The great game of people watching.

Always a fun pastime (especially when it’s part of your job).  Next time you’re in a public place such as an airport, try this game: “Guess the Nationality”. Apart from obvious facial features and tribal dress, people from certain countries inadvertently (or purposefully) advertise where they are from. In the case of US Citizens, it can be completely blatant (clothing emblazoned with eagles and the Stars & Stripes and such) or more subtle. One of my favourite VDM’s (visual distinguishing mark) for US citizens is the humble polo shirt. There’s a curious habit of wearing a (usually white) t-shirt underneath their polo shirts.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, and if someone can explain why you’re all wearing two t-shirts then let me know please!  Security guys in transit are well known for sticking out like sore thumbs due to dress, appearance and luggage. On the carousel, when I see a battered North Face duffel bag (or even worse, a 5:11 one) doing the rounds, I look to see who collects it.  Invariably it’s a well muscled tattooed guy in his Merrell chameleon shoes and cargo pants, UnderArmor shirt, etc., loading his trolley with North Face/Sandpiper of California Bug Out bags. The point being, you are putting a big fat sign above your head advertising who you are.

Be The Grey Man

For ordinary travelers, try and ‘be the grey man’.  It’s a well rolled out phrase, but what are we talking about here? As with most things a lot of it is based around common sense principles. Unfortunately, in various countries around the world, they have a negative view of Westerners.  When you are in their country, it’s their turf. Lowering your profile means you attract less attention and thus reduce the risk (and potential threat) to yourself and others around you. In Rome a couple of years ago, with a client and his family, I spotted a serving or retired US Marine in the Colloseum. How did I recognize him as such?  Well, the NFL shorts and baggy top flagged him up as a possible US citizen, but the clincher was his USMC issued ‘cover’ and marpat backpack complete with subdued US patch, his name-tag and rank insignia! All of us (myself included), are rightly proud of our service to our countries, but the fact is there are those around the world who view us in a very negative light. The Marine was holidaying with his family.  My point being, why make it easy for those who wish you harm?  My client was a HNWI, with US Government ties, but our profile was such that no-one paid us any attention. “Absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal”, attracts peoples attention and that’s when it can go wrong.

Resource: Travel Security eLearning Course

Lowering ones profile also doesn’t mean going into ‘deep cover’ mode:

  1. Invariably you will stick out more as you will look ridiculous and
  2. This isn’t some Bond or Bourne movie!

Years ago I spent a long time working for a company in Baghdad, and we operated ‘Low Profile’. Without going into tactics, this was a great success (although invariably the flip side of this was we were shot at by ‘friendly forces’ far more than by the bad guys).  We were able to move around ‘hard’ areas freely, and we operated hand in hand with locals who forget more about their own area and customs that we could ever know (important point to remember)!  One notable exception was a trio of clowns who convinced themselves that the way to dress was to drive around looking like extras from Lawrence of Arabia! Needless to say, they stuck out like sore thumbs and it all went wrong.  Tip:  See how the locals dress and emulate that. After a couple of pointless and ridiculous incidents (that they were lucky to walk away from), they were put on a plane home.

What stood then for us still stands today:  “If they don’t even know you’re there, then they can’t get you”.

Whilst the above was operating in what was an extremely hazardous environment, there are a few take home lessons. It doesn’t take much thought to blend in a strange environment (and try to ignore media reports that seek to pander to their own agendas and become paranoid), don’t ‘flash the cash’ and also don’t reinforce a different cultures (unfounded in many cases) negative view on westerners.

Be the Grey Man (or Woman). Enjoy your trip.

Related: 5 Security Tips for Travelers

Marcus Stephens-Ofner

Marcus Stephens-Ofner

Marcus Stephens-Ofner CSC is a UK based Security Consultant who travels extensively abroad advising clients and specialises in Executive Protection and Risk Management/Business Resilience. During the 2012 London Olympic Games he was a Program Manager for a U.S. Risk Management Company and prior to that spent 8 years working overseas, mainly in Iraq as a PSD Member & then Project Manager on reconstruction Programs. His final 2 years in Iraq was as the contracted Intelligence Officer to the Embassy of Japan Baghdad. He is a Certified Security Consultant and began his career in the UK military, serving 8 years with 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards.