“My husband committed suicide three days ago.”
That was the first thing the woman said to me, after getting into my car. She was a stranger - I was picking her up from a friend’s house late on Sunday night. She was middle-aged, clearly intoxicated, and obviously troubled. After working as an Uber driver for nearly six months, I had seen a number of strange things, but I was not prepared for this. I hadn’t even said hello yet.
“I’m so sorry,” I responded.
Then she started sobbing.
I drove in silence for awhile. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept quiet and I did my job - I drove.
It’s an interesting part of the job - the conversation part. Some people want to talk, some people don’t. I suppose it depends on how they view the experience - some people want to be "friends" with the driver, get to know them. Some don't want me to say a word - to them I’m just a chauffeur. And some people, especially those with hectic schedules, just want some quieet time to themselves, and the long car ride provides a nice opportunity, in between whatever important meeting awaits them at their destination.
Eventually, the woman’s tears subsided. “Sorry about this,” she said.
“You don’t have to apologize,” I assured her. “I totally understand - you’re going through a really bad situation.” It didn’t sound great, but it was the best I could do.
Eventually, we reached her apartment complex. I don’t remember the last thing I said to her, but I remember that she didn’t really say goodbye so much as mumble incoherently, and stumble out of the car. I waited to make sure she got inside her apartment safely, and then left.
This happened right after the Holidays - a time when suicide rates are notoriously high. To lose a loved one so close to Christmas - I can’t imagine. I hoped she would be ok.
One of the skills you need to have as an Uber driver, something that we don’t get credit for, is the social skill to gauge a situation, and know how to behave appropriately. Like I said, depending on the passenger, you could act completely differently. Some passengers would appreciate an outgoing, jovial personality. Some would appreciate you trying to make conversation. Others have given me bad ratings for talking too much, for being too ingratiating. Still, I suspect others have given me bad ratings for being too curt.
I’ll never understand why someone chooses to sit in the front seat, and remain completely quiet the entire drive. I don’t know about you, but I find that silence incredibly awkward. I feel relief when they pull out their phone and start playing with it - at least I know they are preoccupied with something else. Or maybe that’s my own anxiety showing through.
When I first signed up for Uber, I got the impression from their website that they were trying to create a more professional, “chauffeur” image as compared to Lyft’s laidback culture. All black, with drivers dressed in suits opening doors for people. Even the name is slightly intimidating. I have driven for both companies, and I did notice a slight difference in the customer base. But not necessarily for the better. I had one repeat Lyft passenger who asked me to wait outside his house for 15 minutes. The next time, he asked me to wait outside his hotel for just as long. Eventually I wised up and told him I was going to have to cancel. My rating on Lyft was quite a bit lower than it was on Uber. Perhaps this was a lesson that I actually fare better in a “professional” environment than one where I’m expected to give the passenger a fistbump and treat him like a buddy. Again, maybe that’s just my social awkwardness coming through again.
I’ve worked customer service jobs before. I was a pizza delivery driver for years, and I was taught a simple formula for dealing with an upset customer. Apologize, give them what they want, then give them something extra. Similarly, with Uber and Lyft, I’ve learned a simple formula when starting a ride. Introduce yourself, ask them where they are going, if they have a preferred route, tell them if they need anything, just to say so, and then shut up. If they try to engage you in conversation, then respond, of course, but generally let the passenger set the parameters of the social interaction.
From time to time I’ll think back on that ride with the woman whose husband committed suicide. Did I say enough, or say the right thing? The entire situation felt awkward, with her crying in my backseat while I just drove. As I said before, she was very drunk. I wonder if she even remembers the incident, or what she said to me. I still bring up the incident from time to time when passengers inevitably ask me what my “craziest” story is. I notice their demeanor changes when I tell them it - probably because it wasn’t what they were expecting. Their idea of a “crazy” story is someone puking all over my car (that hasn’t happened yet, thank God) or some drunk girl offering to flash me for a free ride (sadly, that hasn’t happened either).
I’ve now been driving for Uber for over a year, and I would say it still stands as my oddest experience. But time will tell.
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