’re hurt). Bystanders are also more likely to help if they are familiar with the environment they are in (i.e.: knowing where to get help, where the exits are, etc.) Cohesiveness, or conforming to social norms, also effects whether or not people help. This is why no one helped the girl in her own piss; everyone, except me, had conformed to the social norms of not helping; no one wanted to be seen as an outsider. Studies also show that people are more willing to help people who are similar to them. Finally, Diffusion of Responsibility is a factor. When in a big group or a public place, most people assume that someone else will take responsibility (though this is usually not the case.) Watch the example study below:

In fact, last year in Lille, the city where I live, a woman was assaulted in a full metro car, in front of plenty of people, including many men. NO ONE did ANYTHING, even when she cried for help, even when she fled the metro.

I think everyone (myself included) is guilty of being a bystander. I think about how I am guilty every time I walk past a homeless person begging for money (and even worse, homeless children, all of whom wander around the city center of Lille. A few weeks ago I went to go pick up a friend of a friend from a metro stop, and passed a little girl urinating on a church. The person I was with was shocked but kept walking; I wanted to stop but I conformed to the norms. I went back to see if she was still there, but she had gone.

I think back to all the times I didn’t stand up to people, to all the times I didn’t tell someone to stop, to the times I just kept walking, conforming, and thinking, “It’s not my problem.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s normal and completely understandable for people to not risk their own safety when intervening in certain situations. But, nine times out of ten, there are ways to intervene without putting yourself in danger! For example, when intervening in a situation of violence or physical strength, as a woman, I know that nine times out of ten the best course of action is for me to call the police, or in the case of the woman on the metro, press the emergency button on the inside of the metro car in order to signal a problem instead of getting physically involved. However, by even doing that, I am not being a bystander, I am helping and taking action, but at the same time I am not risking my own safety. Perhaps a bigger, stronger person would or could physically intervene if they felt comfortable

The thing is, these things shouldn’t be considered heroic or amazing; they should be what is expected of people. We as a society need to step it up, and stick together to help each other.

Don’t be a bystander. Don’t be that person. We can all do better; I am surely striving to do so.



12 thoughts on “Why Is Being a Bystander Still Acceptable?

  1. Good for you, Dana! So many people just ignore other human beings and while sometimes people don’t want our help, it’s better to try — especially if something seems off or is clearly off like in the case of the woman passed out at the bar.

    I wrote about this on my blog a year or two ago (started out in the context of finding a lost dog that’s clearly someone’s pet. Bothered me so much when French people would ignore a dog that just needed a little help, but applies to much more than just that) and it seems like people don’t help for fear of getting hurt themselves (if they intervene in a dangerous situation), for liability reasons (sucks our society is so litigious) or because it’s just “not their problem.”

    Like you, if I see something that doesn’t look right, I say something. Exception would be if it’s a violent situation where I could get injured myself, then I’d just call the cops instead. I don’t know if French vs American plays into this. I thought about it myself and wondered if Americans are more likely to help or what. Sometimes I feel like French people keep to themselves and don’t get involved in personal matters, like a domestic dispute, but I always put myself in others’ shoes. Would I want the help if I was the person in need? If so, I speak up. If we can’t help others in this world, what’s the point?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Diane! I remember reading about your post in regards to dogs (I admit, I’m sometimes one to leave the dog be, but it’s not because I don’t want to help him/her, it’s because I am genuinely scared of dogs!)

      I think it’s definitely a French-American thing. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this problem of by-standing. I understand not wanting to get involved, but a passive action such as calling the cops is totally acceptable! Get involved but passively and safely (though I feel like cops can be very unresponsive in France!) I know a lot of the cars/vans were vandalized after the attacks in Paris…

  2. This was really moving to read. I’m glad you were so strong and brave to attempt to help in the situations you’ve been in. We can only hope more people start stepping up in the future. I also hope you don’t beat yourself up over attempts that aren’t accepted. You’ve already done so much more than many people have. Good on you! Bravo!

  3. Much appreciated thoughts that have crossed my mind in my first two weeks of TAPIF just outside of Lyon. Being in a new place with different cultural norms has caused me to stop and question getting involved in moments where I would almost certainly speak up in the States. This is so timely for me and just the affirmation I needed that there’s really never an excuse not reach out. Thanks!

    1. Totally agree that cultural differences and feeling outside the norm makes it harder! Nothing wrong with that but if you’re safe and have the courage, why not try? Xx

  4. Something similar happened to me during undergrad: I was walking out of a meeting in the business school and saw a girl bawling on the other side of the hall. I knew she was not okay but figured someone would go and talk to her before I could make my way to her. I decided to head in that direction anyway and was shocked to find that no one even seemed to be concerned about their classmate who was going through something so intense she couldn’t even take the time to seek privacy. I asked her if everything was alright and she told me she just learned her father had been diagnosed with cancer. We hugged it out and only had a brief conversation, but that moment has always stuck with me as one of the most memorable from my time in college. And it turns out it meant a lot to that girl too because a few months later, she posted something in our arts and culture mag’s annual “shout out” issue–anonymous posts about people on campus–to thank me for that night.

  5. This is so true. What can I say? I have often been the bystander for fear of making things worse, of incurring personal injury, of it not being ‘mes oignons’. It is no excuse, but perhaps a partial explanation to understand how deeply ingrained in the French psyche is the notion of ‘respect for private life’. It is not done to go and knock on someone’s door to ask if everything is all right during a shouting match. But it’s a fine line, and clearly that girl on the street needed help. Lucky you were there, Dana! xo

    1. I totally get that! Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do, or if you are just going to get in the way. As for personal injury I totally understand, which is why I opted to call the police when I heard the man below us hitting his wife, and her screams…instead of trying to go downstairs and break down the door. You’re right that it is perhaps very cultural… but at what expense? It’s an interesting question to ponder…

      Thanks for your comment! xo

  6. Wow, well said. I don’t understand people that ignore and or assume help is on the way. Asking if help is needed takes so little time and can make the difference in someone’s life.

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