Blending in and the “Gray Man”

A good point was brought up in a comment after the last post about dressing down and trying to blend in when abroad. Its an important topic that deserves a little attention.

For Westerners and Americans in particular our ability to blend in will be very dependent on the society we are in.  In many cases we may not really be able to blend in but we can avoid unnecessarily standing out.  This means leaving the cowboy hats,  sports jerseys, Oakley sunglasses, etc. at home.  Likewise the t-shirts with American flags and patriotic slogans.

To truly blend in is difficult — even if you are the same race or ethnicity as the host population.  In the Philippines as an example, native Filipinos can usually readily identify Balikbayan – Filipinos who have lived abroad for years and then returned to the Philippines.  These Balikbayan are often targeted for robbery due to their perceived afluence.

Interestingly I have heard – but cannot verify – that in Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants can distinguish each other on the street by appearance.

Therefore the goal of truly blending in may be out of reach in many cases.  Its probably better to be the “gray man” and do nothing and wear nothing that will unduly draw attention to yourself or invite interest.
You should be free of any obvious national or political indentifiers, not wear conspicuous jewelry or clothing, not appear too rich or too poor, etc.  While you might not want to look like a high profile businessman you also might not want to appear like a backpacker either.

Contrary to popular perception, backpackers and similar low budget travelers are targeted for crimes regularly.  This is in part because they are frequently carrying all their money and other valuables with them all the time and may actually be carrying more cash than the rich businessman who is relying on credit cards and local representatives to cover his expenses.

Additionally, backpackers and other poorly dressed travelers may draw unwanted attention from the local police and security forces not to mention immigration and customs personnel at the airport.  This is especially true in developing countries.

Therefore the best approach may be the middle ground.  Not too rich, not too poor.  Not clearly identifiable as any particular nationality.  While the gray man (or gray woman) may not truly blend in – he or she may draw the least amount of attention and sometimes that is the best you can do.

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