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The Benefits of Living Grey – Part One: Travel

Living grey - Fitting into the environment so that an observer does not see you as anomalous. Scott Stewart, Vice President of TorchStone Global and protective intelligence practitioner discusses how athletes can take steps to protect themselves and an invulnerable target when travelling in different environments.

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 “grey.”

The term being grey 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 behaviour and demeanour 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 travelled to places such as Kaabong, Uganda, or Ixcan, Guatemala. It is, however, important to point out that being grey 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 grey. 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 grey is to present a neutral façade to outside observers so that you are perceived as neither a valuable, nor a vulnerable target. Finally, being grey is not something that only trained government agents can do. Anyone can be grey with a little research, thought and effort.

Understanding the Environment

Before one can travel grey, 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 neighbourhood 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 travellers. 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 greyer. Because of this, I generally advise travellers 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 colours are concerned, if it is common for people to wear hot coloured clothing on the street, it may be OK for you to wear such colours, but I attempt to wear neutral-coloured clothing. Studies have shown that people pay more attention to individuals wearing hot colours than those wearing neutral colours.