We´ve long heard industry-exponents name-dropping the “grey man” idea – blending would be another word for it. It´s seemingly used ad-infinitum for everything about being innocuous and subtle about one´s appearance. Being a Canadian white-guy living in Costa Rica/Central America, I´ve always thought that like so many of the terms so loosely referred to (the OODA Loop, Hick´s Law, the 21-foot “rule”, for example) there´s a lot of nuance and intricacy that seems to be glossed-over or utterly ignored. I´d like to present some caveats and context to the theory here as I think, like the others I´ve addressed in past articles, it pays to be clear about the 5 Ws and how of the thing. The manner of “going grey” in one arena may not be at all wise or effective in another.
Now, getting back to context, there are a number of different civilian (I stress civilian as with military, law-enforcement, corrections, or any other high-risk occupation the context changes yet again) arenas that draw different avenues entirely of the gray-man, adding further nuance to the theory again.
ENVIRONMENTAL. Here, where I live, going completely grey is simply not achievable. I´m white, I have blue eyes, I dress differently, I speak Spanish as a second language, I´m more direct, I like greater spatial-distancing between conversationalists…the list goes on. Being also the only foreigner living in the barrio/neighborhood I live in, that potential decreases even more. I´ve been here for 12+ years and I´ve found that the best way to “blend-in” is to become a visible member of the community. I speak Spanish with the neighborhood locals. I support small local business. I interact with neighbors to get tabs on what´s transpiring in the area crime-wise. I walk out in public and know who the owners of the surrounding businesses are. I attend local events to show support for community-building. Now, while I am still stereotyped and even sometimes targeted, that has been by far the best avenue of immersion as many have simply gotten used to my presence here. Trying to dress differently, cover my eyes, put a baseball-cap on, and driving everywhere will only draw unnecessary attention that I generally don´t want or need.
Many expats here live in expat-enclaves, gated communities, well-off neighborhoods, drive around in expensive cars, throw money around, have security preventing the locals or nationals from entering their compounds, and never learn a word of Spanish. These enclaves are often treated with justifiable resentment and draw far more criminal-intent than they are thought to. Their very own security tracks their routines and patterns, gives that information to local criminals they know or have grown up with, and home-invasions are a regular occurrence. So are street-muggings from foreigners wearing expensive jewellry, top-of-the-line clothing, and carrying a wad of cash on their person. All of these things, while intended to up safety and survivability, often have the exact adverse effect than the intent.
There are also many times where law-enforcement will pull-over foreigners (I´ve had this numerous times throughout the years) intentionally, thinking they have money for bribes, will pay them off, and establishing a trend for future interaction. Sometimes “going grey” doesn´t work. Simply. I´ve feigned ignorance: “didn´t know the laws”, “new in-country”, “don´t speak Spanish” and it´s worked. Other times I´ve needed to stand firm and put a more dangerous façade on to project a harder-target. Sometimes manipulating the personality of the person targeting you can be effective by taking advantage of their mannerisms, hesitance, motive, threat-level, etc. While these are not the purest definition of going grey, they are blending. We adapt quickly based on the stimulus we are presented with in those times when going grey isn´t working. It´s putting up an intentional persona for a desired result knowing the reason one has been targeted.
There are cultural stigmas that resonate throughout the countries here that are hardened through time, and not all of them unjustified. Remember that many foreigners move here and complain, demand, act entitled, treat locals as second-class citizens. Locals, in-turn, label everyone white and from “out-of-town” gringos, resent past political interference and superiority-complexes, and often are bitter that so much of the country has been “Americanized” by Americans, Canadians, Europeans, et al. That can also be manipulated in threat, risk, danger, and violence situations, in-turn. One can use those established stigmas to play the cards one is given. A couple of years ago, our car was in the shop and I had to run and pick it up mid-afternoon. I needed to pass-by a local pub, a pub that opens early and closes late and that always has locals drinking heavily. Of course, this time there was a thoroughly drunk Tico standing on the sidewalk when I was walking by. As I approached, he pointed his finger at me and said “Yo odio los gringos!” (I hate gringos) to which I replied in Spanish “Me too, man! I´m Canadian, agree with you completely, have a nice day and have a beer on me!”, grabbed his hand and shook it while I patted him on the shoulder and kept walking at my intentioned pace. I looked back and he was standing there scratching his head in confusion. Playing on the stereotypes – and blending with those same stereotypes.
Trying to hard to fit-in is not blending. Note that it´s far easier for a Puerto Rican American businessman from Texas (for example) that speaks Spanish as a native-language to go truly grey than it is for someone like me. That´s a fact, not a whine. Note, too, that understanding your limitations and knowing what is the most “accepted” form of grey is imperative. Me trying to look like the locals or nationals in every way and try desperately to fit-in by doing everything they do, acting every way they do, changing my dress, personality, phrasing is often a bigger attention-draw than just acknowledging your differences and utilizing them to minimize ostracization.
OCCUPATIONAL. There have been multiple times during my tenure here where I´ve had to take jobs that were in rather bad environments. Security and guard-training paid well but it was often high-risk. A lot of the guards came from a history-of-violence, whether it be growing-up or via inner-country civil war. They were hard and they were “battle-tested.” So part of the initiation at times was to take-on physical challenges or proof-of-testing on technique, concept, and strategy. I accepted all, to the dismay of my wife. There was never a “take your word for it” mentality as there often is in North America. It was inevitably trial-by-fire and me being a foreigner, it put a big red bullseye on my back. There were times during workshops where I had to stop and have a very physical session with attendees, on more than one occasion I got jumped, had intimated threats on acts some of the guards had committed in the past. I accepted all of them and, in hindsight, it concreted my reputation as well. It was a steep learning-curve. However, along the way, it was like a rite-of-passage from hard men that was invaluable. Once those tests were passed, the learning-absorption was fast, alliances were established, and unity was formed.
They – and I – shared personal information on trauma, shared harsh stories of upbringing, talked openly about situations we´d all been through, the effects of violence. It was a very visceral experience that I wouldn´t change at all, looking back, though acknowledging the high-risk. Had I not accepted those challenges – and some who came before me did not and left with their tail between their legs, I was told – I would not have blended into those tribes. I would have had more scrutiny, the challenges would have replaced any potential knowledge-transference, and I would have lost their ears and respect. “Going grey” here was risky, emotionally-taxing, physically-exhausting, though with high payoff. This may not seem like a “grey” issue, but being in front of a group of men with high-exposure to violence doesn´t leave a lot of room for being invisible. But this is the definition of blending with the crowd.
Other times in the early days here I had to take jobs at call-centers, and you can bet that few expats were present but we struggled early-on. I immersed myself by putting my head-down and working, though I could feel a lot of negativity my way. The way I was finally accepted was in a team-meeting with a Canadian and couple of Americans fast-talking the workers about what they were doing wrong and what their potential earnings were. I knew, as a business-owner, that these guys were feeding these nationals with bullshit and I saw that as an opportunity to meld with the side I needed to get through my days, and noting I wouldn´t be there long anyway. I called the management out and broke-down exactly why they were misleading the workers and misdirecting them from what was actually going on. While it didn´t exactly endear me to the bosses, it did put in a stark new light with the workers, whom I sat beside, lunched with, and was lumped-in with. The fact a foreigner went to bat for them gave me access to the clique (a far more potentially-dangerous element), a better sell than aligning with foreign management.
Webster´s Dictionary defines blending as 1 : to look like things nearby. “The fish settles on the sandy ocean bottom where it blends in perfectly.” 2 : to look like one belongs with a particular group. “She tried to blend in by dressing like the other girls. —often + with “I’ve always found it difficult to blend in with my peers.”
I, personally, call this the difference between covert and overt blending. Covert blending being to merge in seamlessly – or as seamlessly as is possible in the given context by innocuously and subtly not seeming out-of-place. Overt blending with areas such as infiltration or doing out-of-the-norm things to fit-in to a certain group for a specific purpose, whether strategic, security-based, safety-based, or other. It´s important to distinguish between the two as they both have very different purpose and motive.
CLASS. Being able to slip smoothly through the classes (upper, middle, lower) is a great grey-man exercise. As in Canada, I have always had the ability to shift-gears and faces to fit with the crowd I´m interacting with. Here, in CR, it´s been everything from upper-class political figures, high-level business folk, and well-off foreigners to very low-class neighborhood working-class who are one grand misfortune away from poverty or indigence. The body-projection, lingo, tells, and type of coherent awareness are elements that are noticed and noticeably-absent with people who´ve lived a life often of mistrust, abuse, trauma, and struggle. What makes things easier for me is that I have actually lived within the paradigms of all three classes so my experience interacting with all three is authentic, not feigned. The nuances, intricacies, and subtleties of each one is something I´ve lived personally so my understanding of each comes across as legitimate, no small thing as often classes can smell one that “isn´t theirs.”
I have lived from paycheque to paycheque struggling to put food on the table as I watch the bills pile-up, debt grow, and panic set-in. I have lived comfortably in the middle-class as inevitably that´s how I grew-up, middle- to middle-lower class. Comforts and safety were there, food always present, but still living frugally. I´ve also always had people around me from the upper-class – friends, family, business partners, day-to-day accomplices that came from money. That´s an important distinction as it is not always so easy (though not impossible) to fit-in with a class of people you´re not intimately familiar with. I have intimate exposure to the criminal element. I grew-up in a crowd that dealt drugs, utilized violence as a utility-tool, binge-drank every weekend and during the week, had law-enforcement on the periphery of our activities many a time. I also have intimate exposure to the academic, high-level business, political elements where I have been cerebral and thoughtful enough to sit down for a long conversation on the topics of intellectualism.
There are always signs – how one carries oneself, how one talks, the vernacular one uses, the type of clothing one wears, the confidence – whether authentic or fabricated – one exudes, the preferences and quality one refuses to be without or accepts. These are minutiae that are often rather hard to hide or falsely project. Note too that having the chameleon-like ability to blend through the classes is one thing – some are blessed to naturally have that gift, I´m not one. I had to go through many hard lessons, learn many times from grand error, become well-versed in a ton of holistic topics, and be willing to not only alter but completely revamp your lifestyle to get that intimate understanding. There have been many times in my life where I´ve had to make vast, sweeping, universal changes and start from absolute scratch to reinvent myself out of necessity, and not necessity to become “grey” but necessity if I wanted a better-life, a chance at happiness and success, and to prevent my own falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole of no-return. But this is not about me and my life – it´s to demonstrate that your ability to slide through the classes is most often not projected, it´s earned. Going grey requires an exposure and immersion to have taken place. The more experienced and holistically-versed one is, the greater the ability to “go grey” at the drop of a hat and whenever needed. If you have to prep heavily, you´re working from the back-end to the front and often on your heels unless this is a full-time occupation for you.
Remember that every culture has its own taboos, superstitions, proxemics, adherences, linguistic-colloquialisms, and dynamics. Learn. Them. Here, for instance, there is a heavy Catholic influence, churches are in the center of every city and town. Spatial-distancing when talking is much closer than in Canada or the U.S. Physical-touching is much more prevalent. There´s lots of imagery and influence from legends and myths that transfers to metaphorical impact in daily-living. Ticos are generally not direct, do not always say what they mean, can be passive-aggressive, and hide their intent or true sentiment for self-protection or withholding information. None of these are “bad” or “good” – they just are. Canadians and Americans have their elements like this as well, whether wanting to admit so or not.
Blending is not so easy when one has for forty years acted and intrinsically-accepted things as being a different way. I have had to become warmer and more spatial-invasion-accepting. Kiss on the cheek. Hug from the upper-torso up. Talk closer…and louder if I want to be heard as volume is high compared to North America and interrupting not so socially frowned-upon. I´ve had to accept and welcome religious vernacular, metaphor, and analogy openly as it´s used in most conversation. I´ve taken an interest in the metaphysical, superstition, and taboo-culture to glean more what makes people tick – and found it a fascinating area-of-study, to be honest. Belief is a hugely powerful thing. Here, where poverty is high, homelessness around every corner, zero in the way of benefits from the government, and pay exponentially lower…belief is often the one thing that gets people through their day and gives them hope for the future. To take belief away or discard it as ridiculous or irrelevant is inevitably to be “1st-World entitled with 1st-World problems” and will make you enemies rather quickly.
It is also likely why so many North Americans and Europeans feel they can move down here and have a niche capitalizing and taking advantage of that belief. Ayahuasca camps, yoga cults, shamanism, crystal-healing, reiki groups – cults, in general – all abound here and are most often run by foreigners who want to scam, reinvent themselves, are on-the-lam from something back home, or take advantage of local taboos. They. Are. Everywhere. It has become it´s own form of tourism, but also many times it´s own criminal-industry. I´ve interacted with a lot of these people and, while it may work for a while, it generally lacks staying-power. Preying on belief is a very bad way to be grey. While it´s often said that things happen here roughly 15-20 years after they become popular in the U.S. and Canada, that knowledge can be manipulated in-advance by foreigners and often is with very negative consequences.
We once attended an organic-foods fair which often draws this type of element peddling their wares. I saw a “chi kung” instructor and asked about him. He was within ear-shot when the young woman at one of the stands told me about his credentials and that he was renowned master and pointed him out. I mentioned that I had done chi kung and tai chi for 20+ years and would love to chat with him. He – quite literally – grabbed his bag, covered his face, and walked briskly out the back-end of the fair. Lesson learned? Be grey but know how to maintain grey. There are always bigger fish when false-projecting so know your lane and where your strengths are. If your version of grey is by putting a grey overcoat on a beige façade, it´s only a matter of time before you´re exposed and that exposure here can have far more repercussions than the ones this gentleman yielded. Know your “product.” Why and for what is the need. How can you maintain it for as long as is needed. How long is it needed. Time is a factor here as well. Minimizing ostracization, as mentioned above, within a lifestyle of ongoing daily living calls for a different methodology than a two-week job-experience immersion. The changes are more gradual, subtle, slowly-transitioning.
My family and I were once stalked in the marketplace in San Jose by a clearly high-order predator. We, to this day, do not know exactly why he picked us out as targets though, were I a betting-man, my son and my own blue eyes, North American dress, blond or light-brown hair, were likely triggers to something more sinister, whether it be kidnapping, extortion, or violence. (story documented here: ( https://blog.mandirigmafma.com/index.php/2019/11/12/1-high-order-predator-the-event/ , https://blog.mandirigmafma.com/index.php/2019/11/12/2-high-order-predator-the-reflection/ , https://blog.mandirigmafma.com/index.php/2019/11/12/3-high-order-predator-the-post-event-process/ ) He was well-dressed, his body language, dress, and “randomness” pointed-out his own subtle grey-man exposure, which likely drew no attention from less-experienced people in the crowd. We both identified each other almost instantaneously so the stakes immediately go up as we both exposed each other´s failures (whether glaring from mine and my son´s or spotted from his). It was a real-time cat-and-mouse dynamic played-out.
Grey changes from minute-to-minute. His was merging into the crowd, vanishing down different side-streets only to reappear in different places, carrying a plastic-bag to conceal a weapon, wearing black, being Latino. Ours was utilizing angles, covers, concealment, positioning beside present law-enforcement (never a guaranteed ally, but a strategic move to add an element our pursuer didn´t want), and moving within a moving crowd to take away visual and create our own apertures. It ended with our coming face-to-face from about thirty feet away. I sent my family to the car to prepare for a quick departure. He reaching into his plastic bag, me deploying my own weapon as he did so. We stared at each other with people walking in-between, none of whom noticed the subtly-deployed weapons we each carried and palmed. We both seemed to recognize that the other was a particularly hard-target and he slowly started making his way back into the crowd going the opposite direction while I did the same on my way to the car.
“Grey” here became a sort-of contest. A real-world test to see whose grey-skills were superior. If it came to a draw and his goal was something more nefarious, I´ll chalk it up to a victory as we left, got home safely, and no criminal activity was successful. But here we see the challenge aspect of “dueling grey” where two people are utilizing it to a very high-stakes level against each other for an outcome with particularly large repercussions, yet another aspect that so many often neglect to factor-in to their understanding of the theory.
These are just some elements that I´ve experienced, and some anecdotes, on my short- and long-term grey man methods. It´s an overview of an area far more in-depth and profound, goal being to give it some nuance within all the erroneous simplism affixed to the theory within the industry. In closing, “going grey” has a purpose and that purpose can be quite diverse. It is not just blending into a crowd momentarily, though that is one example as demonstrated above. It has far greater scope when specific purpose is defined and that range of purpose is vast. Finalizing with those 5 Ws and 1 H we mentioned, as with everything personal-safety relative and regarding “upping survivability-quotient”, a mission-statement and playing-out a vast array of scenarios and circumstances is imperative PRE-EVENT. Going over the whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys, and hows prior to the need to use them. Who or what might be the threat, danger, or risk. Where might it play-out and does the where alter the methods you´d need to utilize, when would going grey be important and for what worthwhile endgoal, why would it be the desired method as opposed to a different method, and how would you go about achieving “grey” or constantly-changing shades of that grey.