I’m a nervous traveler so when my Uber driver informed me about two accidents and huge delays on the 405, he contributed to my already high anxiety.
After riling me up, he tried to calm me down by assuring me that LAX was pretty cool about allowing check-in as close to 30 minutes before flight time.
I’d planned my arrival at the airport, allotting one hour and 15 minutes before flight time. (I like to stand in long lines at Starbucks and get coffee before a flight.) 30 minutes was not going to cut it.
I was not happy.
And then to top things off, my driver wouldn’t stop talking.
He talked even though I read emails, head down.
He talked even when I gave one-word answers.
He talked and talked and talked.
And then I started to worry. Was my Uber driver judging me?
It was in Maureen Dowd’s article, Driving Uber Mad, that I learned Uber drivers rate their passengers. And it did cross my mind, since I wasn’t in the mood to chat, that he could find me unpleasant and consequently, give me a bad rating, which would make other drivers wary of picking me up in the future.
On my behalf, I will disclose, I’d just completed a grueling weekend where, over four days, I hiked a total of 36 miles, a great deal of it uphill. And some at 18% incline.
I was exhausted, totally wiped out.
And I’d spent four days in a group.
I needed to unwind.
I needed to spend time in my own head.
I needed a blog post idea.
I can reason about all of this now, in retrospect. But at the time, I felt bad about being unfriendly.
Was I being mean?
Reluctantly, I listened as he talked about L.A. traffic, his previous fare and how he kept his car clean.
I listened to how he used to live on the east coast, and that even though most people in the east like the foliage and the fall; he preferred spring.
And then the conversation veered when he said, “I’d like to get a five star rating from you. If there were any issues with this ride, I’d like to hear your comments. Just be upfront.”
As much as I wanted to say, “Besides your non-stop talking everything was fine, I simply said, “I’ll give you five stars.”
After all, as far as service went, I convinced myself, he’d done a good job. In the end, because of his navigation system, his determination in maneuvering away from the 405 and his constant up-to-the-minute reporting, it appeared I was going to get to the airport on time. The only problem with the ride, I deduced, was my mood, and that I wanted some quiet.
And then he asked, “You want to know your rating?”
Over the weekend, everything I did was rated in numbers: how many miles I hiked, how much I weighed, how many inches I lost. This was just one more scale I could place myself on.
“Sure,” I said feeling confident. (You’d feel confident too if you’d hiked 36 miles in four days and lost eight inches.)
“You know, only a cool driver would tell you your score.” He glanced at me through the rearview mirror.
I waited patiently for my results to appear.
“4.8,” he said.
I didn’t think that was so bad but according to my driver, it wasn’t good. And I wondered what I’d done that got me less than five stars.
“WHAT? WHY?” I asked, all of a sudden feeling knocked down a peg (or .2).
“I don’t know,” he chuckled.
And I could tell he was thrilled to reveal this less than perfect (and supposed to be private) score.
He went on to say that the rating system was flawed, that someone gave him four stars because his car wasn’t clean. “Look around,” he said. “My car is spotless.” And to his credit, it was.
He told me that he thought I was the perfect customer. He said that I was respectful and I hadn’t kept him waiting.
“Unless someone throws up in my car or is disrespectful, they get a five,” he said.
“Well, I’ve never thrown up in an Uber. And I’ve never been disrespectful.”
“I have a friend,” he said, “who gives a four to anyone who doesn’t tip.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Tip? You don’t tip Uber. That’s the point. That’s the best part of Uber. Isn’t the tip included in the price?”
SIDE NOTE: Even though I consider myself a good tipper, I have to admit, I hate tipping. Especially after drinking a glass of wine at dinner.
I hate that it’s arbitrary.
I hate that I have to do mental math.
Just last week, at a restaurant in L.A, my bill came on a touch pad and all I had to do was press 15%, 18% or 20% tip. I pressed 20% and the total was added for me. All I had to do was swipe and sign.
That I didn’t mind.
What was my Uber driver trying to tell me? Was he going to take away a star if I didn’t tip him?
“Actually,” I said, “I thought you weren’t supposed to tip.”
“Well, it is discouraged,” he admitted.
But then he went on to tell me about the price of gas and how it’s gone up. He told me he believed the Uber App should have a place to add a tip.
And since I loved the aforementioned experience at the L.A. restaurant, I agreed that would be a good solution, even though I’d only moments before learned there was a problem.
As he pulled up to the curb at LAX, my driver said, "It’s because the founder of Uber doesn’t believe in tipping.”
Me too, I wanted to scream.
SIDE NOTE #2: Don’t misunderstand. The way things are set up presently in restaurants and beauty salons, for example, tipping is important. And tipping generously is even, in my view, a moral obligation. Workers rely on their tips to make ends meet, to put food on their tables.
But there's a problem with tipping. It’s too subjective and when to do it is not always obvious. And of course how much to tip is suspect to fluctuating or arbitrary criterion like mood swings or income level.
Why not have flat rates? A standard tip included. I thought Uber was on to something.
Why should a worker’s income be placed in my hands, or any (cranky or lazy or stingy) customer’s hands, and not their employer’s hands?
As my Uber driver helped me lift my luggage from his trunk, I said, I’ll trade you five stars for five stars.”
He laughed and said, "Okay."
But I’ve been thinking. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to make a deal. Maybe I should’ve given him four stars (or less) for chewing my ear off for over an hour and trying to manipulate me into giving him a tip.
The ride, overall, was an uncomfortable reminder that we are always being graded or weighed or rated or judged.
Here’s a tip Mr. Uber driver- Proceed with caution. Yes, you’re in the driver’s seat and can steer conversations wherever you want; but your passengers shouldn’t feel trapped as if the air bag has just blown up in their face.
Someone less congenial might take away a star, or two.