The myth and legend of the Gray Man

While blending in is an entirely reasonable goal, we discuss why so often the lip service paid to 'being gray' sells the concept woefully short.

December 30, 2020
ISG Team


There's a concept that exists out there in the realm of digital self-defense called "the gray man". The gray man is the quiet, capable, and innocuous citizen who can blend; moving in and out of social circles without attracting attention. A quick glance at the trends in the self-protection industry makes the whole concept a laughable matter as brommando clones with the same mesh ball-cap, fitted-T, operator beard, and arms covered in identifiable markings (aka tattoos) discuss being gray in the social media's 'lookit me!" rat race.

When we crack this egg, there's really a lot of utility in being in the concept of being 'gray', but like everything else these days, that requires us to sift through a whole lot of nonsense to get to the good stuff.

Who stands out to you? Why?

What's wrong with being 'gray'?

So, the first question is probably going to end up being something like "well, what's the problem with trying to be gray?"

The answer, like it or not, is that the kind of people who aren't going to notice you aren't going to notice you no matter what you do.

Most 'regular' people live lives that are entirely gray, and that can be evidenced by the fact that they'll saunter right past a house fire while checking their Facebook feed. The slightly more attuned go so far as to whip out their phone and record whatever outrageous event they stumble upon, but very few of them are clued in enough to read the tea leaves and observe as the events are unfolding. Fewer still recognize the actors in play before things start sliding towards the cliff.

Before we move on, it's important to jump back to "applied situational awareness" and recall that awareness is more or less a light switch. It's on or off, and given that you don't know who you're dealing with in any given environment, you can't safely assume that because someone doesn't look like they're paying attention, that they aren't. One of the common elements we find with this sort of perception, however, is that people mentally prioritize who to keep an eye on, and once you've passed through the net, unless you do something to once again put yourself on the radar, even trained people will largely stop paying attention to you.

That brings us to the next rung on the ladder: how do we pass through the net?

The kind of people you might want to keep information from are trained in what to look for. If their awareness is even partially switched on, if you're a male between 18-45, being "gray" is going to be pretty difficult. From this, we can tease out a subtle detail that often gets overlooked: 

"Who are you avoiding?"

While this is a topic that we'll circle back around to, let's say the following:

There are *countless* tells that mark you as someone to keep an eye on - if the person observing you is paying attention.

The Story you Tell

Queue the Picard facepalm, or a equally damning "oh bless your heart", if you're southern.

From the beginning, let's say this: It's not that important if you give some information out about yourself. In some cases, it can be good, and it can send a flag to other like minds. When I see someone walking down the street with their hands neatly balled taking purposeful strides, I smell veteran. That posture is also a strong indicator from criminal targeting; violent offenders can often instantly assess your vulnerability by your walk, according to a 2013 study by Book, Costello and Callimeri, titled "Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability".

As with most of the things we discuss, there are deeper implications, and what this information means to people changes when you ask "who is observing me?"

So, do you give consideration to the way you walk as a part of your overall strategy to remain gray? If you do, have you thought about how a strong posture and gait might attract attention? While a dude looking to snatch your wallet might look and see a strong walk as a person who is going to fight back, how about that Todd at the bar who still can't handle his preworkout and ripits when he starts hitting the 4% beers, and is looking for someone to fight?

How about to a police officer who sees your posture as irregular and aggressive?

What advertises strength to one person might be an invitation to conflict to another. The ultimate lesson here is that due to the Spheres of Violence, your presentation is a constantly moving Rubik's Cube of possible interpretations. There is no one fixed answer, and anyone who tries to say there is is selling something.

The Devil in the Details
If these guys are teaching your concealed carry course, you might not learn much. Zero thought given to the threats open carry or giving off very obvious tells might carry.

So, what are some of the tells that define us to the world around us?

Dress and Grooming - far and away, the most telling and controllable aspect of how you present in public is your mode of dress. We can roughly categorize people by the way they present themselves, and often as not, we can make solid deductions about things as nuanced as their political views, or as general as their line of work. When people think of being "gray" this is often the first stop along the way, and people usually call it good once they've identified a style they think works for them. The good news is that's fine for the bulk of society that we already identified doesn't care, but it's a far cry short of confusing people trained to look for cues that you might be more than you're letting on. So, things as subtle and habitual as wearing your glasses on your ballcap can signal to an observer that you warrant further observation. From there, some knowledge of brand recognition, carry habits, and the following can help solidify an opinion on who, and what, you are.

Posture and Gait
- As discussed above your posture and the way you move tells a good amount about you. Your gait (the way you walk) is a visual handshake. When people watch you walk, if you're slouched and sloppy, it's the equivalent of shaking hands with a turkey dinner. If you're upright and strong, it can be a sign of athleticism and purpose. If you're strutting around eyeballing everyone, you're that dude who tries to break people's hands with his handshake, and you're giving off the monkey dance vibes. While this alone doesn't tell the whole story, it's an exceptionally important, well-understood piece of the puzzle, and you should consider it.

Build and Physique
- It goes largely without saying, but your build is synonymous with how people view you. Being fit and strong can be a deterrent from petty crime, or an invitation to lock horns. Being puny might target you for an attack by criminals, but make you largely invisible to the social jockeying at the bar scene. Being tall is often intimidating, and being short often means people underestimate you. To some degree, these presentations are out of our hands, special thanks to genetics, but in other ways, they're crucial to our understanding both for the construction of a purposeful presentation, and as a way of understanding how other people view us. Be mindful of how your appearance will affect peoples' immediate judgment of you.

Affect, Body Language, and Eye Contact
- This category could also be called "non-verbal communication", and it's probably far more important than you realize. An unspoken part of 'being gray' is what you're say by your posture. On this subject, plenty has been written, but don't overthink it. You might think you're being socially dominant by staring at people, but chances are you're just being weird and making people uncomfortable. In this case, we're not looking to dominate others with our posture and eye contact - that would be decidedly NOT gray. What we're looking for is a relaxed, confident posture that allows others to let their guard down. We will circle back around to the idea that being gray can mean different things in different circumstances and in different company, but the disposition we're looking for very generally is neutral; not intimidating, not weak.

From a neutral posture, we can take whichever shape we need to in order to best fit in with our company. Most of the time, the thing we're trying to obscure is that we're dangerous. Having a disposition that encourages others to relax requires smiling, making interesting, reciprocal small talk, being confident without being confrontational. Moving too much or too little, "keeping your head on a swivel", or constantly avoiding eye contact (or making too much of it) sends messages that you're not relaxed, and a significant portion of putting people at ease is because you'll find people 'mirror' affect. They'll copy what other people around them do, and if you're uptight and defensive, they will be too. If you're nervous and flinchy, they will be too.

A final word on affect and non-verbal communication: a tremendous amount of bodily linguistics are gestural, or making abstract ideas visible through hand signals. For example "ok", or "stop". You can probably instantly imagine what those look like. Now, consider that this is extremely culturally specific, and those gestures outside of your home culture may be offensive or completely foreign.

Shoes and Equipment
- Probably two of the biggest tells to look for are "what kind of shoes are they wearing?" and "what's in their pockets?" Shoes can tell us some pretty substantial details about the person, to include their level of activity, their profession, their affluence, their penchant for fashion and social living, or levels of athleticism. Well-worn trail shoes such as Solomon, Merrell, or Keen are a significant "first glance" at a person, since these brands are often associated with military and law enforcement professionals, and specifically those from more 'elite' backgrounds (or those looking to emulate). Medical professionals often wear shoes specially designed for nurses and doctors who are on their feet for long periods of time. Work boots, loafers, and flip flops all tell you a story about the person/people you're dealing with, and something of their priorities.

Combining this with things like flashlights, pocket knives, or multi-tools, you can get a more complete picture of the person and their background and tune your approach to interacting with them. So, whereas I might say "yussir" to a man in a dirty Dickies shirt with hands that look like gnarled branches, I'll probably give a more crisp "yes sir" to a person in a well-tailored suit.

Age, Gender, and Numbers
- Here's the crown jewel of the details; and that is your age, gender, and company. Let's start with the obvious: Who stands out more? 4 young men walking down the street, or a man and woman? How about a man and a woman compared to a 55 year old woman in plain clothes?

The bottom line is that young men, and especially those in groups, raise our hackles, and why not? Statistically, they're the most likely to cause trouble, and more than that, we're biologically programmed to recognize the behaviors of juvenile males as more threatening and less controlled. On the other hand, older women almost entirely evade the net, unless they present themselves in a way that's flagrantly drawing attention.

Gray Pride and African Proverbs

A Grey Man usually evolves from the guy or gal who is interested in moving past just the basic CCW concerns. They are in search of some deeper knowledge and opinions. For this type of person, YouTube is a treasure trove of folks with endless thoughts on how to be the optimal wallflower. The issue is that most YouTubers are sponsored, and as a result cover mostly industry-fed material. The meta of the cool kid gun world these days is very tactical.

This has led to a culture that we like to refer to as “Tom Clancy’s Concealed Carry.” In the same way that Tom’s novels have been hyper-modernized and hyper-stylized into a series of video games about the slick-looking rigs and secretive units, folks have elevated the daily routine of shoving a Glock in your jeans to the most interactive “society simulator” out there. 

Thus, the culture of maintaining a low profile became mostly equipped with Danner boots, tan hats with velcro flags, and 5.11 pants. While there may be nothing actually wrong with wanting to look like a Navy SEAL during business casual day at the shoothouse, it certainly isn’t accomplishing the goal of decreasing the blip you make on a bad guy’s radar. 

As you can probably guess, this whole phenomenon looks eerily similar to what happens when police and military personnel start discussing concealed carry - a topic their job generally hasn't taught them much about. After spending a career turned loose in the Middle East, "low-profile" to an assaulter likely means trading their favorite camouflage pattern for olive drab. Crye cut pants definitely will give you the "CAG Casual" look that fits in if you're a shooting instructor, but if you're navigating the rigorous operating environment of the grocery store, you may come across as a tad overdressed. All lessons are to be taken with a grain of salt, but clothing advice from someone who's spent the last 20 years in a uniform should likely be corroborated.

What's the problem with gun-guy pants in your daily dress? Nothing if that's what you'd like to advertise, as that's what clothing like that does. You may not be proactively trying to let everyone around you know that you’re packing a pistol and a spare mags, but anyone who ever cared to look will immediately know what that little bump under your Grunt Style T-shirt is. We refer to this as 'passive advertising.' It's a bit more common than we'd like, unfortunately, but we understand where it comes from. The media for gun-enthusiasts, training, and preparedness is full of these tactically-oriented items. A newcomer to concealed carry would be introduced to all this rather easily. The next logical step could be to think that all this is accepted as standard practice if one didn't know any better.

In an industry full of ex-SF resumes, one must ask themselves how we let career Soldiers write the book on how to look like a normal guy, especially since their audience are the only normal guys in the equation. 

Being gray isn't a tactical decision as much as it is a way of conducting yourself so that information about who you are and what you're capable of is controlled.

It can mean serious consequences for carrying in non-permissive environments, whereas 'getting made' has little to no fallout for an off-duty cop, or an operator in plain clothes with the full support of the US government behind them. But consider a citizen in an uncertain political situation amidst the backdrop of pandemics and rioting, it takes on very serious additional connotations. Roosevelt's recounting of the West African adage "Walk softly and carry a big stick..." is often cited, but people leave out two things: context and the conclusion.

Teddy was talking about foreign policy, and meant that policy should be considered intelligently, without ruckus, sufficiently in advance of the outcomes, and backed by threat of overwhelming violence.

The end of the saying, which is left out more often than not, is: "...and you will go far."

It's still very relevant.

Memory and the Average Witness

Most people don't have a strong ability to recall details of events. Often, as little as 20% of relevant details are retained by direct witnesses, and the brain can start playing some funny tricks as you try and recall events. The brain requires some background to construct memories upon, and in the absence of facts, it often re-creates its own. So, for example, while you probably remember the name of the last place you went to eat out, you may not remember the color of the carpet, how the menu was organized, or what art adorned the venue. If you try and imagine it, you may be able to conjure a general idea (dark, light, etc), but as you do that, the brain tends to fill in the blanks from other, unrelated experiences. Beyond just that, it's common for people to guess in place of admitting they don't know a fact.

For example, if a person was struck by a car, and you ask them "how fast was the car going?", how can they answer? They can either make a guess (as they have no access to the speedometer at the time of the incident) or they can give an answer that's subjective (Fast, not that fast, slow, etc).

As a component of understanding blending in, it's absolutely vital that we remember details as well. There's no special trick or training that needs to be done other than rote mental exercise, often referred to KIMs (Keep in Memory), which originated from the Kipling novel "Kim". If we unravel blending in, at its core is the attention to detail to prevent important details from slipping our own notice.

This is worth considering both to strengthen your own ability to recognize and recollect information, as well as critically assess what "stands out". Remember, you're never going to be free from generalities, even if you're very effective at blending in. You'll still be subject to things such as gender, height, complexion, hair color, etc. As you think on this, consider how changing those things affects your general description.

Goal oriented planning

We've covered a lot of ground here, and here's what it really all comes down to:

What are we trying to accomplish by being gray?

Are you trying to present a smaller threat to criminals? Outrun from agents of a corrupt government? Dodge a BOLO?

In most cases, there's more to it than just looking like you belong - you need some knowledge of digital tracking and surveillance detection, methods of accessing funds that don't tie you to a specific location, and a near absolute avoidance of all things familiar.

Put in that light, blending in while utterly avoiding the places and people you're comfortable with should put this all into context. No one set of clothes is going to do the work for you.

The net takeaway from this section is twofold:

  1. Your assessment of how you might need to present yourself should be done beforehand, and;
  2. We need to be able to use a similar approach to our non-verbal communication when we're blending in: people 'mirror' posture and stance as they attempt to get comfortable with new people. If we're in an unfamiliar area, looking similar to those around us is more important than fooling the Karen in the grocery store into thinking you're not a sheepdog.

The Social Benefit of Blending In - and how it applies to disasters

As this article heads to its final stage, small pockets of Minneapolis were turned smoldering wreckage. COVID has had a few months to spread social confusion, and obscuring your identity is now literally required in some places, and we have the added conflict of ones' ethnicity being an "identifiable marker". If blending in wasn't a moving target before, it certainly is now.

It should be obvious at this point that advertising your capability, level of preparedness, and political opinions aren't going to help the situation, so if we were view this as a hierarchy, we could start with:

  1. Where we live (ensure it's secure, nonchalant, and unremarkable).
  2. Watch what you - and your family - post online.
  3. How we present ourselves, starting with a cogent assessment of what we can get away with.
  4. The development and maintenance of interpersonal communication skills.

Being gray and blending in while sitting in a coffee shop doesn't matter if you walk out and get into a car that screams that you've got something that makes you worth targeting, whether that's wealth, political affiliation, or occupation. Disasters have a way of exposing tension and the fragility of our social systems. When resources are stretched, you might be on your own in terms of security, medical care, and other benefits of advanced society. Your ability to blend in will directly affect how well you can influence others and engineer beneficial outcomes.

Be humble, be polite, be effective, and put in the work. If you've got character, people will see it and you'll have value.

If you don't have character, there will be no way of hiding it.


ISG Team

July 16, 2020

Edited 7/17/2020 to reflect a more accurate view of the state of things in Minneapolis. Thank you to Rachel for the suggestion.

join the pack

Get personalized training & consultation.


Latest articles


2020: Basic Training for the Decade

Here's to hoping for a safe, happy, and productive 2021 - while acknowledging that it was very likely the first in a series of very troubled years.


Mythbusting: Baofengs Radios

You see these radios everywhere; influencers trying to look technically competent post pictures of their Baofengs constantly. Why is that bad? Let's dive in.


The Definitive IFAK Article

The one-stop-shop article for what you need and where to get it. No marketed or paid-for premade solutions here.

Firearm Skills

Guns of ISG: The Makarov

In this article, we will outline below why we believe that the Makarov should be considered as a well-rounded compact EDC carry gun for OCONUS use.Enter the Mak


Bad practice: Is your spouse is a Liability?

The case of Mark and Patricia McCloskey have one dramatic lesson to be learned - if you're not discussing security with your family, you're wrong.

The Deep End

Spheres of Violence 3: The Universal Language

Those encouraging violence in our society are trapping us in a deadly game. We discuss the outcomes and consequences of the "Boys of Low Standing" and violence.

The Training Mindset

Here at ISG, we talk much on the topic of “mindset” as it applies to situations - here we discuss mindset as it relates to training.

K9 Emergencies 101: Bleeding Control

Your dogs get hurt, too. Learn to apply the skills and acquire the equipment needed for everything you'll want to keep your puppers safe from catastrophe.


Trust your Gut: Reading People

A tremendous amount of what we communicate is done without saying a word. We look at some of the things to look for when interacting with people.


Radio Communication 201: Short Range HAM Radio Operation

In this article, Drew breaks down the basics of short-range HAM radio, bands, and operations to better understand their pros and cons in the US and abroad.


Concussions, the Silent Epidemic

One in Four Americans report to having suffered a concussion, but not nearly that amount know what to do about it.

Level Up

Intro to K9 Emergencies: IFAK Composition

Dogs get hurt, too. What you need to patch them up isn't all-too-different from what you'd use on yourself, but the differences are important.

never miss an update.

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.