S9 The Basics
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S9 The Basics

How to disappear

How you can better blend in to your environment to reduce the risk that you may be targeted by criminals, kidnappers, or terrorists.

Alley cat in Damascus, Syria. February 2020. Photo by Grant Rayner.

In an earlier article I discussed the concept of lowering your profile when operating in higher-risk environments. Maintaining a low profile is an important technique to manage your risk exposure. A key aspect of maintaining a low profile is your ability to blend in to your environment.

Blending in is another piece of conventional travel security advice you’ll hear a lot. But how does one actually blend in?

How does a six foot four blonde haired Swedish man blend in in Abuja?

How does a Chinese women blend in in Damascus?

People often make the mistake of thinking that to blend in, they just need to change their appearance. That’s part of the solution, but by no means all of it.

The fact is that you’ll rarely be able to entirely blend in to any location if you’re visibly ethnically different. Making adjustments to your appearance will lower your visible signature slightly, helping you to blend in with the immediate environment around you. To go a step further, you’ll need to understand the dynamics of the social environment. By gaining an understanding of physical space and social flows you can adapt your behaviour to ensure that you can blend in with the ebb and flow of daily society.

In this article I’ll explain how you can blend in to an environment to reduce the risk of being targeted by criminals, kidnappers, or terrorists.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. This article is part of a series called “The Basics”, where I’ll explore some of the fundamental concepts of personal security while travelling. I hope you find it useful.

Going unnoticed

The art of blending in is the art of going unnoticed.

Once people notice you, they’ll subconsciously (or consciously) capture specific details about you as memory hooks. You might be “the Caucasian woman with the red hat”, or the “Asian man carrying the blue backpack”.

If that person sees you again, their memory and pattern recognition will kick in and they’ll recognise you. They may not know who you are, but they’ll be able to place you.

Ah, that’s the same person that passed by here yesterday.

If they see you again, the effect will be even stronger, and they’ll start to recognise additional details. They’ll become more familiar with how you look, and will start to notice additional details like the types of clothes you wear and what you carry.

Hmm… she’s not carrying a bag today. I wonder why that is?

Over a period of repeated contacts, people’s imaginations and curiosity will kick in, and they will start to fill in the blanks. They’ll be naturally inquisitive about what you do, and they’ll look for visual cues to enable them to build a picture of who you are and what you are doing based on their observations so far. If they see any inconsistencies, that may give them cause to wonder what you’re really up to.

Of course, in most contexts, this is all perfectly ok. The difference is that in higher-risk locations, if you’re noticed by the wrong people, it could cause trouble for you, particularly if these people are criminals, kidnappers, or terrorists looking for an easy target.

Street scene in a small town in central Somalia. 1993. Photo by Grant Rayner.

You vs your environment

As a foreigner and an outsider, you will have a lot working against you when it comes to blending in. The colour of your skin will be the most obvious, but not the only thing, working against you.

Physical appearance

You’re obviously stuck with your ethnicity, however you’d be surprised that this may not be an impediment in many locations. Some people of Caucasian appearance, for example, can blend in reasonably well in Damascus or in Peshawar (at least until you open your mouth to speak).

Going unnoticed will also be difficult if you are exceptionally tall (or short), and there really isn’t too much you can do about that.

You may also have a different hair colour. If you do, you have the option of covering your hair with a hat or scarf or, if you’re absolutely determined to blend in, you may even decide to cut and/or dye your hair.

Gender and age

You may be more noticeable in certain areas because of your gender or age. For example, a woman will stand out in a location where there are predominantly men out and about (and vice versa). An older person will also stand out in an area of predominantly younger people (and vice versa).

It may be acceptable for you to pass through these spaces, but it may not be acceptable to loiter in them.

What you wear

While it’s not so easy to change your physical appearance, it’s relatively easy to adjust your wardrobe to enable you to blend in better on the street.

Clothes cover most of your body, so from a distance your clothes are more noticeable than anything else. They form a silhouette, and distinguish you from the people around you.

When considering what clothes to wear to blend in, focus on colour and style. Also consider the more identifiable aspects of clothing, which are headwear and footwear.

  • Colour. Wear clothes of the same general colour as the people around you. Wear nothing that’s eye catching. Your aim here is to not be easily noticed by someone passively scanning the crowd.
  • Style. Wear clothes of a similar style to people around you. Dress appropriately according to the weather and to local cultural and religious norms. This doesn’t necessarily mean dressing in local garb, which may actually draw more attention. In many places this may mean wearing long pants or dresses instead of shorts or skirts, or wearing long sleeved shirts or blouses.
  • Headwear. Do men wear hats? If so, what colour and style? Do women cover their heads? If so, with what? Fit in with whatever the local norms are. If your hair is visibly different, then wearing something on your head will certainly help.
  • Footwear. Do people wear open or closed sandals or shoes? Do people wear boots? Match your footwear to what others are wearing. Again, look to match colours as well. You don’t need to wear exactly the type of footwear the locals do, but your fluorescent orange Nikes may not be the best choice.
  • Bags and cameras. Be mindful of what you’re carrying. Locals may not carry day packs around with them, and will very rarely have cameras.

The litmus test is this: if someone was to look at the crowd with slightly squinted eyes so they didn’t notice all the details, would they notice you? What you are aiming to do is to blend in with the overall street scene. You shouldn’t catch the eye of someone casually scanning the crowd.

The risk of describable accessories

As a rule, don’t wear or carry anything that enables you to be easily described or picked out in a crowd.

To visualise this, imagine being on a surveillance team, and you’re about to take over on point. What easily identifiable information would you want to know to be able to acquire your target and follow them?

“He’s the guy wearing the red baseball cap with the white letters on the front.”

“She has long hair, and is carrying a blue backpack with a big white peace sign on the back.”

Now think what the opposite to this might sound like:

“He’s about medium height. Darkish brown hair, maybe black. He’s not carrying a bag, but he was definitely wearing a jacket. It was a kind of brownish grey colour. I’m not 100% sure. He was wearing running shoes. Not Nikes. Something else.”

That’s who you want to be. Indescribable.

The ability to change

It’s useful to be able to have the ability to change your appearance when on the go. Kind of an expedient disguise, if you will. I might get to the reasons why in future articles, but for now let’s just assume you’re concerned about your safety and need to break off from someone who may be following you.

There’s a few simple things you can do to change your appearance on the go:

  • A hat or scarf can be worn or taken off.
  • A jacket can be worn or taken off, revealing a completely different colour underneath.
  • A bag could be carried over the shoulder, or in the hand (or discarded, if necessary).

Avoid patterns over time

If you’re staying in an area for some time, avoid establishing patterns in your appearance. If you normally wear blue jeans, mix it up by wearing grey jeans every now and again. Carry a bag on some days, and not on others.

What you’re avoiding is this:

“Yes, I remember seeing him. He’s always wearing a blue t-shirt. He has one of those Apple Watches. He has an earring in his left ear.”

Street scenes in Tripoli, Lebanon. October 2019. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Blending in is more than what you look like or what you wear. Adjusting your appearance is a good and necessary start point, but to really disappear you will need to understand the social dynamics of your environment and learn to work with it.

Looking like you belong

The best way to avoid being noticed is to look like you belong in an area. This is achievable, even as a foreigner who looks visibly different. To look like you belong, you need to understand the social patterns and social flows of your environment.

Social patterns

People unconsciously notice people who break social patterns.

We break social patterns when we have no purpose.

Think of a village or small town. Each morning, people will leave their homes and go to work. Some will walk. Others may drive or take a local bus. Children will go to school. Some people will go and pray, while others will go to the market to buy fresh vegetables.

Every one of these people is moving from one place to another with a sense of purpose. There is minimal random or superfluous activity.

Except for you. Because you’re wandering around aimlessly, checking the map on your phone, and wondering where you should stop to get lunch. This will make you more observable to local people, because it’s clear you don’t belong.

To look like you belong, you need to have a purpose. People with a purpose keep moving. They’re going where they’re going.

So to blend in you need to be aware of social patterns and move with them, with purpose.

Everyone is going somewhere. Damascus, Syria. February 2020. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Social flows

Places have directions, or social flows. Each morning the children will all move from one area to another to go to school. Others will go to pray, or to work. Early in the morning groups of people may move to where the baker bakes fresh bread, and then back to their homes. In the afternoon and early evening some of these flows will reverse.

If you move against these natural flows, you will stand out. Not only that, but people will notice details about you. As you’ll be passing them head on, they’ll see your face, which will immediately flag you as a foreigner. Once they identify you as a foreigner, their interest will be piqued and they’ll start notice other details. A memory will be formed.

As best you can, follow social flows when you move.

Early morning social flows in Damascus, Syria. February 2020. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Being static

Each urban area or village will have places where people meet or congregate. A laneway may have a few chairs where local men sit to smoke and chat in the early evening. There may be a set of stairs where local teenagers meet after school to hang out. Perhaps an even numbered street where prostitutes wait patiently for vehicles to stop and for the drivers proposition them for sex.

If you walk through areas where people are static, you’ll be noticed. In more insular areas, these groups almost form a system of local sentries, identifying who is from out of town or who doesn’t belong.

Similarly, there will be areas where no one is static, and everyone is passing by. If you loiter in these areas, you’ll attract attention. Even more so if you’re in an insular space.

Static street scenes in Tripoli, Lebanon. October 2019. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Cosmopolitan vs insular spaces

In every town there will be areas where it’s normal to see foreigners, and areas where it’s rare to see foreigners. Foreigners will normally frequent certain districts, certain restaurants, certain stores, and certain tourist attractions. A foreigner in these areas won’t attract attention and will probably be ignored.

If a foreigner ventures out into the suburbs, or into more rural areas or remote townships, they are likely to attract more attention. In fact, there are still parts of the world that you may travel to that will only rarely see foreigners.

Struggling to maintain a low profile in a remote village in the north west of Balochistan, Pakistan. July 2004. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Foreigners in areas that are more insular will attract more attention. People will be genuinely surprised to see you, and you will quickly become the talk of the town. That might not be ideal if you’re trying to maintain a low profile to ensure your own safety.

Desperately failing to maintain a low profile in an isolated village in central Somalia. 1993. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Public, community, and semi-private spaces

Urban areas contain a mix of public, community, semi-private, and private spaces. These spaces will have an impact on your level of visibility.

Public spaces may include train stations, shopping malls, large markets, or sidewalks along the main thoroughfares. People from a wide area will use these spaces, and no one really knows anyone else. People will generally ignore each other. As a foreigner you’ll be visible, but it may not be entirely unexpected to see you in a place like this. For the most part you’ll be ignored.

A community space is also a public area, but it’s off the main thoroughfare and it’s used by a smaller group of people. It could include the sidewalk along a suburban street, a small neighbourhood park, or a local store that services a small community. In remote areas this could be a small village. Local people will normally recognise each other, and many will know each other by name. Strangers in community spaces are noticed and observed, but people are unlikely to do anything about it first time around. As a foreigner, you can move through these spaces, but it will be noticed if you loiter. If you appear twice, people will get curious and will start to talk.

A semi-private space is a public area that’s really only used by people living or working in that immediate area. It’s technically accessible to the public, but it will be unusual to find people there that the locals don’t know by name. An example of a semi-private space will be a laneway only used by local residences. As a foreigner, you’ll be noticed the second you enter a semi-private space. You may even be encouraged to move on, as you may not be welcome there.

Being aware of what type of space you are in, and adapting your activities to that space, will help you go unnoticed.

Late at night on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. June 2019. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Minimising your social interface

When you’re operating in an area, you will have a social interface. This interface comprises every interaction you have with people from the local community.

Your social interface is a function of the breadth of your interactions (how many different people you engage with), the frequency of the interactions, as well as the depth of the interactions (the details discussed).

You may give a nod and a smile to the old man that sits on the street corner near your apartment each day. Or perhaps you have a quick chat each morning with the streetside barista that makes your espresso.

Each of these interactions helps to paint a picture of who you are and what you do. Each person you interact with has a piece of the puzzle of who you are and what you’re up to.

If someone interviewed each of these people, what could be discovered about you?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that you don’t engage with people. In fact, having a good local network is essential to your safety and security. What I’m proposing is that you engage in a deliberate and measured way, with due consideration to your own security. The more people that know about you, the more of a chance that eventually this information will get to someone who may be a threat to you.

Early evening in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon. October 2019. Photo by Grant Rayner.

Wrap up

Blending in to an environment as a foreigner is difficult, but it’s an essential aspect of ensuring your safety and security when in a higher-risk environment. The more people that notice you, the higher the probability that word will get out to the wrong people. Coupled with poor personal security, such as not being aware of your surroundings or setting routines, this could result in you being targeted.

The natural tension here is that to be safe in an area, you need to know the area well. This necessitates a lot of walking around, which makes you more visible to anyone paying attention. It also requires that you establish a good network of contacts in the local community.

It’s impossible to go entirely unnoticed, but by dressing to blend in, and by being aware of concepts like insular space, and understanding dynamics such as social patterns and social flows, you can learn to move with a community rather than against it.

This will help you blend in, making you safer.

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

Other articles in The Basics series include:

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

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