There will often be times when it is wise to take a backseat, to keep your head down and not get involved. Some situations are best avoided, as the hassle of getting involved far outweighs any potential benefits. But, there will also be times where we are tempted to bow out, to slip quietly away and leave it to other people to sort things out when perhaps that is not the wisest strategy.
For example, there will be times when someone is being treated unfairly or in a way that undermines their dignity (bullying clearly comes into this category). We may be tempted to stand back and pretend we haven’t noticed. However, much of such bullying (and other forms of unacceptable behaviour) flourishes precisely because people do not challenge it.
I am not suggesting that you ‘cause a scene’ or put yourself at risk, but often all that is necessary is for it to be made known, subtly and gently, that you are aware of what is going on. That will often be enough to stop the behaviour from continuing. Knowing that they have at least some degree of support can also encourage the person on the receiving end to feel more confident in doing something about it – or at least not feel so isolated or vulnerable. By contrast, if we, in effect, hide we are giving the perpetrator a subtle message that what they are doing is acceptable.
Another example would be a training course I once attended. There was only one female participant and the male trainer was being consistently patronising towards her. The response from her and the other male participants was nervous laughter, which just seemed to encourage him even more. I decided that I could not let this pass, but was conscious that it could be uncomfortable for everyone (including the woman concerned) and thereby block learning if I openly made an issue of it. So, instead, every time he did it, I pointedly made eye contact, frowned and shook my head. This soon had the desired effect. I reinforced my point on the evaluation form at the end of the course. I subsequently received an email from the company who had commissioned him to say that they would not be using his services again. Let’s hope he learned the lesson from that.
But, it isn’t just bullying or discrimination that we should not hide from. I was once siting in a hotel lobby and I noticed an elderly woman try to use the revolving door. The door was moving slowly and so she pushed on it to try and make it go faster. The result was that the built-in safety feature made it stop. This made her push even more, thereby making sure that the door stayed firmly still. She was now trapped, unable to proceed and unable to go back out. I could see that she was getting distressed. I could also see a man sitting nearby who had witnessed what was going on but chose to ‘hide’, to bury his nose in his newspaper, leaving the woman at the mercy of modern technology designed to protect her. I got up to go across and tell her that she just needed to stop leaning on the door and it would start to move again, but another woman, closer to her, beat me to it, and the ordeal was quickly over. A distressed, but now relieved, person was able to escape. The ‘rescuer’, I noticed, glared at the man with his newspaper who had decided that alleviating the woman’s distress was less important than not getting involved.
As is so often the case, it is a matter of balance, neither putting ourselves at risk, nor failing to be decent citizens by hiding.