Picture of Palesa Mashinini

Palesa Mashinini

About the Author: I am an advocate for personal safety, and I am passionate about all things personal development.

What is an Upstander vs bystander?

In social situations, there are often people who stand by and watch while others are being treated unjustly or experiencing harm. These individuals are known as bystanders. Bystander behavior is a well-documented phenomenon known as the bystander effect. This refers to the tendency for individuals to be less likely to help in a situation where others are present, assuming that someone else will intervene instead. On the other hand, there are those who take action to intervene and defend the person being targeted, known as upstanders. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial in creating a safer and more just society.

Understanding the Power of Being an Upstander

Upstanders have the power to make a positive impact and create change in their communities. It is important to note that being an upstander is not always easy and may come with personal risks, but it is a crucial step in creating a safer and more just society. Bystanders have the power to be upstanders. Additionally, it is important to remember that it is not only physical harassment that needs to be addressed but also cyberbullying and discrimination. Being an upstander can mean standing up against discrimination of all forms, including racism, sexism, and homophobia. You can perform an upstander self-assessment by relying on your instincts, considering your values, and asking yourself the questions “Is this appropriate?” or “If I were in that situation, would I accept such conduct?” If the response is negative, take action!

How to Become an Upstander, proactively?


Have you ever witnessed a situation where someone was being harassed or bullied, but you didn’t know how to respond? Here are 4 ways you can become an upstander and provide assistance proactively.

  1. One way to intervene is by distracting the harasser while engaging with the target. Firstly, always ask for the target’s consent before intervening. They may have their own strategies or preferences for handling the situation. You can ask the target if they’re okay, need help, or know the harasser. Another approach is to pretend you know the target and start a casual conversation with them. You can ask questions such as; “Hey, how are you, I missed class today and wanted to ask if you can share your notes with me”, or, “Hey, I didn’t see you during our lunch break today, keen to catch up for coffee now”? Be creative! These actions can provide the target with an opportunity to leave the situation safely. Remember, even a small effort can make a big difference in someone’s life.
  2. Only if you feel comfortable and are safe doing this, you could confront the harasser directly and give them feedback. The following phrases are examples and can be effective in communicating that certain behavior is unacceptable:
    • Stop!
    • Help is on the way!
    • That is not okay!
    • This is not acceptable.
    • You can clearly see she is uncomfortable, why would you say/do something like that?
    • She said No, please respect her boundaries!

    Being brave enough to stand up to harassment is a powerful way to create a safer environment.

  3. While implementing tip two, you can take out your phone discreetly and record the conversation or take a video so you can have evidence. This can be helpful if the situation escalates, but it’s important to remember to prioritize your safety at all times.
  4. It’s crucial to check the target’s well-being and safety after the incident. Ask if they need any help or support and if they want to report the incident. Showing empathy and support can make all the difference for them to process the situation.

How to Become an Upstander, discreetly?


As an active bystander, you have the power to intervene and help without putting yourself in danger. Let’s take a look at 4 ways to become an upstander discreetly, and still make a difference.

  1. If you’re hesitant to intervene directly, you can still make a difference by asking others to help you. Call out to other bystanders and encourage them to assist you in stopping the harassment. You could say something like “this is not right, let’s intervene together” or “this situation is unacceptable, we have to do something”. You can delegate tasks, such as calling the police, alerting supervisors, recording the incident with your phone (and not being a bystander by watching what is happening through your phone), and de-escalating the situation by getting others involved. This simple yet effective action plan can create a ripple effect of positive change among those witnessing the situation.
  2. In case you’re unsure and want to act quickly, use a personal self-defence alarm keychain. Pulling the pin on will activate a 140-decibel ear-piercing sound and radiate up to 200 meters, which can attract attention to the situation, cause a temporary moment of distraction, and help you evaluate the situation while creating a safe distance from the harasser. This can potentially lead to utilizing the first tip, by encouraging others to help stop the harassment.
  3. In a public place, seek out a security guard or a store employee for assistance. They are trained to handle situations like these and can help protect you and the target from harm.
  4. Even if you don’t want to put yourself in the center of that situation, you can still check on the target’s well-being and safety after the incident. Ask if they need any help or support and if they want to report the incident. This extended support as an upstander goes a long way.

Prioritizing Your Mental Health as an Upstander: Why It’s Important


As an upstander, it is crucial to prioritize your mental health. Witnessing uncomfortable or potentially traumatic situations can take a toll on your emotional well-being. While it is important to help those in need, it’s equally important to take care of yourself. Remember, you don’t have to handle the weight of the situation alone. Reach out to a friend, family member, or mental health professional for support. Taking care of your mental health as an upstander not only benefits you but also helps you to better support those around you. So, take a deep breath and make sure to focus on your own well-being too!

How RightToBe’s Bystander Intervention Training Helps Create Safer Communities

Right To Be offers bystander intervention training to help people develop the skills to safely and effectively intervene in situations of harm. The training teaches individuals how to recognize harmful situations, choose appropriate interventions, and create a safer environment for everyone. I personally have participated in their training and can definitely recommend it. And no worries, it’s free and definitely well-invested time. Follow this link for more information.

Making A Difference Through Active Engagement by Becoming an Upstander


In conclusion, being a bystander can perpetuate the cycle of harm and injustice, while being an upstander can make a positive impact and create change. By educating yourself, speaking out, being an ally, and calling for help when needed, you can become an upstander and make a difference in your community. It’s important to be proactive and to take action when you see someone being treated unjustly or experiencing harm. A little bit of kindness goes a long way.


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