Blending In 101:
One of the cornerstones of personal safety is what experts refer to as “blending in.” This isn’t attempting to “fit in,” especially in an environment that is clearly foreign to you, it’s just not drawing unwanted attention.
This may apply to social workers, home health providers, and other lone workers when doing business in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
It also applies when abroad, and in general, a good practice whether in a group or traveling solo.
The basics of blending in rely on common sense.
Dress down. Don’t wear bright colors that catch the eye, branded or designer clothing or accessories, and keep your phone out of sight. Jewelry and other valuables attract attention.
Footwear: Wear shoes that are comfortable and allow you to move quickly. Inmates participating in a victim selection study said they always factor in whether a potential target is wearing shoes that will slow them down or allow them to run.
Body language is very important – even more so where there is a language barrier. Projecting a relaxed and friendly – yet confidant – presence is ideal. Walking “head up” and “shoulders back” are the cornerstones of a relaxed and confident person.
But what if I CANNOT blend in?
What can you do when you’re traveling somewhere where you don’t look like the local people? I experience this a lot traveling in Southern Africa and Central America.
In this case, the “script is flipped,” as it were. All of the above tips still apply, but now you have some additional steps.
If you’re going to be somewhere for a while and cannot blend in, it is now time to “develop assets,” as the military likes to say.
In other words, it’s time to start getting to know people. For instance, I make a point to get to know store owners, the fellows running the bicycle rental shop I walk by every day, the pharmacist, several produce vendors, and security guards outside banks and other businesses.
My goal: I want as many friendly sets of eyes on me as possible as I go about my day. Local people know who’s who and word travels fast. If I’m somewhere more than a week, I get to know several cab drivers.
With friendly eyes on you, people who are up to no good know you are seen and recognized by the solid citizens, and are less likely to victimize you. Local people know who they are and can report very easily. Local people will also be more inclined to step in to help if they see you are in a difficult position.
Always remember that you are a GUEST in this neighborhood or country. Respect and honor the culture. Showing gratitude and kindness goes a long way, as does warm and friendly eye contact where culturally appropriate. Make a point to learn several courtesy phrases.
Build relationships over time. I stay pretty vague on where we’re staying and for how long. As President Reagan once said, “Trust but verify.”
When abroad, I am sure to keep the contact information of friendly local people I get to know, such as cab drivers, pharmacists, an Airbnb owner, etc., in my WhatsApp (a commonly-used free international text and voice app.)
As always, know where to go in an emergency. Find out where the closest medical facility and police station are. Have your country’s embassy phone number in your speed dial list. Regardless of how comfortable we become in any environment, including our own “backyards,” maintaining situational awareness and preparedness is always your first, best move.