False Positives

What is the purpose of your visit? The uniformed speaker must be kidding: it’s July and the car is packed to the gunnels. Parents and maps fill the front seat; four kids cram the back seat; a boxy tent-trailer brings up the rear. What does he think our purpose is?

Unperturbed, my father dispassionately describes our itinerary. Satisfied that we pose no danger to the United States, the border guard admits us. As we pull away, I pipe up, What if we had said that we were spies for the Canadian Government?

Parental patience had its limits, in the 1960s. I receive emphatic instruction in my father’s expectations of me at this and every border, today and always: Say nothing! pretty much captures it.

Some childhood training translates well into adult life: play nicely, share, clean up your room. Some does not: these days, I must say something at border crossings.  Usually, this means trouble.

Let me be clear: I do not smuggle and I never, ever lie to border guards. Cursed by an almost complete inability to lie convincingly, I tell the truth as much for pragmatism as for principle. Even so, people often don’t believe me.

At the border, my credibility problem hits a positive feedback loop. Questioned by an impassive and armed official, I get nervous and over-communicate. I tell the truth, the whole truth, too much truth. Babbling is a sign of nerves, nerves a sign of guilt, and guilt a reason for suspicion. They suspect nameless (and non-existent) crimes; I get more nervous. Now they’re sure I’m hiding something.

This difficulty peaked in the 1990s. For several years I took the same vacation, spring and fall. Flying from Edmonton into Vancouver, I rented a car and made a break for the border. My goal: respite from crazy working hours. My destination: the Olympic Peninsula, a splendid miscellany of mountains, tide pools, and roadside cafes with pecan pancakes.

The typical scenario plays again in my mind’s eye. I pull up to the border, smile at the guard. No response. I stop smiling and start getting nervous. He asks the standard questions: Where were you born? Where are you going? How long are you staying? So far, so good. I know the answers; I’m doing fine.

So far, so good, but he goes further. What is the purpose of your visit?

As an adult, I know better than to joke about being a spy, even for Canada, so I tell the truth: I’m on vacation. At this point something starts to go south: just not me and my car.

What will you be doing? I’m not sure what he wants to hear — what do people usually do on vacation? I mention beachcombing, shopping and hanging out. The truth seems inadequate. Would it help to mention the pecan pancakes? Before I can decide, he asks again, Where are you going?

I am flummoxed, having already answered this question. I mumble something about touring the peninsula, but I’m uncomfortable because I think he doesn’t believe me. He doesn’t believe me because he can see I’m uncomfortable.

The interaction-turning-interrogation continues. Are you meeting someone?


He glances at the rental sticker on the windshield. Is this your car?

No, it’s a rental. What now?

Can you open the trunk? I can; I do. We stare silently at my luggage. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I’m thinking that my two nylon duffle bags look worn, but harmless. Don’t they? Harmless enough, it seems. He is still vaguely suspicious but waves me on.

Over several trips the specifics vary but the tone is always the same. I come to dread this gauntlet and, in anticipating the worst, provoke it. Only the prize — easy access to temperate rainforest and undeveloped beaches — makes me brave it, again and again.

On my last trip I invite my 20-ish son to accompany me. With hair to mid-back, a full beard, and a wardrobe limited to black, he looks less than respectable. I’m his mother but I almost suspect him of something myself. Driving south, I am utterly convinced there will be trouble.

We pull up to the window. The guard ascertains that we are mother and son, vacationing together, and waves us through. I am both relieved and incensed. How has my son, looking as he does, made me more respectable?

Back home, new colleagues in security explain the ‘law of the exception’. Border guards see business people, couples, families, and groups of friends of all ages. At a land crossing, they do not see many middle-aged women travelling alone, even on business. Claiming to be on a solo vacation, I am an exception: suspicious by definition. My son and I, however, are a family: nothing suspicious about that.

Since then I’ve crossed into the United States many times. Like desensitization therapy for phobias, repeated exposure has modulated my response. Even so, my heart rate ramps up as I fumble with my passport and boarding pass at the airport, or creep forward in my car at land crossings. I still stumble in my answers, not because they are lies but because that’s who I am.

I wonder how border officials sort out the ‘false positives’ — people like me who have done nothing, but who look guilty of something, from the ‘false negatives’ — smugglers, terrorists even, who look innocent and who answer questions unflinchingly. Always a law enforcement problem, the stakes have risen in the last 10 years.

As a nervous-without-reason respondent, I don’t have to imagine my stress in this dance of questioner and questionee. I don’t want to imagine the stress the questioners experience every day, feeling responsible, at least in part, for their country’s security. I wouldn’t want their job, trying to discern the innocent reasons behind the visible nervousness, or the danger behind the placid exterior. For my part, I’m trying to help by learning how to tell the truth convincingly, getting as close as I can to saying nothing.

This entry was posted in Officialdom, Thinking Broadly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to False Positives

  1. Dave says:

    Like you I have some trepidation when I arrive at US security. Being shunted aside because you have a pacemaker and therefore require special handling used to be a nuisance before improvement in technology for pacemakers and scanners. Most recently the checking of my personals kit by TWO officers which included swabbing it for dangerous chemical substances kept me occupied while my companion waited for 30 minutes. Needless to say I will never again be blase about following rules for proper handling of liquids.
    The scariest moment occurred in early 1991 during the heightened security that accompanied the first Iraq war. During a sabbatical stay at Ann Arbor, Michigan, Leone and I and a friend decided on the spur of the moment one Sunday afternoon to head to Windsor, Ontario to have dinner with mutual friends from our graduate school days. While in the US I was classed as a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and of course had the requisite papers to prove it. The papers of course were kept in our rented home in Ann Arbor. When returning to the US after our dinner and visit I made the mistake of saying too much to the border security officer. Instead of saying something like we are going to the US for a visit I said that I was a visiting scholar etc. He then demanded to see my papers which of course I did not have with me. He was not going to let us through and suggested that our friend, an American, would have to return to Ann Arbor and retrieve my papers before we could proceed. After much discussion and being made to feel smaller than small he finally allowed us through. I now know that saying little and keeping it simple is the best approach. As for being honest that does not work if you are also not smart enough to take care of details, unless of course being made to feel smaller than small gives you a rush. I can still here my Dad’s voice saying to me as a child “Why must you always learn the hard way?”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, we used to take that border for granted. No more! But with respect to offering Too Much Information, when the Canadian border guard asked “What do you have to declare?”, my father once pulled out his itemized list and started to go through it: “A nightgown for my wife..” only to be stopped by the guard. “No, no, just the amount.” I figure whichever way I jump, it’s likely to be wrong.

  2. I can remember when I forgot John’s and my passports once, travelling by air (pre Osama Bin Laden). We got into the U.S. on our driver’s licenses and the smiling admonition — you might want to bring them next time.

    But John has the most trouble with borders. Like you, Isabel, in your fine post, he is so nervous that for miles before Customs, he rehearses in his mind what he will say. “What is the purpose of my trip?” Vacation. Vacation. Vacation.

    So when he arrived and the official asked him where he lived, he stuttered “Oh-TA-wa (as if he had never pronounced the name before!),” then had to add (to make it even worse), “…YOU know, near Kingston!” The woman looked hard at him, then laughed and waved him on. John is so lucky. One look at his round beaming face and official think — what harm could THIS guy do?

    When we drove on, I said, “What was THAT all about?” He said, “I panicked and read out the first city name I saw above me in big letters. That Kingston was below it was a bonus, don’t ya think?”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      It’s an art form, I swear – distinguishing between general jumpiness and guilt! I guess–like any other human activity–you’d get to the point that you trusted your instincts. Or. more accurately, your intuition: that little voice that speaks from your subconscious.

  3. M. Gibson says:

    I laughed my whole way though this one! The first incident you mentioned is still clear in my mind, and the quietness in the back seat on subsequent border crossings says much for the tone in Sheldon’s voice when he said “Say nothing”! Mind you, now that I am traveling alone I say very little myself at the border (but wheelchairs do help). MMG

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, when giving instructions to the young and foolish it’s good to be clear – and he was always that!

  4. Alison Uhrbach says:

    Wow! Brings back all kinds of memories.. from road trips with my dad driving ( yes, he always had an itemized list) to trips with Corvin driving ( HE gets NERVOUS.. I now drive!) to a crossing at Rock Island, south of Montreal, where in response to “where are you going”… and our response “my cousin’s” he ended up giving us directions to their cottage! I learned the “just answer the question, don’t offer more” from my brother Fred, who travelled far more than I used to. I like to travel alone… Corvin invariably gets searched ( the nervous look I think)… and yes, I can just HEAR Sheldon’s voice… a memory I won’t ever forget!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ivan (my husband, for those who don’t know) is retired military and has no issues with authority figures. He does the “just the facts, ma’am” routine very well — he never gets chatty at the border. What, never? Well, hardly ever. On our way to Cleveland to celebrate my big brother’s 60th, Ivan (completely uncharacteristically) offered up this nugget of information – that we were travelling for “the 60th birthday of my wife’s brother”. I leaned forward and added, “My much older brother.” Wait a minute! Was that a smile?

  5. Morris B says:

    Reminds me of a ‘border incident’ many years ago. It was the mid 70’s and my wife and I were touring through the Maritime Provinces. Let me set the stage: We were camping; my car was a Volvo (I think only socialists were seen driving Volvos then); I had long, unruly hair and was, at least outwardly, a ‘hippie’. We had been driving for quite a few days eating sandwiches and most notably, bagels with sesame and poppy seeds in the car. On a whim we decided to drive into Maine.
    So we approached a border station that looked like it had been built following Confederation and had barely passed ten cars since. I don’t remember the conversation at all but we were asked to get out of the car and open the trunk. My wife was on the far side of the car and observed the two officers going through the car in great detail. They were especially interested in all the seeds that had gathered in the seat folds and picked them out one by one checking to see if they were indeed contraband (or at least the seeds of such).
    I was watching dispassionately but afterward my wife said it was all she could do to keep from bursting out laughing watching these two ‘adults’ pick through the bagel seeds and examine them closely. All in all it took about 30 minutes. It wasn’t much of a delay but it has given us a “border crossing story” for the ages.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      The Seeds of Contraband – it sounds like a Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? A seed search certainly beats the perusal of my duffle bags – but, of course, I had all the merit of looking like a boring middle-aged woman, as opposed to a hippie.

  6. Carla says:

    Border crossing stories abound it seems!! Isabel, I laughed and related my entire way through this one as well – over communication at borders is not a wise approach (does this apply to all other avenues of life as well???), but I, like you, can sometimes not help myself!!! At any rate, I believe that our issues also stem from overanalyzing people, situations, and what people are thinking in any given situation. I sure do miss you but am grateful that you’ve chosen a blog as an avenue of expression through which I can still feel ‘caught up’ and get my requisite dose of Isabel!! xo

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Carla quoth: I believe that our issues also stem from overanalyzing people, situations, and what people are thinking in any given situation.

      Hmm. I wonder just what she means by that?

  7. Danielle Wawryk says:

    As you know, we grew up on a border town and crossed over weekly and were always told to let our parents do the talking. I will never forget when my brother, who was around 4 at the time, piped up from the backseat and said “we don’t have anything THIS time”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I am glad to report to other readers that your brother survived this incident. Your parents are to be commended for their restraint.

  8. Sara says:

    Having worked at a very busy border crossing as a summer job . . . this made me laugh! I could tell many stories – but I am not posting them publicly on the web. . . .

Comments are closed.