Staying Safe in a Hostile World
What is “keeping a low profile”? I like to call it being the gray man or gray woman and that just means you don’t dress, act or speak in a way that makes you memorable or stand out from anybody else in that environment.
It doesn’t mean you literally need to dress in gray; just try to blend in with your surroundings. If everyone is dressed in bright colors and dancing around as if it’s Mardi Gras, you need to dress and act that way, too.
You need to look around your environment and see what the norm is so you won’t be remembered as the person who didn’t look as if they belonged there. Learn to blend in the crowd.
When you move from one place to another, you need to notice what people wear and how they behave. Then, you should dress as closely to that norm as possible. And remember: Normal is relative. “Normal” in Salt Lake City will not be the same as “normal” in New York City.
In each place, people dress, speak and act in a different manner. “Normal” in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival is a whole lot different than “normal” in Baghdad.
YOU NEED TO LOOK AROUND YOUR ENVIRONMENT AND SEE WHAT THE NORM IS SO YOU WON’T BE REMEMBERED AS THE PERSON WHO DIDN’T LOOK AS IF THEY BELONGED THERE. WHEN YOU MOVE FROM ONE PLACE TO ANOTHER, YOU NEED TO NOTICE WHAT PEOPLE WEAR AND HOW THEY BEHAVE.
If you are planning to travel outside your home area, you should take some time to check out the local dress and as much else as possible about how people at your destination live and act. The Internet makes it pretty easy to get started, but you’ll need to be prepared to make some adjustments after you arrive to “step into character.”
If the locals speak another language, it’s also a good idea to pick up at least a few common phrases so you can make your way without attracting too much attention. In simple terms: Watch and learn to figure out the norm.
You should avoid acting in a way that makes you stand out from the crowd. Your goal is to go unnoticed and be forgettable. “Staying under the radar” also includes your posture and movements. Think of these as steps in a dance, and do your best to keep time with the local tempo.
Don’t speak really loudly if it’s out of the local character, because that will draw attention your way and make you stand out; the same goes for speaking too quietly for the situation. If everyone is speaking Arabic, for example, don’t speak English loudly, because that will make you stand out and possibly become a target for surveillance.
Why Is It Important to Blend In?
Your inadvertent visual cues can pique the interest of people around you. They’ll recognize an American and listen to your conversation in the hope that they can deliver a valuable target to their organization—criminal, terrorist or otherwise. Be careful not to tell the person sitting next to you where you are staying. If the wrong person overhears that information, you’ve just targeted yourself. Resist the urge to be so friendly that you wind up sharing information that someone you just met has no right or need to know.
BE CAUTIOUS WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW TO WHOM YOU’RE TALKING, WHO’S WITHIN EARSHOT, WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT YOUR EMPLOYER, YOUR OCCUPATION AND WHERE YOU’RE GOING.
Don’t make yourself look significantly different from the average person you’ll be around. One good example I recall was when I was in Mexico and saw a couple that was sorely out of place. They both wore American flag t-shirts and American flag-emblazoned shorts; in addition, they both had cameras with a big telephoto lens hanging from their necks. To top it off, they were very boisterous, loud and annoying. They seemingly worked extra hard to make it obvious they were the stereotypical crass American travelers.
Did their clothing and behavior choices, which might have been okay back home, serve to target themselves? Hell, yes! When you’re in public, especially in unfamiliar or potentially hostile environments, you do not want to attract the attention of a single panhandler, let alone the hundreds or thousands of people who might have seen these two walking through the plaza. I can’t stress this enough: Keeping a low profile is very important.
Who Would Target You?
There are a number of reasons an outsider is sought after in public places. A lot of security experts concentrate on terrorism as a prevalent motivation, because that is the “flavor of the month.”
THERE IS NO ADVANTAGE OR BENEFIT TO BE GAINED BY SHARING YOUR LIFE’S STORY WITH A STRANGER WHOM, IDEALLY, YOU WILL NEVER SEE AGAIN.
The truth is, more people are kidnapped in the world for simple monetary reasons than they are for reasons related to terror groups, political causes and many other high-profile reasons. In reality, even terrorist organizations that have fundamentalist motivations capture people for potential ransom, because that’s one of the ways they fund their operations.
Don’t Flash the Cash
Some other keys to keeping a low profile include driving plain, unremarkable vehicles people are less likely to notice as you drive by, and that includes the vehicle’s color. In both the United States and around the world, white is the most common color for motor vehicles. Don’t rent an orange car unless you want to be noticed and remembered.
In addition, don’t leave gigantic tips when you go to eat. Americans don’t realize this is one of the behaviors that calls attention to them when they travel outside the country. In our society, we consider it normal to leave gratuities of 15 to 25 percent for a good meal and service, but that is very unusual outside the United States. (In fact, in some places, leaving a tip after a meal is actually considered rude or insulting.)
Once again, understand the local customs before assuming your habits are accepted universally. What can be perceived as overpaying for a meal can mark you as a high-value target for theft or kidnapping.
Mum’s the Word
During even a simple casual conversation, you can give up a lot of information about yourself. Without thinking twice, you could share why you’re in the area and what you’re doing there; and you might even use terms that would allow others to surmise your political, social, religious or other beliefs—which might be enough to mark you as a person of interest for inquisitive minds around you. Be careful what you say when you’re chatting away to fill the time on a long flight. Be cautious when you don’t know to whom you’re talking, who is within earshot, what you say about your employer, your occupation and where you’re going.
WHAT CAN BE PERCEIVED AS OVERPAYING FOR A MEAL CAN MARK YOU AS A HIGH VALUE TARGET FOR THEFT OR KIDNAPPING.
Do your best to refrain from giving specific answers when people ask you questions, however harmless they might sound. It’s best to be as vague and uninteresting as possible without providing specific information that could identify you as a potential mark. If they know where you’re staying and how long you’re going to be there, they can make a determination at that point as to whether you’re a target worth pursuing because of the information you gave them.
A large part of keeping a low profile depends on your ability to keep your mouth shut and doing so politely. There is no advantage or benefit to be gained by sharing your life story with a stranger whom, ideally, you will never see again. Focus on simply getting from point A to point B safely and efficiently without having small talk with everyone you encounter.
A LARGE PART OF KEEPING A LOW PROFILE DEPENDS ON YOUR ABILITY TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND DOING SO POLITELY.
At the same time, don’t be rude, because that will also make you memorable. You can be nice and courteous, but if you keep your appearance and interactions as exciting and interesting as shades of gray, and you should be able to avoid becoming a victim of criminals or terrorists.
Whether you’re visiting a nearby town, another part of the country or a destination on the other side of the planet, keeping a low profile—and staying safe—is the result of becoming the gray man. By following a few simple rules, your exposure to risks should be limited, and your experience ought to be positive and uneventful.
BY FOLLOWING A FEW SIMPLE RULES, YOUR EXPOSURE TO RISKS SHOULD BE LIMITED, AND YOUR EXPERIENCE OUGHT TO BE POSITIVE AND UNEVENTFUL.
Know what to expect wherever you go, keep your head on a swivel the whole time, exhibit an appearance and demeanor that blends into your surroundings, and keep your interactions with the locals civil and benign.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.