There’s an interesting post over at Lifehacker talking about how you should definitely talk to your Lyft (or Uber) driver, because, among other things, you will learn interesting shit from them and they will learn interesting shit from you and everyone will laugh and bond in a true communion of the soul and humanity will evolve together, one small, gently prying conversation at a time.
This is fundamentally correct, good advice, but keep in mind that these drivers are a captive audience, just like you, and have no choice but to sit there fielding your questions and pretending to care, and are also sometimes weirdos who get weird. Let’s all go easy on each other, okay?
Lifehacker suggests a few icebreakers to get the conversation going upon entering this delicate social contract:
- Busy so far?
- How long have you lived here?
- Been driving for [service] long?
- Have you heard of [place I’m headed]?
“That’s all it takes,” Patrick Allan writes. “Most drivers will be fully engaged by the time I ask one or two of these questions because they’re probably bored and tired of all the jerks they usually have to deal with.”
These are perfectly good questions to ask a driver you’re stuck with for a spell, but there are a few caveats here. One is that, anecdotally, I can tell you that these questions are in fact what nearly every chatty passenger asks nearly every Uber/Lyft driver. Next time you’re in a rideshare situation, go meta and ask your driver what questions passengers ask them most often, and I’d wager a small bet they will tell you it’s those questions, give or take a comment about the weather.
That is fine; this is called smalltalk, and it holds the social fabric together. You will learn some perfectly dumb shit this way: The driver has been driving for about 18 months; it has been pretty slow today. He or she is from a different city, and this weather is indeed teetering on lunacy.
At this point, you may hit a driver who will yammer on about their life nonstop and never ask a question back, and they’ve had the most boring life you could imagine. Sometimes you hit a wall with a driver who has nothing more to say; this is when it’s time to do what’s called “playing to your crowd,” swipe open Words With Friends and shut the fuck up.
And sometimes you will hit rideshare-driver jackpot, and they will tell you all sorts of things about their experiences and it will be fascinating. I’ve talked to a woman working on the side to pay for the health care of her disabled child — a child she dropped on its head when it was an infant. She carries terrible guilt. I’ve talked to immigrants with extensive expertise in science or medicine who’ve risked their lives and left their families to get here only to find this is the only gig around. I’ve spoken with retirees who are driving to put their kids through college; widows and widowers avoiding their grief; artists and actors and musicians and journalists paying the bills between gigs and auditions; people high on optimism but down on luck.
And many, many drivers I’ve met are over 50 and were laid off some time ago; now they’re getting by this way. The pay is terrible, but they have little other choice. Sometimes they are happy to talk about their lives; still, I feel guilty about this little dance.
Mostly that’s because, as someone who slogged it out for years in food service dealing with Joe Public and his spawn, I never truly know if any driver is in fact “fully engaged” or simply doing their job, because part of the job is putting up with an irritatingly curious asshole like me for an hour and a half on a drive from Venice to downtown Los Angeles at rush hour. Yes, they’re doing it with you, but they’re also doing it with the next 12 people who slide into their car.
That is the fundamental imbalance of service work. The service provider must take nearly all of your shit, while you must only take a modicum of their shit. I could tell them I don’t feel like talking; I could tell them to please turn down the Swedish death metal because I have a headache. But he or she cannot really ask the same of me. For this reason, it feels a bit parasitic.
Remember: These rideshare positions are, by design, open to anyone with a four-door car built after 2002 (and hopefully no major criminal record), and there is no test for being good with or even liking people to be hired. (Though having to make small talk is not among drivers’ chief passenger complaints.)
And yes, sometimes it goes the other way, and it’s you, the passenger, taking all the shit. Allan notes that as a 6-foot white dude he is far less likely to face tricky situations, and he is correct — the dynamics between driver and passenger include everything their respective races, genders, ages, classes and sexual orientations, and it’s a truly mixed bag every time you get into a total stranger’s car, buckle up and subject yourself to their environment.
I can think of a dozen times where I’d been at a bar, engaged in what I thought was fairly normal small talk with my driver, and ended up with requests to go to nearby bars for another drink or to hook up. One driver tried to get out of the car and hug me at my destination. Twice, male drivers have offered me cigarettes to smoke in the car with them — one of those cigarettes I declined to smoke with him, but took home later to smoke by myself, only to later find out it was laced. I’m not in the business of victim-shaming myself, but I do always wonder whether being chatty gets me into these situations.
All that said, if you want to have a real conversation with a rideshare driver, I can think of a much more interesting question to ask: What’s the worst passenger you’ve ever had? From asking drivers this myself frequently, I can tell you, it’s drunk people, and drunk couples — particularly those who are fighting, and will sometimes ask the driver to intervene and take a side. But if you want to be really self-aware, you can add in: What’s the worst passenger you’ve ever had — and is it me, right now, late at night, drunk in your car, bugging you to tell me about your life?