The benefits of being boring

Grant Rayner
Mar 14, 2020 · 8 min read

How to maintain a low profile while operating in complex and higher-risk environments.

Being noticed in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. 2019.

I’m sure you’ve read travel advice suggesting that you should “maintain a low profile” when travelling to higher-risk locations. This is pretty sound advice. By lowering your profile, you’re reducing the likelihood that you may be singled out and targeted by criminals or terrorists.

But what does it actually mean to have a “low profile”, and how can you actually maintain a low profile when travelling?

I’m the founder of Spartan9. 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.

What is your profile?

Your profile is how you appear to an outsider. It’s comprised of how you look, what you do, and what you tell people about yourself. It’s the impression someone forms of you as they walk past you in the street, or as they sit across from you in the hotel bar.

Why lower your profile?

Why should you bother lowering your profile? Why not just do what you normally do?

Sure, in most places that’s absolutely fine. But as you travel into more remote, insular, and higher-risk areas, if you stand out the probability of being targeted by criminals or terrorists increases considerably.

Remember, when you’re travelling to a higher-risk environment you’re entering an area where there are latent threats. There are people out there, in the streets around international hotels, and in bars or other locations, looking for easy targets. Effectively, what you are doing by reducing your profile is deflecting the threat to someone else with a higher profile than you.

Here’s five practical techniques you can use while travelling to proactively manage your profile to avoid coming to the attention of criminals or terrorists.

1. Reduce your visibility

If people can’t see you, they can’t target you.

At one end of this spectrum is hiding inside your hotel. In some operating environments, this may be a practical and necessary approach to reducing risk. But, let’s face it, it’s boring as hell.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’re continually out and about in the public eye, highly visible on the street, and mixing with large numbers of people. That may be ok, but in some locations it could be a recipe for trouble, particularly if you don’t know the environment and don’t know who you are mixing with.

Your aim is to find a happy medium between these two extremes which allows you to complete your work, while at the same time not unnecessarily exposing yourself to risks and threats.

The approach you take depends on where you are, and what the risks and threats are to your safety and security.

2. Be unremarkable

Being unremarkable literally means having nothing about you that would cause someone else to bother remarking about you. That’s not so easy to achieve, particularly as a foreigner in a remote township or an insular community. I’ve been in many locations where I haven’t seen any other foreigners for weeks. I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences during your own travels.

Being remarkable relates in part to your physical appearance— it’s the visibly obvious things about you that people will notice if they walk past you in the street or sit across from you in a cafe.

You may be remarkable if:

  • You’re one of only a few foreigners in town (or one of only a few people of your ethnicity).
  • You dress significantly differently from everyone else.
  • You’re noticeably taller (or shorter) than everyone else.
  • You have a physical characteristic that is noticeable and unusual.

How would you describe yourself? If your answer is “normal looking” or “kinda average”, then you’re well on your way to being unremarkable and maintaining a low profile.

Being remarkable can go beyond your physical appearance. You will also be remarkable if you have a flamboyant personality. Perhaps you speak loudly when excited, or you have a particular accent or way of speaking that makes people turn around and pay attention to you.

If you’re unremarkable, you’re probably also forgettable. People who have met you will soon forget they have, or at the least will forget any significant details about you. In higher-risk environments, that’s a good thing.

Sadly, I find being unremarkable (and forgettable) easy. For the rest of you, it may be something you need to work at.

It’s hard not to stand out in some places. Bald Sayt village, Oman. 2019.

3. Manage your appearance

One of the most important things you can do to keep a low profile is to blend in with your immediate environment. You don’t need to go fully native, but you do need to roughly match the colours around you, and the style. That said, a shalwar kameez is remarkably comfortable.

As an example, if everyone around you is wearing long sleeve button up shirts, you’ll stand out if you’re wearing a t-shirt. That might be cool in Orlando, but not so much in Rawalpindi or Aleppo.

I’ll take a deeper dive into how you can physically blend in to your environment in a separate article. It seems like a simple concept, but when you unpack it there’s quite a bit there.

4. Limit the scope of interactions

The more people you interact with, the more people that know you exist. The more people that know you exist, the higher the probability that you’ll eventually come across someone who may intend to do you harm (or who is in contact with someone who may intend to do you harm).

Over time, interactions can increase your risk exposure.

An effective way to proactively manage your risk exposure is to limit your interactions to only those people who you need to interact with to complete your project or assignment.

At the same time, you shouldn’t shut yourself off from the world, as this can reduce your access to local information which may alert you to new threats. Rather, be discerning and selective with regards to who you establish and maintain contact with.

There are also aspects of depth and predictability to your interactions. For example, if you’re going to the same coffee shop for breakfast every morning, eventually the staff and regular customers will get to know you. In higher-risk environments it’s better not to develop these routines.

Back streets of Damascus. 2020.

5. Layer information about yourself

Being remarkable isn’t just about how you look. It’s also about who you are and what you do. It’s about the impression people get of you when they learn more about you. Are you just “a manager”, or are you a “designer working for one of the world’s best design studios”?

Always be mindful about the information you share about yourself. The more people know about you, the more they’ll naturally bond with you, and the less they’ll be able to forget you. This may be totally ok, but the process of sharing information should always be a conscious one. People will ill-intent may also use this information to monitor you or target you.

As a guide, only tell people what they need to know to be able to interface with you effectively in a specific context.

If you go to a cafe, the cashier doesn’t need to know your name, nationality, or what you do for a living. Your driver needs to know which hotel or guest house your are staying at, and where you are headed next, but doesn’t need to know your home address back in your country, or where you plan to go tomorrow.

I’m not saying don’t share any information at all. That would be weird. Rather, be selective in what you do share and share it consciously. You may, for example, share personal information about your childhood and family to build a closer relationship with your local fixer, but you may still withhold details about your how much money you make, or what your views are on the local political situation.

The simplest way to avoid revealing unnecessary information is to focus the topic of the conversation on the other person. Most people are happy to talk about themselves, so why not give them the opportunity? It’s interesting for you to get to know the people around you (this allows you to assess their trustworthiness over time), and it also demonstrates that you’re showing an interest in them.

As a side note, sharing personal details (or appearing to share personal details — they don’t need to be true) is an illicitation technique. You can reveal personal information about yourself in an effort to get the other person to reciprocate. It’s also a technique people can use on you in an effort to engineer a relationship. Be mindful of that.

What about when driving?

You’ll probably spend a lot of time moving around by vehicle when travelling. In higher-risk locations, this is often significantly safer than walking on the street. The same rules apply when selecting a vehicle. Select a common model of vehicle that would go unnoticed driving down the street. If you’re using a security detail, be mindful of how that may increase your profile.

Always select a car that blends in with your environment. Beirut, 2019.

Conclusion

Maintaining a low profile is an important part of reducing your signature when travelling to higher-risk locations, particularly if the place where you are operating is a more remote or insular community. If you’re able to reduce your profile, you’ll be less likely to be singled out and targeted.

Reducing your profile takes a conscious effort, and it’s something you should always be thinking about and practicing. Remember that each location you travel to, and the requirements of each project, will be slightly different. Each will require a slightly different approach to managing your profile.

With practice, managing your profile when you travel will become second nature.

Limit the interesting. Be unremarkable.

There’s a lost branding opportunity right there…

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

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.

S9 The Basics

Fundamental skills for operating in higher-risk environments.