Picture the scene – you’re in the cinema, ready to watch the next instalment of your favourite film franchise. As the opening credits roll, the person behind you starts talking loudly on their phone and kicking the back of your seat. How do you feel? And more specifically, are you bothered by their behaviour? The likelihood of course is that you’re extremely bothered – they’re disrupting your cinema experience. But what about if they were just whispering on their phone, or if the seat kicking was just an occasional tap? Or maybe they move to be closer to their mate, and now it’s not your seat that’s being kicked anymore, its someone else’s a few seats down. Are you still bothered?
Why does this matter?
The type of things that we notice and are bothered by affect the way that we respond to the world around us. Berkowitz (2010) noted that if we personally find a particular behaviour bothersome, we’re more likely to notice when it happens and take action to address it.
Deitch-Stackhouse et all (2015) explored this link further by investigating exactly how bothered someone must be by something, for them to regularly intervene. They found that there was a significant step up in willingness to intervene when people went from being ‘moderately bothered’ by a situation to ‘very bothered’. So essentially, we have to think that something is pretty bad in order for us to consistently notice it and think about intervening. This works reasonably well when behaviours do meet that ‘bothering’ threshold, such as someone committing assault or stealing another person’s property. These behaviours would be considered problematic to most people, usually generating a response of “this is not okay and someone should do something”. In a traffic light system, of red, amber and green, these would be considered red behaviours i.e. clearly problematic.
The traffic light analogy is a useful way to consider a range of possible behaviours across a spectrum of how problematic they are. In 2014, Brook adapted a traffic light tool from Family Planning Queensland (2012) to reflect the spectrum of behaviours in young people from unacceptable ‘red’ behaviours such as sexual harassment to more acceptable ‘green’ behaviours, such as mutually consensual hugging with peers. Essentially green behaviours are considered safe and healthy, while red behaviours are not. But what about the amber behaviours that do not fall neatly into either red or green?
The Hackett Continuum (2010) in Barter & Berridge, 2010 suggests that amber behaviours are those which have the potential to fall outside of safe and healthy behaviours, and can be affected by a range of factors, including context, age, and the vulnerability of those concerned. This can make it much more challenging to notice and correctly identify these behaviours when they happen. They can also generate a lower level of ‘bother’, resulting in little or no action being taken (remember Deitch-Stackhouse et al.’s finding from earlier that someone needed to be ‘very bothered’ by something to consistently notice and intervene). There are two options for responding to this challenge from the perspective of preventing problematic behaviour: (1) focus on addressing only the red behaviours and accept that amber behaviours are often going to be overlooked or (2) increase awareness of amber behaviours and encourage a culture where people are more bothered by them, so they are more likely to notice and intervene.
The argument for the second option is that red and amber behaviours are not separate entities. They are intrinsically linked, and a healthy culture does not include either type of behaviour, therefore increasing awareness and ‘bother’ towards amber behaviours is an important part of the prevention of violence and abuse. Steven Connell’s powerful spoken work piece ‘We Are The Lions’ includes the observation that there is often is a link between the things that we don’t have a problem with, and the things that we do, which speaks to the idea that people can often ignore or ‘shrug off’ amber behaviours as they are not deemed to be bad enough, failing to recognise that they can contribute to a culture of red behaviours. For example, someone laughing when their friend shares a sexist WhatsApp message may not feel like a big deal – they may justify it by saying it’s just a joke or that it’s not serious enough to result in any consequences for the sender (e.g. “I wouldn’t want my mate to lose out on his placement just for having a laugh”). The question then becomes: where is the line? What would it take for that person to stop brushing it off and meet Deitch-Stackhouse et al.’s threshold of being ‘very bothered’ – when a specific person was named in the message? When the sexist ‘jokes’ were made in front of others? When female friends leave a night out early because they feel so uncomfortable by the sexist ‘banter’? There has to be a line somewhere, and in order to a achieve a culture where problematic behaviour is not tolerated, the noticing and feeling bothered enough to act must start with the amber behaviours rather than waiting for the red.
There is no way to compile an exhaustive of possible amber behaviours as it encompasses so many possibilities, but essentially it is those behaviours which make someone feel uncomfortable, or would make them uncomfortable if it was directed at them or those they cared about. Of course, problematic behaviour should not be acceptable regardless of who it is directed at, but using the ‘would I feel uncomfortable if it was directed at me/my friends …?’ strategy can be an effective way to encourage people to notice behaviours that might otherwise be brushed off or go under the radar.
How to respond to amber behaviours
The short answer is to do something – be an active bystander. There is often a misperception when it comes to bystander intervention that to intervene means to be loud and accusatory “You are doing something wrong, and I am calling you out on it!” However, that is simply not the case. Being prepared to speak up and address amber behaviours simply means doing something when you encounter them. That might be having a conversation with a friend, adding a comment in a WhatsApp group that you don’t think something’s okay, or even noting that you’ll be muting the group for a while. You could also use indirect methods of intervention, such as having a conversation with a tutor, coach, or committee chair to discuss any concerns. You might distract or interrupt a situation to stop it progressing, or just ask the people around you if they also feel uncomfortable with something. Often all it takes is for one person to say they feel uncomfortable, for others to feel able to admit that that they feel the same.
Flood (2011) suggested a range of specific actions that could be taken to challenge problematic behaviours, including lower level ‘amber’ behaviours:
- Ask for an explanation – the phrase ‘what do you mean?’ can be really impactive here as it requires the speaker to explain what they have just said. A sexist joke can quickly lose its humour if they are required to explain the problematic tropes contained within it.
- Express your disagreement – This can be as simple of saying ‘that’s not right/okay’. If you don’t want to be confrontational in the moment, Khan (2015) suggested the phrase “I’m not interested in having this conversation right now, but it’s important for you to know that I am not okay with what you just said”. This would work face to face or as a written message e.g., on WhatsApp
- Explain why you disagree with the behaviour – Khan suggested the example phrase “what you’re saying is not only untrue, but is also harmful”. You can acknowledge that they may have meant it as a joke, then note the possible effects e.g. “I think comments like that contribute to our female friends feeling less safe around us on nights out so I think we need to be more careful”
- Personalise the injustice – Virginia Tech (2010) noted that a useful phrase to help personalise behaviours is “I hope no one ever talks about you like that”. You could also ask how they would feel if some behaved that way towards their friends/partner/family member.
- Use impact and ‘I’ statements – this involves stating how you feel, naming the amber behaviour and noting how you want them to respond e.g. “I was annoyed when you made that comment on a night out and caused our friend to leave early. Don’t do that any more or we won’t invite you on nights out”.
- Encourage their best self – use the phrase ‘come on, you’re better than that” (Be The Hero, 2009)
- Use your friendship – e.g. you could say ‘as your friend, I need to tell you that showing everyone the pictures that your girlfriend sent you in private is not okay and you could get into a lot of trouble.
- Invite the group to be allies – a good phrase to use here is “I don’t feel right about this. Does anyone else feel uncomfortable?” (Be the Hero, 2009)
These suggested actions align with the ‘Maate’ campaign launched by the Mayor of London in July 2023, where men were encouraged to challenge problematic behaviour from their friends by using the term “maate”. This campaign focused on the premise that many men and boys want to intervene when they see sexism and misogyny, but don’t necessarily know exactly what to say or how to start the conversation. Having a specific term to use, such as “maate”, or using some of the phrases suggested by Flood above, can mean that bystanders don’t have to come up with something in the moment, and instead can rely on an existing bank of suitable phrases and interventions.
By committing to these types of actions, every single person can start to challenge amber behaviours, often before they have the chance to turn into red ones, and in doing so, we become part of a culture where there is a clear message that violence and abuse, however low-level, will not be tolerated.
This blog ends with a challenge – the next time you’re in a situation where you feel a little uncomfortable, even if you’re not sure why, channel Catherine Tate’s famous teenage character Lauren, and ask yourself “am I bothered?” And if you find that you are, even if the behaviour is only amber rather than red, make the decision to act
Dr Gillian Harrop
Dr Gill Harrop is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Worcester and leads the UW Bystander Intervention Programme. She is a member of the Trauma & Violence Prevention research theme within the Interpersonal Relationships Wellbeing Research Group. Further details of Gill’s work can be found at https://www.worcester.ac.uk/about/profiles/dr-gillian-harrop