I ran into a rather nasty one this past weekend. I was out with a close friend at a party and could very clearly hear people making exceptionally nasty homophobic and transphobic comments, up to and including threats of physical violence towards us. My friend and I are both queer, and she's trans.

While it was as disgusting as that sort of thing always is, what really bothered me most about it was seeing people I'd hung out with earlier in the evening sitting with these horrible people and doing absolutely nothing to stop it. Like these people claimed to want to be friends and hangout with us in the future, and they were in a position to put a stop to it, they could have said something about it, but didn't. To be clear, the bystanders weren't outnumbered, they were straight identitified, and seemed somewhat aquainted with the bigots.

What made it worse was having these people come up to us again later and continue this whole song and dance about wanting to be friends and hang out again...

I know hateful people will be hateful. If my friend and I had confronted the people who were being hateful to begin with it would have almost certainly escalated the situation toward violence. But the "friendly" bystanders did almost as much damage. The way they didn't even acknowledge the situation, not with the bigots, not even with us after we said something to them about how rude the bigots had been. It was like they wanted to pretend that they hadn't been listening to the bigots, hadn't been sitting right there, awkwardly laughing along with the hateful comments, laughing like they hadn't ever met us.

Part of me wanted to unload on the friendly bystanders... I wanted to hit them square in the face with all the pent up rage from the experience. The other part of me knew better. They were probably uncomfortable about the whole experience. They were probably afraid to say or do anything. That's probably why they were being extra special friendly afterwards.

All they would have had to do was say something, a simple "hey, chill out, they're friends of ours" could have ended it. Instead it went on until the bigots left the party.

So, my question is, how do I encourage the "friendly" bystanders to do the right thing in situations like these in the future?


  • The bystanders were friends of my close friend. Not super close friends, but people she had partied with before.

  • The people making hateful comments were not friends, or even aquaintences. Just people who happened to be at the same party.

  • This situation draged on for roughly an hour.

  • As usually happens with these things, the comments started small and gradually got worse, eventually leading to threats of physical violence.

  • Intervention could have, and probably should have, happened long before things escalated to threats.

  • Something as simple as changing the subject probably could have worked, if the bystanders had intervened early in the escalation.

  • I doubt the bystanders would have been in any physical danger. Again, the bystanders outnumbered the bigots, were straight identitified, and seemed to be aquainted with the bigots.

  • Given that many of the bystanders were friends of my friend, and that they wanted to be friendly both before and after the incident, there's no reason to believe that these bystanders were also opposed to trans or queer people.

  • The goal here is to encourage bystanders to de-escalate situations like this in the future.

  • 15
    @Steve As is clearly in the question, these were hateful comments, ending in threats of violence. That isn't a joke. I don't see any indication of the question implying that these people were joking. You've had clarification from the author of this question on that part two times now too, please now back off and respect the premise, and stop arguing that these 'might have been jokes'. You weren't there, apaul was.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 19:38

7 Answers 7


In the Moment

I don't think there is much you can do while actually in the moment that is safe. There is a lot of context that can change the situation. For example, if alcohol is involved I would be a lot less direct than if they were sober. The one thing that I would suggest to try no matter the context would be to make direct eye contact with a friend and stare. Make them feel guilty for not speaking up. Shame is very powerful in our society and direct eye contact might make them take action, which is similar to why people won't do deviant things in public (usually) because of the shame that will follow.

You can also mention this to the staff for them to deal with. Making physical threats toward someone isn't acceptable no matter who it is on the receiving end, and the manager is perfectly equipped to handle this. This isn't exactly an IPS solution but it might be the one that works the best.

Approaching the group to try and talk with your friends can be risky, as the hostile members could possibly see this as a threat. I stress the word "could" because, as I stated above, it varies wildly from person to person and if alcohol is involved, along with a bunch of other factors. I wouldn't recommend this unless you are 100% confidant and comfortable doing so.

After the Incident

Mention the incident to your friends and explain how it made you feel when they are being "extra special friendly" with you. Let them know that you want them to speak up if this happens again, using "I feel..." statements to avoid direct confrontation.

It sounds like they might want to speak up, but are intimidated by the hostile people, or because of public shame. During my times in restaurants I have witnessed many people become hostile at other patrons or servers and start yelling, all the while their family or others with them will look away as to try not to be associated with the actions of the loud person. This could be the reason why your friends don't want to speak up in public, but I can't be certain. Ask them why they didn't stand up for you (if you wish to be a bit more confrontational) and see what their responses are.


What you are describing is called the Bystander Effect, and it is a well known psychological phenomena. In other word's you're right: They wanted to intervene, but there were too many other people there for them to feel able to do so.

Luckily, this is one of the few cases where "where telling people about a bias actually seems able to strongly reduce it", so the solution is simple: Explain the problem to the friendly bystanders, and next time they will intervene.

This might not be the only reason, but other people have covered the other social aspects pretty well, and I'd be shocked if the bystander effect didn't have at least some bearing.

If you want to learn more, I recommend: Why Don't People Help Others More? and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion


Before you confront your "friends" consider some of the following:

  1. Do you think they perceive the abuse the same way you perceived it? Perhaps they thought it was more good-natured than it was. If so, focus on educating them about how it felt for you, so that next time they'll know it's serious and they should say something -- or contact the bouncer, the club manager, or even the police, if the situation warrants.

  2. Are they naturally reserved or shy people who would not step forward to assert themselves in any situation, much less one that might lead to physical confrontation? If so, recognize they are people who are never going to have your back. Appreciate them for their attractive qualities, but don't expect them to stand with you against bigotry and intolerance.

  3. Are they really people you want to be friends with? If not, don't bother trying to teach them anything. Walk away and hang out with a better class of people.

Honestly, people who enable bigots are not really my cup of tea, even if they're only milquetoasts doing it out of innate cowardice. They'd have to have some other admirable qualities to make me want to have anything more to do with them.

But if none of the above seem to apply, then I'd deal with it calmly, and try to get their perspective on why they failed to act. Something like:

Hey John, the other night when we were at the club and those guys were harassing me and my friend, I thought it was pretty weird you let them go on and on and didn't say anything. What's up with that?

Even if they say some rationalization to excuse their behavior, like they didn't think it was their fight, well ... now you know who they really are, and can choose whether to continue enjoying their company. There's nothing wrong with what I call a contextual friend, for whom you admire their virtues, and accept (and work around) their faults.

  • 3
    I realise there are lots of different responses and scenarios and I am not expecting you to list every possibility but could you give us a general idea on how you would go about encouraging them to stand up once you have gotten their perspective? or is getting their perspective the encouragement in itself? I feel like this answer needs something at the end to specifically address OP's actual question which is about encouraging them to do the right thing.
    – Jesse
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 0:53
  • 1
    @Jesse Well, as you say, I can't list every possible scenario. But I can think of two possibilities off the top of my head. 1) They didn't think it was their fight, or 2) They were intimidated by the bigoted people in the group. For the first, you have to find an argument that convinces them otherwise, which can vary depending on their personal convictions. There's always Martin Niemöller's famous quote as an opener, but you never know if that'll have an impact.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 4:52
  • 2
    @Jesse You might have a better time with something simpler, like "Don't let the idiots win". Meanwhile, with the second, let's say they told you that one of the bigoted people was their boss, and yes, they know he's a jerk, and they hate working for him, but they really need the job. It's difficult to tell someone they have to sacrifice their livelihood to uphold some moral principle, especially one that they aren't personally invested in. We each have to make our own choices about these kind of things, and then live with the consequences.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 6:01

Why didn't the bystanders do anything? Could it be for the same reason that you didn't do anything? Your question says:

If my friend and I had confronted the people who were being hateful to begin with it would have almost certainly escalated the situation toward violence.

Right. The bystanders probably felt the same way. They were scared to step forward. Every single one of them didn't know if anyone would support them if they stepped forward, or if they'd be left on their own.

how do I encourage the "friendly" bystanders to do the right thing in situations like these in the future?

Give them something to rally round. Everyone is scared of being the first person to step forward, people are much more likely to be the second. If you step forward and say something, you might find that some bystanders will support you. And once a few support you, more might.

It's not guaranteed to work. The bystanders might still feel too scared. But it's an idea.

As an aside, as it doesn't actually answer your question, I think you're being harsh on the bystanders. You're judging them for being human. We've had plenty of questions here on IPS along the lines of "This person in my office/pub/etc. makes racist/homophobic/offensive jokes. How do I tell him that it't not ok?" The reason we get these questions is that ordinary everyday people don't know how to deal with offensive people.


The bigots work by assuming everyone agrees with them. Talk as if everyone agrees with you

In large groups few people will stand up to make a target of themselves if they think that their position is identical to those around them (see deindividuation ). They're unlikely to stand up and state their views so they let the bigot's assumptions speak for them.

If you know they think otherwise then state this too.

Bigot: "[bigoted remark]"

You: "Just stop, you're embarrassing yourself, no one else here has a problem with us."

You've now put the same effect to your own advantage - just as no one wanted to focus attention on themselves by standing up for you its also very unlikely someone will stand up and refute it your claim they have no problem with you.

Now this doesn't make them 'step up' (i.e. put the spotlight on themselves) but at the same time you've shifted the weight so you aren't alone.

It will also encourage people that actually they aren't alone in supporting you and this could give them the extra push they need to speak up.


In general, it is always hard to get others involved in these kind of situations - it requires courage on their part.. We even have a word in German, mainly used to describe a lack thereof: "Zivilcourage"

Keep in Mind:

... comments, up to and including threats of physical violence towards us.

Will likely not have given them the impression that this is true:

All they would have had to do was say something, a simple "hey, chill out, they're friends of ours" could have ended it.

Most people will shy away from entering into a conflict, especially one with potential violence involved, when they have no direct stakes in it. The most effective method know to me to get them involved, is to address them directly. Focus them and ask them to help you / to reinforce you.

(experience: one public racist attack, one public robbery)

Now, I´m not quite sure, but from your post it reads as if there was no direct interaction between you and the bigots, so you did not have a open conflict where you could have had bystanders involved. Instead you´d hoped they had spoken up for you? (Please correct me if I got that wrong)

So, my question is, how do I encourage the "friendly" bystanders to do the right thing in situations like these in the future?

First, you have to make room for the possibility that they might have a different definition of "the right thing". Now, I am with you on this, but I also have had accusations of needlessly escalating at a party when I didn´t let a racist comment pass. Some people may think this is not a good setting to get confrontational. A good middle ground could be to get the Host involved - let him make clear what kind of guests and behavior he tolerates at his party.

Second, you could have a discussion with them on where and how to speak up. You don´t have to make it about them. Just a friendly exchange of opinions about moral courage in general makes a good talking point at a party. That way the´ll get to know your point of view, without getting confrontational.

Last, lead by example. The most influential thing for me, that got me to stand up for others more, was seeing a friend do it. There are lot´s of opportunities - racism, bigotry, or just badmouthing of an acquaintance who isn´t there to defend himself. Learn how to do it peacefully and effectively yourself, and you´ll influence others!


I think the best thing you can do if you hope to actually influence their future behaviour is lead them in what they probably should be doing by your own example. If they approach you all keen to be friends, tell them you cannot have anything to do with people who react with awkward politeness to intimations of violence against you. And if you've communicated what you were disappointed in as well as you can, actually avoid engaging with them further. They've already shown they'll handwave away anything that's just words.

Being too afraid to be the person who speaks up and contradicts bad behaviour in the moment is one thing. You and your friend were in that situation for the sake of your own safety. But laughing along with someone behaving badly, and then pretending to the people hurt that none of it happened when they were right there, is something else. These people know their acquaintances' behaviour is horrible. They are shamelessly two-faced and they think they can get away with it. Probably because they do a lot of the time. I don't know anything about the wider social context in this situation but I've spent a bit of time in some relatively wealthy and privileged social circles, and it's amazing what people who have social power will say and do and get away with. It seems it's seen as polite to not call attention to bad behaviour, and there are people who exploit this (your hateful group), or are happy to benefit from it (the 'friendly' bystanders who don't want to take responsibility for the people they choose to associate with).

Why do they want so badly to be friendly with you? They've already shown it's not because they are interested in caring about you as people with feelings. Wildly speculating now, but perhaps it's so they can say something like, 'okay, but even if my other acquaintances are bigots I'm not like them, I have queer friends.' Whatever the exact reason, you deserve better than to feed someone's desire to believe they aren't doing anything wrong. If you demand better, even if you can't bring about any sort of understanding in these people, you may force them to confront the fact that they can't both behave as they have been and have token minorities in their social circles to validate them. I think that's the most anyone can do to encourage behaviour change in anyone.

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