“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare (Shakespeare, 2010), and that is true even when behind the wheel. Driving is not a solitary activity but involves many interactions, with passengers, fellow drivers, gas station attendants, and, in most unwelcome fashion, for the most part, the highway patrol. The experience of a police traffic stop can be analyzed as dramatic interaction, wherein the driver and passengers present a play to the officer.
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Since this writer has never worked as a peace officer, that perspective is, unfortunately, unavailable. The study by the sociology of the details of face-to-face was a notion introduced by Erving Goffman in 1959, and his ideas have provided a fruitful means of understanding social behavior (Goffman, 1959). Although these ideas have been most thoroughly tested in the context of institutional settings, it seems appropriate to apply them to a family driving together.
Imagine the panic in the pit of the stomach: colored lights whirling and a siren wailing. No, it is not an alien abduction, but merely the constabulary pulling the car over. In many families, in those few moments between the instant the lights and siren start, and the point when the police officer comes to the driver’s side window, a mini-play is drafted, proposed to the actors, polished, and rehearsed. The curtain goes up when the window is rolled down. It is showtime! The reviews are starkly unambiguous and arrive immediately. A successful performance garners a warning, a stern talking to, or even help with directions. A flop means a stiff ticket and fine, or an appearance before a local magistrate.
How is this mini-drama created and staged in a matter of seconds and with no more than a few words of direction? This occurs almost without conscious effort. What are the constituents?
The belief firmly shared by the family is that a ticket is an expense and embarrassment and inconvenience. The family believes that such an outcome should be avoided by whatever means necessary. Accomplishing this may require suppressing the usual patterns and habits of behavior that each member indulges in ordinarily.
The front or mask of the driver and of the family is normality, an image of normality as near as possible to the idea of normality that the officer might be assumed to cherish. The aim of the family is to convince the police officer that, far from being reckless habitual lawbreakers, determined to endanger the populous, or child abusing kidnappers fleeing the rightful parents, or drug runners attempting to reach the border or DUIs, the car is being driven by sober, careful, law-abiding folk under some sort of unavoidable stress or pressure. This pressure, stress, distraction, confusion, whatever it is, has distracted the driver from a normal scrupulously careful attention to speed, signal, lane, etc., or whatever other perceived infraction prompted the officer to pull the car over.
When that darkly clad figure appears at the window with a ticket pad in hand, the driver needs to choose which facts, in addition to the registration information, to provide to the officer. The dramatic realization of an ideal narrative, with the desired outcome, requires emphasizing certain facts and emotions, and not others. For example, the driver often asks the officer whether they were doing something wrong, which prompted the policeman to turn on the lights and sirens. It is likely that the driver has a pretty darn good idea of what was being done wrong (although there are times when a brake light, signal, license plate, or towed or stowed item causes the police some concern of which the driver is entirely unaware.)
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Everyone in western countries, both drivers and constabulary, has an a priori notion of what a police stop looks, sounds, and feels like. It may have been created by watching TV or by previous personal or professional experience.
The image held by the highway patrol probably includes an idea of what a police traffic stop should look like: formed initially during police training and subsequently modified by personal experience and media watching. The most desirable circumstances include courtesy by all parties, cooperation, swift resolution, and a routine return to peaceful and safe driving. The worst circumstances include discovering that the driver is actually in the midst of committing a criminal act, or is mentally unbalanced, and will respond violently to the officer’s approach, risking the safety of the officer, themselves, or others.
The image held by the driver, similarly, maybe of a civil and gracious intervention and effort to assist the motorist. Alternatively, the driver may well fear hectoring, unfair, petty, or threatening abuse of power. In the worst nightmare case, a driver may fear a fraudulent misuse of the uniform to actually harm the driver.
All of these alternatives have occurred in life and art. All may inform the thinking and behavior of both driver and officer. The idealization of how the interaction should actually transpire is composed of the most benign of these scenarios, for both the driver and officer.
To achieve that benign scenario, the driver should do whatever is feasible to make credible the character of a normal, careful driver, in complete control of self and wheel1. The driver composes a tremulous smile and adopts, at worst, a harassed and put-upon mien. No matter how angry or frantic the driver was just before the stop, there should remain only an expression of parental affection and concern and a wholesome desire to adhere slavishly to the safety rules of the road.2
To avoid misrepresentation, it is critical that all passengers avoid sending messages which contradict the impression that the driver is trying to create. Such potential misrepresentations as a child yelling out, “Mom, you just told us that you wanted to drive us all into a tree!” or, “Daddy, I thought it was a sin to lie”, can substantially undermine the carefully crafted mien that the driver has adopted. If a passenger has a reputation for putting their foot in their mouth, that passenger is hissed at to “stay silent”.
In the era of computers, damaging information about prior driving infractions cannot be concealed. However, it is possible to exercise some level of deception by choosing to behave in a cooperative, calm (if hectored) fashion, and by clearly signaling (through deferential tone of voice and submissive posture and non-threatening gaze) a groveling respect for the uniform and the authority it represents. These signals of respect are crucial, no matter how callow, ignorant, or priggish an individual the police officer seems to be, or what one’s true personal feelings are about police power generally3.
The play acted out, with little aforethought, by a driver and (if cooperation can be achieved) the passengers, for the benefit of the police officer, may require that the driver adopt, at least temporarily, a vastly distorted tone, attitude, and image. This image is composed ideally of deference for police authority, strong desire to adhere to traffic regulations, and some notion of “normality”. These temporarily adopted characteristics may be wildly in conflict with the driver’s beliefs about authority, personality, usual temperament, belief about whether an infraction actually occurred, or any other factors which make up the self. During the interaction, however, they are believed,
It is the observation of this writer that the fear of a traffic stop can have an effect that lasts for some time beyond the actual interaction. After espousing, with every appearance of sincerity, a deep desire to abide by the rules, it can create a certain dissonance for the driver to immediately return to whatever frame of mind led to the infraction in the first place. There is a chance that the chastening effect of a traffic stop lasts for hours. It may affect the behavior of the passengers, as well, in a salubrious fashion.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. New York, NY, USA: Doubleday.
Shakespeare, W. (2010). As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7, line 139. (J. Hylton, Editor, & The Tech (of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology)). Web.
Here are some examples of possible actions to take to create a credible character: Cease shrieking imprecations and threats at the kids in the back, cease threatening divorce, cease excavating the picnic cooler for a sandwich to replace the one that has just been ruined by being sat upon or dropped between the seats, disconnect the cell phone, put away the map, put away anything that could be mistaken for alcohol, weapons (e.g., that paring knife that was just used to cut an apple), or drugs (e.g., vitamin pills, herb tea, Mike and Ike candies), button-up blouses and pants, get everyone into seat belts, and straighten hair.
Here are some lines of script that have actually accomplished this goal:
“We have been driving for X hours now, and I must be really exhausted. I didn’t realize just how bad it was. Thank you for alerting me that my driving is becoming erratic. I should pull into the next rest stop and take a nap.”
I am so sorry – we are still several hours from our destination, and the kids are getting really uncomfortable because they need to go to the bathroom, and they did not manage it at the last rest stop. I must be pushing my speed because I am so worried.”
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Officer, I use seat belts, all the time. I started out this trip in my seat belt, but I had to turn around in my seat to discipline one of the kids for doing something dangerous to the other. I have had to do this three times in the last couple of miles. This last time, I must not have buckled the belt fully.
Oh, gosh, I did not know that sleeping on the floor of the car was against the rules. The kids are so deeply asleep back there, but if you insist, I will put them upright in seat belts from now on.
Here is an example of an interaction that almost turned out very badly:
Officer (very young, English not his first language): Why were you going wrong way down a one way street?
Driver (twice his age): I just picked up a houseguest at the train station and I wanted to show him around. We saw that there was a parade with a kids’ marching band, and I was trying to get back to that block to listen to the terrific music. I have never gone down any of these side streets before, and I had no idea that they were one-way. You stopped me when I was trying to pull off the street and make a safe turn around.
Officer: Where are you going after this?
Driver: To get the kids and our guest some ice cream.
Officer: So where are you going?
Driver: Well, there used to be that little ice cream place down Warren Street, but as far as I know there is only XXXXX (chain convenience store) for ice cream these days. Do you know anywhere else?
Officer: Are you trying to cop an attitude with me?
Driver: Of course not. Maybe you aren’t old enough to remember when there was more than one place to get an ice cream cone in this town, but I am. I wondered if you knew – you are driving around town all the time.
Officer: Your registration and license, please.
Some minutes later…
Officer: I ran your data through the computer, and you show up as not driving a stolen car, but I had to do that because I thought you were getting hostile on me.