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My Uber, My Friend

Where every driver knows your name

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Harry Cross, who works in sales at a logistics company by day, has only been an Uber driver for a shade over two months. Already, he’s turned into a sounding board. “At first, I’m doing it for the money, and then all of a sudden … it was like the craziest shit I’ve ever heard of or been involved with,” he says. Cross started driving to save for a family vacation, but says he became “addicted” to the work.

“It’s the most entertaining thing you can do for money,” he says. Cross documents some of the more interesting stories riders tell him on Facebook (all names are changed, for the record). “It’s unbelievable, the things you’re going to hear. Some people have no filter.”

Cross rattles off some of his favorite rides that turned into therapy sessions: There was the guy who needed advice about a potential threesome with an ex, the girl who told him about how horrible she felt for sleeping with her ex’s best friend, and the bouncer who’d had a fight with his girlfriend and wanted to know if he should break up with her even though he’s close to her kid.

“I’m like Dr. Phil … It’s almost like an art form to me now. I like to have that Danny Tanner moment, you know, ‘ah, Tiffany, you should make better life choices,’” he says with a laugh. After riders repeatedly started opening up to him and even asking for life advice, Cross started wondering: Is it just him, or is this an Uber phenomenon?

There’s a sort of contractual intimacy that has generally taken place over a drink that is beginning to happen on these drives. Ride-sharing drivers have become the unofficial new bartenders, or arm-chair therapists. They’re those people you meet at a party’s golden hour, when you’re just tipsy enough to engage in a conversation that would, under other circumstances, feel like an overshare. Drivers keep (or, in Cross’s case, share) passengers’ secrets; they offer advice or sympathy, or sometimes they just listen. The ride-sharing economy is based on a few things: ease of use, on-demand availability, the mobile revolution — and also, contractual, short-term friendship. Sure, the larger sharing economy has elements of this (the incredibly casual, friendly texts I exchange with Postmates delivery people is evidence), but there’s something incredibly intimate about stepping into someone else’s space.

Rand Larson, a photographer who’s been driving for Uber and Lyft for the past three and a half years and runs the blog Confessions of an Uber Driver, has even given this sensation a name. “I call it the ‘personal bubble effect’ — you’re in a car, and that’s really a bubble,” he says. He mentions one time when two beautiful women approached his car. As they were getting in, a man came up and complimented them; Larson and the women spent the ride talking about how that made the women feel and how women react to being objectified by strangers. Another ride involved a deep conversation about relationships, at the end of which, Larson and his two riders shared a group hug.

“In the beginning, I was really, really surprised — almost embarrassed by how open people were,” Larson says. He thinks this extreme comfort level might have something to do with it being someone’s personal car, and that the app — which shows someone’s face, name, and a few pieces of personal information — can start the connection.

He’s right: The car is a conversation starter. According to a paper published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group that researched the culture of sharing a ride, “Once you add a passenger, cars become places of talk … places where the expectation, unlike an elevator, is that we will talk.” The research found that because cars are a small space, people are prompted to speak to one another. Giving a stranger a ride, in particular, can create an unexpected intimacy: “That is [the] exciting potential of car-sharing; your passengers or drivers really might be, if not fellow [travelers], equally as worthwhile sources of stimulation, valuable stories, advice, and more.”

Another paper by Mimi Sheller, then of Lancaster University (currently at Drexel University), looked at previous research that found how our emotions are triggered and tied to riding in cars. “[Car culture] is implicated in a deep context of affective and embodied relations between people, machines, and spaces of mobility and dwelling, in which emotions and the senses play a key part,” she wrote. Yet again, in a paper titled Driving the Social, we’re told that the regular rules of conversation don’t apply inside the car: While it’s not typical to tell total strangers about problems in your love life, it suddenly becomes OK to do exactly that inside their car.

For years, the automobile industry has used advertising to sell the ideas of safety and intimacy. Sheller points to the ad campaign for the Lexus IS200, which used the phrase “It’s the feeling inside.” There are many commercials that focus on safety, family, and love being elemental to a car.

“America’s love affair with the automobile” was coined by a TV show in the 1960s, and it’s certainly stuck. As Scientific American explains, it was a subtle part of the campaign to teach Americans to feel safe in cars, to embrace the idea of the road as an extension of ourselves.

There’s more precedent for our car comfort. Look no further than Taxicab Confessions, which premiered in 1995, well before Uber, as a reference for our cultural acceptance of cab as a confessional. That show was fueled by the one thing that ride-share and taxi drivers have in common with bartenders: drunk people.

“It’s a combination of alcohol and being in a small, enclosed space with someone you’re trusting to get you home that lends itself to being able to talk to your driver about anything,” says Harry Campbell, a former Uber and Lyft driver who runs a blog about ride-sharing called The Rideshare Guy. “Those rides when you’re taking people home, a lot of those late-night rides when people have been drinking, that’s when someone wants to talk.” He says that these deeper conversations are more likely to happen when it’s just one, at most two passengers. “At the end of the night, when you’re going home after drinking, you just want someone to talk to.”

The driver–passenger dynamic faces its share of challenges, not the least of which is the battle at the beginning of every ride: the front seat versus the back seat. Which do you hop in? Does it depend on how many people are in your group? On whether it’s Lyft or Uber? I’ve found that the answers, at least anecdotally, are all over the place. Via some informal polling among friends and colleagues, I found that most people get into the backseat, always. A couple of us — who I’d like to point out were from the Midwest and Northwest, objectively nice places — always got in the front unless prevented by someone else sitting there. It just feels rude to get in the back.

Drivers’ thoughts and feelings varied here as well, but it helps them know how the ride is going to go. “If someone gets in the front seat, Uber or Lyft, that’s the big indicator they want to talk to you,” Campbell says. “A lot of people feel for the drivers. People who talk to them a lot are journalists.” (Guilty.) “But most drivers like when you sit in the front, it breaks up the monotony.”

Cross agrees, adding that he knows it’s time to put on the more professional hat when someone gets in the back seat. People who sit in the front “open right up,” he says. Despite many stories about dangerous drivers, there seems to be a comfort level, one that doesn’t exist with cabs. Some taxi drivers are friendly and strike up a conversation, but there’s a sheet of glass between you — and no app that offers bits of information.

Despite ample evidence that the forced intimacy of ride-sharing facilitates conversation, there are other reasons those conversations occur that aren’t so flowery and friendly. According to a Beasley School of Law research paper, there is a bit of manipulation on both drivers’ and passengers’ ends. Turns out — surprise — that because there’s a rating system, there’s motivation to be nice. “Uber’s rating system may require drivers, and perhaps even passengers, to engage in what has been called ‘emotional labor,’ or the work of establishing ‘micro-relationships that make customers feel good,’” the paper says. Cab drivers, it goes on, can do what they want.

The paper’s authors also believe that this creates an unfair dynamic for minority drivers, who may have to “try harder” in order to befriend white (and possibly racist) passengers. “Minority drivers, to retain high ratings, may need to overcome white passengers’ preconceptions, which can involve ‘identity work,’ or a conscious effort to track white, middle-class norms. … This may be a harbinger of things to come in the low-wage labor market.”

Of course ride-sharing companies also want to differentiate themselves from cabs, and a little extra friendliness from drivers helps. Anecdotally, Uber has started to lose a little of this disposition, particularly in larger cities, but UberX and Lyft certainly retain some chumminess. (Remember when Lyft wanted everyone to fist bump? Dark times.) Despite the corporate motivations, no one seems to be under the impression that this is entirely organic. And what’s more, we probably don’t care.

The driver-passenger pairings are temporary relationships, lowering the risk of getting too personal. Their fleeting nature also means that drivers usually don’t know how things turn out for their passengers. A customer might spill a dramatic story, talk a driver’s ear off about it, ask for for advice, and make a plan about what they’ll do next — then they get out of the car. Does a cliff-hanger ever bother the drivers?

“Yes,” says Larson. Actually, he misses the follow-up: When Uber first launched in his area, he was one of 10 drivers. He’d often pick people up to take them out, then get called again to give them a ride home at the end of the night. As the market’s grown, he doesn’t get such an opportunity as often.

In Cross’s case, there are a few stories and questions from riders he’d like to know the outcome to, but one really sticks with him: “Yeah, the threesome thing,” he says when I ask. “I wanna know if he scored that night.” Don’t we all.