The Spies That Learn to Stand Up For Themselves

The business of being a spy is a dangerous one. Your job is to be somewhere you’re not supposed to be, and often, if you’re caught, the penalties can include incarceration or corporal punishment. To help prevent spies from being caught, clandestine agencies like the CIA in the United States give field operatives the tools they need to blend in — to go unnoticed. Spies are given wigs and masks, clothes that match the fashion of where they’re going, and some are even outfitted with oral prostheses to help change their accents. They’re trained in the language of the land and in the culture of where they’re going, too.

And they need to learn to stand.

Jonna Mendez was a CIA agent from 1966 to 1993, ultimately heading up the agency’s Disguise Division and earning the very cool title of “Chief of Disguise.” As she noted in a reddit AMA, she was an advocate for the importance of the department; when she briefed then-President George Hebert Walker Bush in 1991 or 1992, she showed up in a mask, hoping to make the point that looks can be deceiving. (As seen in a video interview with Wired, it worked.) During her years in the Disguise Division, she and her colleagues became experts in the culture and fashion of their target regions — if you shake hands the wrong way or are wearing the wrong clothes, you’ll immediately appear to be out of place, and that’s a bad thing if you’re a spy. But Mendez and the team didn’t stop there. They also focused on mannerisms that most people don’t think twice about — like, what we do when we’re doing nothing.

If you’re in the United States, next time you see a person standing up and waiting around — or if you see a group of people standing at social even having a casual conversation — take a quick look to see how they’re standing. There’s a very good chance that some of the people are leaning against a wall, with one foot crossed in front of the other, or something similar. If people are not leaning against the wall, they’re often standing with one foot slightly but noticeably in front of the other, as opposed to standing more straight and upright.

And apparently, that’s a culturally learned trait — Americans do that, but other cultures don’t. As Mendez told NPR, Americans often take a more casual approach to things than Europeans, and that’s reflected in how we stand around. Per Mendez, Europeans “think that we are slouchy, a little sloppy, and they think they can almost see that in our demeanor on the street. Because they stand up straight, they don’t lean on things. They are on two feet and we’re always on one foot with that other foot kind of stuck out.”’ (You can see a demonstration of this during the above-linked Wired interview of Mendez, here. ) So if you’re hoping to by a spy for the CIA, the Disguise Division will train you how to stand differently.

How we stand isn’t the only thing we take for granted; there are other seemingly innocuous mannerisms that Mendez and her team would “fix.” As Mendez told Wired, “Americans are oblivious to what it is that reveals themselves to a foreign crowd or foreign intelligence service when they’re out in public.” For example, as seen in the Wired video, Europeans tend to eat with their forks in their left hand and don’t switch it to their right hand, and rarely put down their knives; Americans, switch their forks to their right hand and put down their knives to do so. And beyond that, there are mannerisms that are unique to us, as individuals, that we take for granted. But there are ways to account for those, if you’re a sply. Mendez gave two examples in her reddit AMA:

The facial oval is not the only thing involved in disguise. A unique walk (I have one!), “busy hands” that are uniquely yours, poor posture, those kinds of things have to be evaluated and changed if required. A walk can be changed by a small piece of gravel in one shoe, busy hands can be quieted by holding something – a pipe, a set of keys, anything, and poor posture can be addressed with orthopedic back braces. Those are only three things that quickly come to mind that we would deal with. People who know me can see me a block away, no matter what disguise I might be wearing, and call out “Hey, Jonna!” because they recognize my walk.

In the end, per Mendez, it’s these types of traits that are often the dead giveaways. The goal of any spy is to be anything but unusual: as she told Wired, “You want to be the person that gets on the elevator, and then gets off, and nobody really remembers that you were even there.” And if standing up straight helps you do that, you best stand up straight.

Bonus fact: If you want to see some of Mendez’s work on display, you can go to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. — she works with the Museum regularly. If you’re closer to Moscow, there’s another option: the KGB Museum also has some of her handiwork. Mendez explained why in her reddit AMA: “I can tell you a little about a failed operation – one that has always been stuck in my mind because I can’t really say exactly why it went wrong. I don’t know why. But it did, and it was in Moscow. One of our officers was using a disguise that I had helped prepare for him. It was a mask. Somewhere during that evening the operation went wrong and our officer had to abort. Part of that act was to remove his disguise and stash it somewhere nearby – like maybe under a rock. I don’t know. What I DO know is that the KGB found it, and that it is now on display in the KGB museum in Moscow – a place that, unfortunately, I cannot visit. “

From the Archives: The Spies in the Toy Box?: Why Furbies aren’t allowed in the CIA’s offices.