The Benefits of Living Gray – Part One: Travel
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
As I stood on the train platform in Rotterdam awaiting the train to Amsterdam, a couple approached me and the man asked me a question in Dutch. I politely responded to them in English that I didn’t speak Dutch, so he asked me in English if this was the correct platform for the train to Amsterdam, which I affirmed it was. As the couple sat down on the bench to wait for the train, I smiled at them, and then to myself, pleased that they had not pegged me as an American. I had succeeded at my attempts to be “gray.”
The term being gray means fitting into the environment so that an observer does not see you as anomalous. The phrase infers things such as avoiding wearing bright clothing or other items that might draw attention to you, but the concept goes far beyond bright clothing and flashy accessories. It also applies to affecting behavior and demeanor that permit you to fit into the ambient flow of the place you are.
Due to my particular phenotype, it is admittedly easier for me to fade into the crowd in Rotterdam than it was when I’ve traveled to places such as Kaabong, Uganda, or Ixcan, Guatemala. It is, however, important to point out that being gray is not just a matter of ethnicity or race. One does not need to pull a Lawrence of Arabia move and dress in native garb to be gray. Even when you are an ethnic anomaly, you can still take steps to make yourself appear bland, and unappealing for untoward attention.
The goal of being gray is to present a neutral façade to outside observers so that you are perceived as neither a valuable, nor a vulnerable target. Finally, being gray is not something that only trained government agents can do. Anyone can be gray with a little research, thought and effort.
Understanding the Environment
Before one can travel gray, you must first develop a solid understanding of the environment you will be traveling to, as it is simply not possible to fade into an environment you do not understand. This includes not only knowledge of cultural and societal norms, but also the threats posed by criminals, terrorists and, if applicable, intelligence and security officers. In the Internet age, accessing information about the location you will be traveling to is easier than ever. By reviewing online television and newspaper feeds from the destination, social media channels, travel blogs, etc., one can, with a little effort, determine what is normal — and what is not — on the street in your destination.
For example, in many places men simply don’t wear shorts on the street. As a result, men who do wear shorts stand out. In other places, women who do not cover their heads stand out. Knowing these things ahead of time allows you to pack, and behave, accordingly.
I’d like to pause here and point out that this is not an issue of your freedom to do as you please. You are free to stand out if you so choose, but there are consequences to doing so. Sometimes we must voluntarily surrender some of our freedoms if we want to conform to cultural and societal norms in the places we are visiting. Callously offending cultural norms is a highly effective means of drawing attention to oneself, and that attention will often be of the negative variety.
In every city, whether Chicago or Cairo, there are places that are less safe than others. Sometimes the threat in an area can vary depending on the hour. A neighborhood that is fairly safe at 2:00 p.m. may be highly dangerous at 2:00 a.m. It is important to understand where, when, and how criminals operate. Again, there are a number of great sources available that can provide this type of information for travelers. I generally review the Crime and Safety reports that are published by the U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), along with the travel guidance provided by the U.S., U.K., Canadian and Australian governments.
I like to review and compare advice from several countries, not only to see if there are differences in the threat level they assign, but to also look for more granular data. For example, before one trip I noted that the UK FCO advisory for the country mentioned an emerging express kidnapping threat that the U.S. and Canadian advisories did not. In some parts of the world it is also helpful to review travel advice from the French, German, or other relevant governments.
An understanding of the laws in your destination country is also important. For example, in some countries it is illegal to travel with a satellite phone or GPS device, and doing so may get you arrested, or at the very least your device confiscated. Know the host country’s laws before you travel.
Clothing and Accessories
While you can’t change your phenotype, you can change your clothing and accessories to make you grayer. Because of this, I generally advise travelers to avoid wearing clothing that immediately identifies them as Americans or that contains potentially offensive messages. I must admit that I am often shocked by some of the incredibly offensive things I see Americans wearing while traveling abroad – and Brits and Aussies are often nearly as bad.
As far as colors are concerned, if it is common for people to wear hot colored clothing on the street, it may be OK for you to wear such colors, but I attempt to wear neutral-colored clothing. Studies have shown that people pay more attention to individuals wearing hot colors than those wearing neutral colors.
I also generally advise that people avoid wearing tactical or military clothing while abroad. Little draws the attention of a cop or soldier more quickly than spotting someone who is dressed like an operator. This can result in you receiving increased attention from host country security and intelligence personnel if they see your tactical clothing and believe you may be some sort of spy or mercenary. I love my 5.11 gear but leave it behind when I travel abroad.
The same goes for camouflage; while it is becoming more common for civilians to wear it abroad in some places, I believe it attracts unwanted attention and avoid it when I travel. This principle also extends to accessories. Don’t haul that tactical backpack with the MOLLE webbing, your blood type, and a big carabiner on it overseas with you.
But accessories that identify you as an American are not the only thing that can attract negative attention. Flashy jewelry, watches, cameras, electronics, and other expensive items can also make you a tempting target for thieves. You may not think twice about the gold chain you wear around your neck, but in some parts of the world that chain can be worth a couple months’ average wages. Think about the items you take with you from the point of view of the local inhabitants: Is it really wise for you to wear that expensive Rolex watch in a heavily impoverished country? As I have long noted, criminals will take far more chances for a Rolex than they will for a Timex.
Flashing cash is also a bad idea. I suggest breaking up your cash into smaller quantities kept in different places, and only pulling out the quantity you need for a specific public transaction.
Just as important as what you wear, and carry is how you behave – your demeanor. In my experience, it is generally easy to spot an American in a crowd, even if they are not wearing American flag garb. The stereotype of the “ugly American” tends to be uncomfortably true, and Americans are inclined to be boisterous and loud—even more so when alcohol is involved. In many instances you can hear Americans before you can even see them, and then when you can see them, they tend to stand out due to their swagger and cultural insensitivity. Such behavior is the antithesis of gray and should be avoided.
Another important element of demeanor is situational awareness. Situational awareness, being aware of one’s surroundings, not only helps you behave in accordance with the environment around you, but it also helps you see potential threats as they are emerging so you can take action to avoid them. Hostile actors such as criminals and terrorists prefer to select targets that are oblivious to what is going on around them. This provides them the element of tactical surprise, making it easier to attack their targets. Thus, criminals and terrorists tend to avoid selecting people who practice good situational awareness. In many instances, if you show a criminal that you have recognized them and then take action to avoid them, they will divert to a less aware target.
However, I caution against such behavior when you are in a situation in which the person or people surveilling you are the government. Confronting them or using some sort of gimmick to ditch government surveillance will only anger them and cause them to redouble their efforts to monitor your activities because they might conclude you are an intelligence officer. If you are under government surveillance go about your activities normally. This is especially relevant in countries such as China and Russia, where the host country is carefully monitoring American visitors to identify any American intelligence officers who may be operating under nonofficial cover.
Where you stay during your trip can also have an impact on your degree of grayness. Thieves will frequently stake out high-profile hotels as they search for targets. Western-branded hotels have also been hit repeatedly by terrorist attacks. Because of this, I prefer to stay in a lower-profile hotel away from the main tourist zone if I can identify one with appropriate security for the threat environment.
Being gray also applies to recreational activities and exercise. There are some places where local people simply don’t run on the street. In such an environment this may mean running on a treadmill or doing the steps in the hotel stairwell rather than being the only person on the street running. Besides, as one American demonstrated in 2013, choosing to run on the street in a location such as Benghazi could cost you your life.
I hope I’ve made a convincing case here that being gray is indispensable while traveling and is worth the required effort. However, I also strongly believe that being gray is very valuable to the rest of our lives. Because of this, I will be writing two additional segments in this series on living gray. The second installment will discuss being gray at home, and the third will address being gray on the Internet.