In February this year I had to have minor surgery on the inside of my lip. It really wasn’t a big deal- the whole procedure took about ten minutes- but at the end of it I was left with a lip that was so big I couldn’t move it effectively. I felt like Goldie Hawn at the beginning of “The First Wives Club” and looked like a partial stroke survivor. There was no hiding it, either: I had an incredibly fat lip. It took about ten days for the swelling to go down and a few months for the nerve damage to be fully repaired, and during that time I had to function basically normally, all out in public with slurred speech and a bit of a drooling problem.

One day after surgery, and I was trying to minimize how bad the swelling looked. I was unsuccessful.

Why am I sharing this story with you? Because, throughout those ten days of no-hiding-it puffiness, no one said a word to me about it. No one commented on the fact that I looked like I’d taken a real clocking, offered me resources, or even stopped me to ask if I was okay. Remember: you couldn’t tell from the outside that surgery, and not abuse, was the source of the swelling. Living in a town where people will repeatedly ask me if I’ve found Jesus if I’m wearing a rainbow bracelet, I find this particularly troublesome. It shouldn’t be that hard to ascertain if someone is safe at home.

There are so many cultural barriers around intimate partner violence, no matter where in the world we are, that it’s easy to understand why so many people ignored my fat lip entirely. It’s a private matter. It’ll make things worse if I say something. I’ll offend you or your partner, or both, by asking. I’m not permitted to talk to you because of my sex, my class status, or my profession. I don’t know anything about intimate partner violence, or prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. I don’t want to embarrass you by drawing attention to that huge wobbling lip or black eye you’re trying so desperately to hide.

It’s always fair to take these things into consideration, especially if we’re traveling in a culture that’s not our own and are afraid of violating an enormous taboo we weren’t aware of. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to engage with these topics in our own cultures because we know we’ll be violating an enormous taboo. Most of the barriers I listed above are in play in the United States and are beliefs or concerns I encounter on a daily basis in my job. However, given that approximately 25% of relationships are abusive in most Western countries, I’d rather err on the side of caution. What always pushes me into (hopefully) tactfully checking in with someone who looks a bit battered, though, is the answer to this question: is my potential embarrassment or fear worth more than the potential safety of that injured person? More often than not, the answer is no. I’d much rather have someone be upset for suggesting that their partner hurt them than miss the opportunity to connect with someone who’s isolated and in danger. Remember: if someone is being physically injured by their partner or loved one, they’ve likely been emotionally and psychologically abused by that person far longer. Your check-in might be one of the only times anyone ever shows some concern.

How do we go about this, though? How do we respectfully and safely engage with someone about their injuries? Here are some options:

  • Always try to speak with the person alone. Checking in with the partner present, if their fat lip was caused by physical violence, escalates the level of danger to the person. You can get creative with ways to get the person alone; for example, using the washroom at the same time as them or pretending they dropped something on the way out.
  • Note the injury as your reason for checking in, and then ask if the person is okay. Try not to make assumptions about the person’s circumstances. For example: “I don’t mean to pry, but I noticed your lip seems swollen and I wanted to make sure you’re okay. Are you?” It’s a lot less threatening to hear that from a stranger than to hear, “Hey, I noticed you’ve got a fat lip. Take this crisis number. Better yet, let me call it for you.” Remember, the goal is to check in, not to assume or fix.
  • Let the person tell you what their perspective is and believe it. The injury might be the result of a bar fight, a surgery, an allergy, an accident, or intimate partner violence, but it’s that person’s injury and not yours. They might not need or want your assistance, and that’s fine.
  • If they get offended that you’re asking, it’s okay to explain. Saying something like “I’m sorry, I’d rather be safe than sorry” in a genuine (not angry!) tone and then walking away is appropriate. This is adaptable to whatever culture you’re in at that point in time — Americans can get a bit personal at times, so fiddle around to find the most culturally effective way to diffuse the tension.
  • If the person does say that help is wanted, try to have the local domestic violence crisis number on hand. You can use this website to connect to resources around the world for human trafficking and domestic violence- many countries, the U.S. included, use the same central hotline for both.
  • Finally, do what you feel comfortable doing. If you aren’t comfortable asking the person directly, but note they’re with a friend, check in with the friend. If you have a friend with you, see if your friend would be comfortable doing the check-in instead. Mention it to the waitstaff, if you have to. Whatever you do, though, try to find some way- however indirect- of checking in.

At the end of the day, the other important reason for checking in is because abusers use silence as permission. When someone is visibly injured and no one speaks up, abusers see that as a free pass to do whatever they please. Silence is complicity. Wherever we are in the world, it’s our job as bystanders to speak up to keep each other from being hurt. Even if everything’s fine nine times out of ten, the world can only benefit from all of us making a collective gesture to stop tacitly permitting intimate partner violence to continue.