If you’ve invested time and resources to prepare yourself for the worst, the last thing you would want to happen is to let those who haven’t, know about it.

When a disastrous situation happens, people tend to panic, and some become desperate—desperate enough to do whatever it takes for them to survive, which can include hurting other people.

While you may have been prepared to increase your chances of survival during such an event, it’s something that you don’t want to advertise. Being the one with the resources to endure, you can become a target for desperate people who lacked the foresight and preparation, but intend to make up for it with force.

In such a situation, what do you do? Be the gray man.

During and after a disaster, when everything is scarce, the one who is most prepared and with the most resources can attract the attention of desperate people. Photo of Hurricane Rita Evacuation (2005)

What’s a Gray Man?

In simple terms, a gray man is someone who doesn’t stand out. He or she is not actually invisible, but since they blend in with their environment well, they become unremarkable to the people who encounter them, so they simply fall off their radar.

How Does It Work?

The concept behind it simple: The brain remembers or takes note of what stimulates it. It sifts through each stimulus it encounters and lets in information which it thinks is worth noting or recalling, like a night club bouncer or a gatekeeper, but for the brain. The greater the stimulus, the more likely the brain will take note of it and remember. Without any significant stimulus, it’s thrown out and forgotten or ignored.

This filter is called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is a part of the brain that’s also responsible for filtering the massive amount of stimulus that our conscious mind encounters every second of the day. Sight, smells, sound—all these go through the RAS.

Knowing this, we can more effectively blend in and become “invisible” by not being a significant stimulus for others’ RAS. By presenting yourself as someone who is unremarkable and at the same time not an easy prey, you can successfully get in and out of sticky situations and scenarios you wouldn’t want to be in.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. For some people, this can mean taking advantage of those around them, even if it means hurting them, or worse. Photo by Niels Olson.

Keep These in Mind

Now that we have a basic understanding of how RAS works, we can use it to our advantage and protect ourselves by becoming a gray man when the situation calls for it.

Here are three things that you need to keep in mind to make yourself into an insignificant stimulus for other people.

1. Your Appearance

The way you look is one of the first things that register in other people’s heads, and visual stimulus is also one of the most powerful. Being unnoticeable starts with your appearance.

First, wear clothes that fit in with your surroundings. This is easy enough because you won’t wear shorts and flip-flop sandals while everyone around you is in jackets and boots, nor would you wear a business suit in a place where people pass the day in t-shirts and jeans.

While wearing appropriate clothing is easy enough, choosing the right style can be a bit more difficult.

For starters, avoid wearing clothing in “loud” colors. Apart from making it easy for you to be spotted and picked out from a crowd, it also makes it easier for you to be remembered. Unless you really want to be seen (which is applicable in some scenarios, like getting lost in the wilderness), stick to drab and muted tones.

Tactical gear and BDUs can be very convenient in many scenarios, like on a range or when out hunting. But in some instances, like civil unrest, it may attract unwanted attention from both sides. Photo by the United States Air Force.

Aside from bright colors, keep away from prints and large logos on your clothing. While it’s common to have something printed on your shirt these days, these just serve as added visual stimulus for others. Like colors, prints can separate you from the crowd and make you stand out.

Styling is another thing to keep in mind. Cargo pants, military-style jackets and combat boots can be very convenient with all the pockets where you can put your stuff, but in emergency situations where people are likely to go after the one who has more than them, all those pockets just scream “I HAVE STUFF YOU MAY NEED WITH ME. TAKE THEM!”

In many cases, sticking to what everyone else is wearing, keeping it simple and staying out of the “tactical” line of clothing could be what saves you from the mob.

A pair of plain blue jeans coupled with a blank t-shirt would be appropriate for many occasions (add in a simple-looking jacket if it’s cold or a baseball cap and sunglasses if the sun’s out), including being a nobody in a sea of people.

Clothes make the man… and the survivor.

 

2. What You Have with You

You wouldn’t wear a flashy Rolex when going to a shady part of town. During a disaster or emergency, your bug-out bag (BOB) and survival gear can be just as attractive to other people as a Rolex is to criminals.

While having the right stuff with you is important, it’s also good to keep in mind not to overdo it and to keep them from drawing unnecessary attention.

Aside from slowing you down, huge military or hiking backpacks filled to the brim and with gear hanging visibly from every attachment point will just paint a large bullseye on you for other people. Other items such as a visible knife or a firearm or even a tactical flashlight, even if they’re perfectly legal where you are, can also draw attention from other people.

A large bag will not only slow you down, but also make you into a target. In a situation where you need to move through a crowd, a regular-sized, plain-looking bag with only the essentials will serve you better and keep unwanted attention away. Hurricane Katrina evacuation photo (20050)

There are several bags out there with a more subdued appearance that you can use as your gray man carry or BOB.

You can also use an ordinary backpack or messenger bag that you can customize or modify to carry your gear.  Bag inserts are also a good way of organizing your gear with ordinary bags.

You can also use accessories such as deep carry clips for pocket knives to help keep them less visible, or you can use more compact versions or put them in an Everyday Carry (EDC) pouch that you can keep inside a pocket.

Be prepared without making it obvious that you are.

 

3. Your Behavior

Lastly, how you act when you’re around people will help determine how you blend in with the crowd. While it’s obvious that you shouldn’t be loud and rowdy, going the extreme opposite direction will make you “shady” and still attract unwanted attention.

A gray man, while quiet and reserved, is subtle with his actions. You should appear non-threatening and “one with the crowd.”

A gray man is one with those around him. By being in tune with his surrounding’s baseline, he can blend in unnoticed. Photo by Travis Ruse.

Be deliberate and move fluidly and naturally through people and public space. Act with the “rhythm” of the place in mind. Each town or city has its own rhythm or baseline—this baseline is the speed the people move with, how fast and loud they talk, how they interact with one another, and more. Basically, it’s how the place’s inhabitants behave to each other and their surroundings. The baseline for San Francisco will be different from that in New York. Even if they’re in the same state, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, they will have subtle differences in their baseline and you should adjust accordingly.

To be able to blend in, tune yourself with the baseline of the place that you’re in. This will also apply in emergency situations—unless it will adversely affect your personal safety, follow the herd until such a time that you can secure yourself. If you need to break away from the mob, abruptly cutting through a sea of people and going another direction will draw other people’s eyes to you. Do so gradually until you can increase your distance and make your exit without being noticed.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do and be part of the crowd, not the gladiator in the center of the arena.

Being a gray man doesn’t mean being invisible. As a gray man, you present the least amount of stimulus to the people around you, so you can freely move around without attracting any attention.

Being a gray man, your goal is not to be invisible, but to be unremarkable so you can freely blend in with everyone then get out when it’s convenient for you. By appearing to be just like the masses of the unprepared crowd, you’re less likely to be prey for those who may be desperate enough to harm you for their own survival.