As we return to recreational travel mode (local or international) after two years of restrictions and relative isolation, it is vital that we re-indoctrinate ourselves with a few essential situational awareness skills.
In this series, we will be discussing the various aspects of situational awareness such as establishing baselines - a definition of "normal" which helps us to quickly identify any anomalies and allows us to take the appropriate action.
Here's a newsflash: bad guys practice situational awareness, too, and are usually on the lookout for things (objects or people) that could present an easy opportunity to them. It is therefore vital that we do not inadvertently set ourselves out as targets right off the bat... When in unfamiliar places, we need to practice the art of blending in.
The “grey man approach” is a term used in military and intelligence circles which refers to a person’s ability to blend into an environment and move among the population unnoticed. It refers to the bland colour of grey but it doesn’t necessarily mean wearing only grey clothing. It actually encompasses a number of adjustments that one takes to blend in, including the type and colour of the clothes you wear, the demeanour you present and the movements you make.
In essence, it is the application of the golden rule of spycraft: Blend in and try not to draw attention to yourself in any way. It is a skillset used by operatives in surveillance, counter-surveillance and espionage, but can also be easily modified and adapted to everyday life for your own personal safety.
As some of you are aware, I used to travel regularly travel for business and would often go to areas where I don’t speak the native language and may not have had the time to carry out some ground reconnaissance to get the lay of the land around my hotel and around the offices I may be working at. Still, my goal was always to look comfortable in the area and to appear like a local just going about my day. To effectively do this, I need smooth, fluid movements to look like I know exactly where I am and where I am going.
This doesn't happen by accident and a bit of preparation goes a long way. I will need to do some homework like study a street map to get the most direct route from my hotel to the office. If available, I would use Google Streetview to get a visual on my routes and put a pin on landmarks that would help identify key points along the way that might mark turns and which direction I would go.
Once I leave my hotel, I know exactly which direction I am headed, and will navigate by sight to get to my destination. I would appear to be just like another local going about their business. Using big landmarks allows me to clear the path ahead without having to constantly be on the lookout for street signs. This frees most of my senses up to practice other situational awareness practices like soaking up the environment to establish a baseline.
And because I don’t particularly stand out, it helps me to fly under the radar of street criminals looking for victims, whether that be robbery, pick pocketing or violent assaults.
The colour grey is associated with being dull, boring and often overlooked. This applies to how you act and how you look, and clothing actually plays an important factor in moving about an area unnoticed.
Do some prep work with regard to your destination – have some knowledge of the culture of the place that you are visiting. What are the typical types of clothing that people wear here everyday? What is the social status of the majority of people on the street? What is the weather like? What is the primary local religious belief? Are there any complete no-no’s when it comes to clothing?
When you have gathered some basic information, you will want to choose bland, neutral colours like grey (duh), tan, brown, black, dark blue and wear a mixture of these. The goal is to avoid anything that draws the attention of the eye, like clothing with large logos or insignias, any sports team associated clothing, specially local or rival teams, and avoid wearing bright and flamboyant colours. Reduce your accessories down to the necessities – your watch, sun/eye glasses and a wedding ring and leave the rest of the bling at home.
Attention attracts attention, and any of that could provide an opportunity for a local to engage you in conversation. It could be someone who is genuinely interested, or a bad guy looking for a mark. And it won’t take much of a conversation to reveal the fact that you are not a local.
Be dull, boring and overlooked. It might not make for the best travel stories, but if you've ever had to replace credit cards and/or a passport while on vacation, with no valid IDs to verify your identity (because they were stolen), you'll learn to appreciate dull, boring and overlooked.