Gray Man Strategies 101: Peeling Away the Thin Veneer of Society - ITS Tactical

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Gray Man Strategies 101: Peeling Away the Thin Veneer of Society

By ITS Guest Contributor

NYC City Streets

Moving through the city during a “loss of civility” (government-speak for breakdown) can be extremely dangerous, even life-threatening. Sadly, there will be many predators who wait for just such occasions to prey upon those whom they perceive as weak. We call them “opportunivores.” Opportunivores only obey laws because they fear punishment. When law enforcement is removed from the equation, opportunivores become a law unto themselves.

Avoiding these predators may require different strategies. One is to move in a large enough force, and to be threatening enough, that the predators move on to easier targets. Another is to move when the predators are not vigilant. A third and more flexible method, is to learn to blend into a crowd and not do anything to draw attention to oneself.

Blending into a crowd is called becoming a gray man.

There are people moving around us every day whose physical presence is so non-stimulating that we ignore them. They are for all intents and purposes, invisible to us. The gray man is the one we want to emulate in a disaster. The problem is, people have never seen a true gray man, unless you’ve been taught to see them. Because if you casually noticed him, his gray man-ness is in dispute.

So who is the gray man and how do we find and emulate him? It will require some time observing crowds of people. The process is based on an understanding of how your mind remembers what it sees.

RAS (Reticular Activating System)

The principle is simple. The mind remembers whatever significantly stimulates it. If there is no stimulus, there is no noticing. Breaking this idea down further, the brain contains a filter for all sensory input called the Reticular Activating System. It’s a part of the brain that filters sensory data. For example, your eyes send a complete stream of data down the optic nerve. The RAS scans that feed and determines what parts of the process to filter and what parts to pay attention to. This allows the brain to conserve energy by not having to process all the visual data.

What does the RAS filter and what does it send through?

The brain is looking for first, threats. The RAS will send data related to fast movement, threatening movement, movement on vectors that will intercept your own. It also looks for bright colors, human shapes, reflections, bright light, implied movement and other similar things that STIMULATE the brain. The RAS ignores areas of continuous color, shadow, dull, natural colors, slow movement and off vector movement.

The RAS is a very effective movement for sound input as well. It filters sounds that are unnecessary for us to notice, such as the sound of the refrigerator running, but alerts us to sounds that may represent a threat, such as the sound of someone trying to jimmy a window at night.

I have a friend that lives in New York city. I was on the phone with him one day and just outside, an ambulance went by on his end. The sound of the siren via the phone, was incredibly loud in my ears. I interrupted him and told him to wait till the ambulance went by. He said,”What ambulance?” The sound of the ambulance was so common that he filtered it out completely.

So what does the RAS have to do with being the gray man? Simply this. To make yourself invisible to predators, don’t trip their triggers. If you do not create a stimulus that the predator keys in on, you are invisible to him. Just like my friend who could not hear the ambulance, a gray man moves around our awareness without triggering any alarms.

The Art of Blending

How is this accomplished? It seems simple enough. Just blend in. But there is actually quite an art form to this.


Height is an element of being a gray man that we have little control over. The best gray man is ordinary in every respect. He’s of average height and weight. He has no obvious physical features that draw attention, ie, big nose, bald head, facial hair, etc. For example, I have a very hard time being a gray man because I am a big man. I am 6’2” and “husky,” as they say. People remember me as “that big dude.”


Dress is an element within our control. For the most part, natural and neutral colors work best; Browns and grays. Nothing to create a memory like a T-shirt with a saying or photos. Style of clothing tends to be very conservative. Nothing showing skin, nothing too fashionable, nothing to out of fashion. Ordinary is the key word here.

The standard “uniform” for military’s civilian wear consist of 5.11 Tactical pants, (referred to by some of my friends as “shoot me first pants),” a khaki cotton button-down shirt with epaulettes, Oakley shades, desert combat boots, and a shaved head. Add to that a nice MOLLE backpack, and you have target written all over you. No one doubts that you have some very cool gear in that pack and they will want it. But as cool as that looks, it will draw the attention of both LE and predators.


Since the gray man attracts no attention, his mannerisms must be small and discreet. No sweeping gestures. Energetically, the gray man is withdrawn. He does not project confidence. He does not look around much, he avoids eye contact.

I stood with a friend on the top level of the Galleria mall observing a class exercise involving foot surveillance. He nudged me and pointed to a guy on the escalator, “Fed!” I asked how he knew the guy was a federal agent. He told me to watch where he looked, what he looked at. Very discreetly, the man in question turned his body to the left and did an almost imperceptible head sweep that allowed him to see behind him. Then he did an adjustment that allowed him to sweep the area on his right. Without having it pointed out to me, I probably would not have noticed. However, the man displayed a now obvious level of awareness. This is one of the reasons I do not do gray well. I am always too curious. When I walk into a room, my head is on a swivel. It is a hard habit for me to break. Consequently, I have a hard time doing gray.


One of the key elements of camouflage is learning to match your movement to the baseline. If you spend any time in a city, you will notice that every neighborhood has a unique flavor. We call that the baseline. It refers to the sound, motion, activity level of the neighborhood in a normal situation. The speed at which people move, the way they gesture, the volume and speed with which they speak. All these elements and many more make up the baseline. You can learn the baseline for a given neighborhood by sitting somewhere and watching.

The element of matching the baseline is probably the single most important element of personal camouflage. Learning to walk like the natives walk will hide you better than just about anything else.


A key element in avoiding trouble is not to go where trouble tends to be. This means you must know the terrain like a native. You must know what neighborhoods are safe (relatively) and which ones to avoid. You must know roads and routes, locations of police stations, gas stations, convenience stores and emergency clinics. You should know what areas have street lights at night and which are dark. Know where the choke points are and where LE is likely to set up blockades. Being a gray man means avoiding trouble by not going where trouble is, unless necessary.

Learning to See the Gray Man

The following exercise was one I developed for the Urban Escape & Evasion class I teach. To learn to see the previously invisible gray man, go to a public area with lots of foot traffic. Sit back and watch the crowd. As a person walks by, notice the stimulus that drew your eye. In your mind (not out loud), create an insult about that person’s stimulus. The more outlandish the better. Before you all get offended here, the purpose is to pound into your consciousness the stimulus – what you notice about each person. “That guy has a huge nose.” “That guy has completely bizarre taste in shoes” “Do they sell men’s clothes where he bought those pants?” “Wow. That almost looks like he got dressed in the dark.” Remember your purpose is to identify the stimulus.

Then after a few minutes, someone will walk by and you will not find anything. Nothing to make fun of, nothing to ridicule. Pay attention to that person. Observe them carefully. See how they move, what kind of energy they project. See how they interact with others, what they pay attention to (or not). If possible follow them for a bit. Observe them move. I am sure from having done this myself and observing as classes do this, that the key to becoming a gray man lies in your ability to observe and mimic.


The gray man is the person who moves around the periphery of our awareness without creating any stimulus. This makes that person invisible for all practical purposes. Being invisible will greatly reduce the risk of falling prey to the two legged predators who will make life so “interesting” when this thin veneer of society peels away and reveals the pure ugly evil that lies underneath.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Kevin Reeve is the founder of onPoint Tactical, training professionals and select civilians in urban escape & evasion, urban survival, wilderness survival, tracking and scout skills. I’ve personally taken onPoint Tactical’s Urban Escape & Evasion class and highly recommend it as a resource!

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  • ChrisBrooks2

    Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking about how I’d get home from work if SHTF suddenly during a work day, and I might have to walk through some rough areas. As much as I love the black trench coat look, it’s a little too memorable.

  • unistat76

    I think a lot about the Greyman as I live in Metro Detroit.  As you are probably aware, we are one bad event away from a nightmare situation.  A common theme when going grey is brought up, is that “tactical pants” seem to be singled out.  I’ll tell you this, in the blue collar area in which I live, cargo pants are extremely common.  In fact, full on cammo on every article of clothing and accessory can be seen everywhere.
    My problem as I see it, is this: When I’m travelling from one end of Metro Detroit to the other, I will pass through at least five different “cultural zones,” if you will.  I am bound to stand out in at least three of them due to my dress and/or physical characteristics.  I don’t know if this is as true in other urban environments, but there are neighborhoods where I have no hope of going grey.  Getting through them as quickly as possible is my only option.
    Any future articles on Urban E&E?

    • Q

      I love the VERTX pants. They are my “dad” pants. I can stuff the pockets full of what I need for my kids, and they don’t look like overstuffed saddlebags. To my eye, they don’t look overly tactical either.

    • D

      The new tactical ted pants… after the FBI guys started wearing them. Same thing happend to 5.11 pants they started as outdoor wear / rock climbing wear

    • unistat76 have you thought about having some different clothes in your car that you could have the right close if you got caught in that zone. Then if you are on foot,  maybe a few items that would  be generic enough to go through the different zones?

  • ITStactical

    Liaf0173 Thanks for sharing! ^MP

  • B_Dawg

    Great article, I’m glad to see Kevin is working with you.  I took his UE&E class a few years ago…he is an excellent resource.

  • alecks_f

    it seems that so much of the ‘grey man’ characteristics are completely at odds with the majority of mil and LE mindsets such as being situationally aware and maintaining a hard target, even the basic mil posture you develop in basic training of standing up straight can make you an easy to spot ‘average joe’. You provided an excellent exercise, and I’m putting it to use right now on my train commute. I have already been able to identify exactly how I stand out, and how one simple characteristic can paint an otherwise ‘grey man’ RED.Excellent article.

  • Jesse Shwartz

    Swiveling your head a lot? So that was you in Boston before July 4th?

  • Eleanor

    I myself wear the middle-aged woman disguise. Plain well-worn clothing, worn vinyl purse, frumpy shoes, no makeup.   I plod.  Most of the time people look right through me.

    • RedRiver416

      @Eleanor My father showed me this back in the 60s.. Came home at night on the NYC subway, carried some cash.. Wore an ancient overcoat with rolled up newspaper in the pocket, old raggy hat and well worn shoes. Never heard of him having a problem. He grew up down south in the boonies so I’m sure he was very aware of his city surroundings. Took to the rails during the depression as there was no food for him at home. Didn’t realize it then but he was Mr Stealthy. Always drove plain cars, never flashed and always encouraged us to maintain low but confident profile. As I read this article it dawned on me that he had taught us well.

    • knowshitsurelock

      @Eleanor But in reality you are a MILF…right!

  • Matt

    Kevin, Great article. You mention finding the neighborhood ‘baseline’ in the movement section of the article.  I”m curious to hear your thoughts about finding the ‘baseline’ for Dress.  As an extreme example, if everyone in a neighborhood is wearing bright colored shoes, and I wore a pair of brown shoes, that would be ‘bizarre’ choice in shoes. 
    Looking forward to seeing more articles from you.
    Unistat76, I lived in DC proper for 10 years.  And there were some neighborhoods, or even blocks, where there was way I could blend in.  I think the key is being aware of where those places are and having a plan, knowing the routes through, etc.

  • bob_owens

    abobloblaw OhioCoastie EXACTLY what I’ve noticed about the GBs that have come through Appleseed. Complete ghosts… until they shoot.

    • OhioCoastie

      bob_owens GB?

    • bob_owens

      OhioCoastie Green Berets. We’re near Bragg, so a few have come through with their families. Gray as they come.

    • OhioCoastie

      bob_owens Ahhhhh. OK. Yeah, they take that “quiet professional” creed seriously.

  • Gundamnzerker

    Great concept but I have seen it in the wrong places as drug lords and lower scum swoop threw crowds delivering if u dont know what your looking for you will never see them there is a method to there madness I works for catching them. Its all high odds

  • Daryl5370

    Good stuff here, I’m not in a urban environment very much but this is good information for when I do go to the city.I don’t want to stand out or look like some kind of hayseed..keep up the good work

  • 907

    I have greatly appreciated these last few articles Kevin has put on this site. Thanks for the great info!

  • drbombe

    As a grey man, I drive a simple car most of the time, a van a lot of the time, toyota, grey oddly enough, no stickers.  In it I am armed to the teeth, I have my get out of dodge pack, rifle, ammo ect.  But from the outside, no big deal.  In a SHTF I do have a 3/4 ton suburban that is made for trouble, but that rarely comes out in the day light.

  • jedagi

    I’ve been places where everyone seems to be in a fashion show. Everyone is trying to get attention.To the point where it all runs together. In that case a plain dressed person would stand out like a turd in a punchbowl.
    So I guess in this case the gray man would want to dress flashy too. To blend in.

    • DavidTeer

      jedagi  those people are called liberal. Gray men tend not to hang out around those type

  • lewis99

    I disagree with the whole having your head on a swivel thing. I think that is very important as it allows you to see what is going on around you, to look for threats, like you said you wouldn’t have noticed it if your friend hadn’t pointed it out.

    • lewis99

      I think a good compromise would be to quickly observe a room and then just look busy with what ever else you are doing, if you are walking along, just do this every five minutes.

  • Gray

    I am the TRUE Gray Man… I am only know by two things… My spider boots and my presence to pray in place PRIOR to a pending disaster I foretold when I was a Black I called Yawei 🙂
    8,000 years after I arrived, they “killed me” and so many years later, I just wear grey Guess? Jeans, a plain white tee, and the boots I died in Last April…

    • Gray

      Sorry for the typos, I am homeless and need help…

    • Annoyed Father of 3

      @Gray You need to take some English lessons Mr Big Bad Boogie Man

  • digilio56

    Excellent article that I sent my 21 year old son; who will son go to South East Asia from his Ivy East Coast school that cannot not teach these life saving techniques.

  • Joe Dew

    How did I just now hear about this? It is an insanely logical concept that I feel I have been doing for years. See and be unseen. Move predictably to not warrant a second guess. I can dig it. As for keeping your head on a swivel. Do so without drawing attention to yourself. ie: Standing in line at the grocery store; look at tabloids while catching glimpses at your surroundings, check your phone in different postures (look at tabloid whilst facing right then check phone whilst facing left). Its easy to be ignored when doing boring millennial activities.

    • knowshitsurelock

      Joe Dew DITTO, nothing new here, but I guess for a lot of the under 50 crowd this is a new concept.

      And to the author…KUDOS!

      My wife and I both became CERT members (Community Emergency Response Team) a few years back…not necessarily to respond, but you get a I.D. that can get you through LEO road blocks. I was an 86W (combat medic) and I have special emergency medical skills listed on back of I.D. etc…  You guys and gals should look into that!…my 2 cents.

  • ArkansasFan

    What do you guys suggest for us redheaded gingers?

    • NarcisodaSilva

      ArkansasFan dye the hair.

    • kris toslux

      I love real red headed girls. Really, they are a gift from God. Keep your beautiful red locks flowing in the breeze until last minute. Then, break out the bottle of hair dye you have kept stored for emergencies. God bless you.

  • 12AngryWomen

    Gray women? I already have gone completely plain now in the small town I moved to. Not because I can blend since they know everyone’s faces, but because of the massive envy factor here. If I look too cute, they will assume I am after their husband/baby daddy, if I look too professional they will assume I am trying to take their jobs or puny positions of power, If I look fashionable they will assume I have money and will try to mooch or steal from me. The only time I look half decent is at church, where my friends that see me throughout the week are always so complimentary and ask- why don’t you dress like this all the time? Don’t want/don’t need the attention in a town of the walking dead.

    So- question is- can gray man even work in a small town? Or does the clannish behavior just intensify to the point where they round up everyone not born there as well as those they just don’t like?

    • ThomasPhuqtard

      12AngryWomen Just my opinion but NO gray man/woman can’t be achieved in a small town. However small towns are the safest places to live in the event all hell breaks loose because there is a degree of safety in numbers. When I say small town I mean 1 high school towns where everyone knows pretty much everyone and will defend each other from unknown person/threat. My guess is a town of 50K is about as small as the gray man/woman theory will work and I have lived in unincorporated farm communities in colorado to towns as small as 2000 people in arkansas and cities like phoenix AZ , atlanta GA and richmond VA so I have a bit of life experience to reflect on. If your town is big enough for a university or shopping mall then gray man/woman will work.

  • drbombe

    Ok, if you have moved into a small town, for the next 40 years you will be an outsider even if you marry have kids with a local you will be that girl from the cities or something along those lines.  But you can still blend in, clearly they see you if they notice you look a bit better at church and say something you need to blend in more, become as well dressed as the middle of the pack, not too much not too little become more like them and from behind they wont know who you are, just dont stick out, you dont want that.  I dont know if you have money or not but I say maximize middle class and you will be fine, bank out of town for your big money accounts but keep a local checking account with average money.

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