America Through the Eyes of Its Best Uber Driver

DISCLAIMER: I am an external contractor who operates their own business. I do not work directly for UBER, nor do my views , opinions, or statements reflect those of UBER, Inc. Any Uber related information I may disclose is purely with the intent of helping the reader better understand the context for which my statements are based. 

Anyone who has heard of UBER, whether they’ve used it or not, is most likely aware that there’s a rating system by which both the drivers and riders are rated. At the completion of every ride, the driver and rider are prompted to rate their experience with the other between 1-5 stars. It’s one of the most popular questions I’m asked by riders: “WHAT’S MY RIDER RATING!?”

These ratings come into play in a number of ways. On the driver’s end, having a low rating can get you suspended or banned from driving on the UBER platform, or even limited to which types of rides you can accept which would affect your income potential. The specific rating by which these are determined varies depending on the Uber market for which you are registered (for example, NYC may have a different standard than Houston). For a rider, the rating doesn’t earn you cheaper rides or more discounts (to my knowledge). It can, however, affect the ability to get a quality driver and increase wait times.

It’s important to understand the rating system because both riders and drivers have an incentive to keep a good rating, and needless to say, getting into a political argument with your driver or rider probably isn’t going to bode well for your rating. When discussing how I was going to proceed with writing about my experiences with an editor for smerconish.com, the obvious first idea was to write about some of the more “crazy” examples of conversations that I have had. Now, I would like to just say that this is a very typical misconception about what may just be my own experience as an UBER driver. Obviously the editor and I were discussing my writing for a site focused on politics, but many riders and friends ask me for “crazy” stories in general and the honest truth is that I don’t have that many.

The reason for this, I believe, is the rating system (at least in some part). But I must also add that I am a 28 year old caucasian gay male who grew up in the New York area. English is my first and only language, I know how to get just about anywhere, I am well dressed, and drive a fully loaded $74,000 2016 Chevy Suburban, so I tend to think that people treat me differently because of that.

I firmly believe that the way in which this translates into the context of a political conversation is that when people open up to me about their politics, they speak to me with a certain level of mutual respect that they may not with others of different backgrounds. It’s this respectful dialogue that I have the chance to be a part of (along with my high rating) that allows me  to relay my experiences and what I’ve learned. People talk to me, they engage with me, and I enjoy it. Meeting and getting to know people from all over the country and the world is one of the things that makes it so rewarding. While it’s not my ultimate career path, being a professional driver in NYC has exposed me to things that even in such a diverse place as NYC, I most likely would not have experienced.

The majority of riders won’t engage with me once we’ve exchanged the traditional:

Me: “Hello, UBER for [rider’s first name]?”

Rider: “Yes, thank you.”

Me: “How are you doing today?”

Rider: “Fine and you?”

Me: “Very well thank you. We are going to [rider’s destination]?”

Rider: “Yes, thank you”

Me: “No problem!”

Some riders will engage me beyond that and ask casual questions or make small talk, and sometimes if I get the sense that they are talkative I may engage them. But every so often when politics does come up I try to take that opportunity to connect with my rider in a personal way, and the way I’ve gone about this over the last 2.5 years seems to work out well almost every single time. My method may sound strange and counter productive, particularly to anyone paying attention to the fact-less, fake news world we seem to be living in these days. My method is simple: take facts out of the equation.

We are all so focused on having fact based discussions, yet we seem to have a problem even agreeing on what the facts are. When Kellyanne Conway uttered that infamous phrase “Alternative facts,” a lot of people, like myself, thought it was an example of how she was using FALSE facts. But that’s not actually what she meant, and trust me, I don’t often find myself arguing her side of any topic. What we have at this point are so many instances where there are studies and statistics to support almost any ideology or view point, and while the credibility of some of these can be argued, the reality is that most people aren’t looking to read studies or research papers or even books to ensure that the statistics they’re about to use to support their opinion are accurate. Furthermore, most people (including myself) aren’t experts in every field of study, and therefore aren’t qualified to determine the legitimacy of those facts even if they were to invest the time to read fully those findings for which they are quoting. So while facts and truths are ultimately imperative to having any discussion on policy, we are a country who hasn’t yet gotten to the point where we can have a political conversation with someone who believes something opposite of what we do and hope to convince them of anything using facts.

So without using facts, I try to connect with people to find out their motives and ideals. For example, rather than listing facts and numbers to support why a Second Amendment enthusiast is against changing gun laws, I try to find what they do want and what they are for and why. Being an NRA member does not mean that they are okay with giving a gun to a violent record. In my experience, speaking to gun enthusiasts, they almost always agree that the current gun regulations are not strong enough. Most people don’t want a mentally unstable and violently prone person, or a person on the terrorism watch list to legally have access to a weapon. And if you start off the conversation by asking them to qualify what if anything they think needs to be improved, it gives you a better ability to keep things civilized and talk about the things you DO agree on. Once you’re established a baseline and you recognize that you can trust that the person has others best interests at heart, you can begin to use facts again. When you come from a baseline of understanding, disagreeing on the way forward becomes more manageable because you don’t see people as being completely opposing to you and your opinion, rather just a part, and therefore not making them entirely “bad.”

When you start a conversation by telling the other person what they should think and throwing statistics or “facts” at them, they’re coming from a place of defense, and you aren’t going to convince them of anything other than that you’re just another socialist liberal elitist snowflake who can’t see who they really are or an ignorant bible clutching gun nut. The reason I believe I am able to have political conversations with people from everywhere in the world and the country and yet still manage to be one of the top UBER drivers is because even when I speak with someone who’s views I whole-heartedly disagree with, they never leave my car feeling disrespected, but rather heard and understood. Perhaps not agreed with, but thats okay. It’s amazing how close your opinion may be to someone else’s but you may never know. Find out where you truly differ and why before you try to convince them of something they may already believe.

Although I don’t have many “crazy” stories, being in UBER driver in NYC has given me a unique perspective on life in America. After voting on November 8th, 2016, I got in my car and went to work, driving people to the polls. The day after the Parkland shooting I was in my car, and I was working the day James Comey was fired, and I’ve heard every view you can imagine from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, immigrants, and international visitors. In this series for smerconish.com, I will be discussing what I’ve learned from these interactions on many topics, but for this first installment I felt it was important to give anyone reading a chance to get to know why I feel I’ve had success talking politics in a professional environment where it is normally frowned upon, and why I think it’s given me a unique perspective. If you read my future postings, I hope you will do so knowing that I am respectful of and open to whatever your opinion is, whether it’s the same as mine or different from mine. I look forward to sharing my perspective and conveying that of others that have stood out over the course of over 5,000 rides and I look forward to engaging with the readers. And most of all I look forward to the opportunity to make people truly think and to embrace others. Maybe if we all didn’t have to feel like our walls were up all the time, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not we should be literally building one.