What is the Low-Profile Principle?
Some methods have proved very helpful in contributing to long-term security on trips – especially in high-risk countries. Well-known but rarely taken into account in the area of travel management is the Low-Profile Principle.
Low-Profile means behaving as inconspicuously as possible in order to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to oneself in a foreign environment.
Being recognized as a stranger abroad can sometimes quickly becomes critical. Foreigners – especially Europeans – are not necessarily welcomed with open arms all over the world. In some countries, insults or even assault are a threat. But even if the population of the country is well disposed towards you, people who are obviously strangers to the country place themselves at additional risk if they make themselves recognizable as such. After all, Europeans and Americans are often considered to be wealthy and are thus popular targets for criminals.
In some places, it is absolutely necessary to travel incognito. You should not underestimate the risk, because it doesn’t matter what you are, but what you seem to be. A stranger cannot immediately recognize you as European or American. Often all foreigners are lumped together and thus inadvertently become the target of criminals or terrorists. For example, anyone who is on the road in a white vehicle could obviously belong to the United Nations – if you do not take this into account in some regions, you quickly become a moving target. Anyone who does not exercise caution here easily puts himself or herself in great danger.
Foreigners can usually be recognized easily: The clothes, the language, the manners – it is not an easy task to disguise your origin. Especially in countries whose culture is very different from ours, Low Profile becomes a major challenge. For this reason, before traveling, you should think intensively about how this principle of protection can be implemented as effectively as possible. Well thought-out and thorough planning is crucial, because even the smallest error in detail can make this concept of protection ineffective or even provoke new dangers. Therefore, proceed carefully and pay attention to the national and regional characteristics of your destination.
So what can you do, in order to Maintain a Low-Profile?
The most obvious indication that one is not a native is clothing. This problem becomes clear especially in Muslim countries. In many countries, any woman not wearing a headscarf in public stands out as a foreigner. However, in some countries men should also forego wearing short or sleeveless shirts and shorts in order to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Often, it is advisable to adapt your clothes to the traditional style of dress, even if by law no particular dress code is set. For women, this can mean wearing an abaya, a traditional robe, or a hijab, a combination of headscarf and body covering. For men it can also be useful to leave their jeans and sweaters in their suitcase and instead wear a typical local garment. Here especially you should take regional specificities into account, since there are great differences in Islamic clothing. Only in this way can you protect yourself from unpleasant situations and avoid possible harassment.
Often even small details are enough to betray your origin and attract attention. Anyone who wears for example a German flag on their jacket or pants has not quite thought through their Low Profile. Popular prints of British or American flags on T-Shirts and skirts or corresponding fashion accessories are to be worn with great caution. Crosses as religious symbols or fashionable designs, as a piece of jewelry or tattoo, should be avoided or covered if possible in Islamic countries. In some countries of the world, such small missteps can lead to disaster. As far as possible, you should also avoid openly displaying visible designer brand logos. It is irrelevant whether it is an original or a fake. For example, anyone who travels to South America with a Gucci suitcase should not be surprised if they are targeted by criminals. The information that you have something valuable to be had will certainly reach the right person at some point. Brand logos that are considered as “middle class” in Europe may already be included here. Conspicuous jewelry also shows others that a theft or robbery could be worthwhile – regardless of whether or not it is actually valuable.
Regardless of your destination, the following is true, especially for women: As far as possible, avoid provocative clothing. Mini-skirts and high heels do not belong in your luggage, because they will make you extremely interesting especially for criminals with sexual motivations. Moreover, even in many non-Muslim countries, it is considered unseemly for a woman to dress in such a suggestive way.
A special challenge: The linguistic barriers of the country. In most cases we already reveal ourselves as foreigners when we say our first sentence. For even if you have more or less mastered the local language, only absolute professionals are able to hide an accent. This shortcoming can hardly be suppressed. Anyone who does not speak the language of the country mostly relies on English, French or Spanish instead – and again shows that they are foreign. They may even be associated with a country that they are not from. No matter what you do, there is no perfect solution to this problem. The only thing left is to speak as little as possible in public if it poses special risks.
Of course, that is easy to say, because it can quickly get embarrassing when, instead of giving an answer when addressed in public, you only give the person a baffled look. That is why you should learn some important words in the local language before the trip. These include basic terms such as „Yes“, „No“ or „Thank you“. In case of doubt, it is still better to respond with a clumsy negation than to give no answer at all.
The wrong kind of behavior can also quickly make you stand out. This already starts with the greeting. In some Asian countries, anyone who tries to shake hands, as a greeting may only get critical looks. You should be familiar with the typical etiquette of the region in order to be able to move freely in public, but also in the business world.
What does the traveler who fulfills all clichés look like? He is in the middle of a market square, a camera around his neck and an open map in hand, gesturing wildly. So do it differently, if you do not want to attract attention. Avoid signs of disorientation – it will immediately be obvious that you are not familiar with the surroundings. Study the city map somewhere off to the side, not in the middle of a crowd. Just try to “go with the flow”.
You also have to be careful taking pictures. In many countries, it is frowned upon or even prohibited to photograph people you don’t know. If you have a camera with you, you should not let it dangle around your neck, but keep it safely stowed in a bag.
In war- and crisis-torn countries, it can have disastrous consequences to be recognized as a foreigner. Great caution is advised especially when traveling cross-country by car. For example, anyone who travels through a developing country with a brand new SUV will not only be sure to get envious looks from the local population, but will also easily attract the attention of criminals. Anyone who cannot make a detour around critical areas should therefore consider using a different vehicle. A local vehicle that corresponds to the national average is inconspicuous and enables you to remain unrecognized. Of course it is more pleasant to travel in a car with European standards than with a battered subcompact without air conditioning. However, security is a special luxury that you should not forget in your considerations.
As far as possible, drop your Western habits in foreign countries, move with the crowd and adapt to specific behaviors. This is the only way to maintain your Low-Profile.
Maintaing a Low-Profile does not mean that you are totally safe; but best practice shows, that it can help a lot!