Riding in Cars with Strangers: Using Uber to Open Our Eyes and Hearts to Alternative Perspectives

There is exactly one wall between our studio and the Nashville Uber office. Monday thru Friday we peer out our window for some of the most impeccable people-watching the city has to offer. All day long Uber drivers stop by the office. One might be surprised to learn that some of Nashville’s premier ride sharing drivers are occasionally really bad at it. From parking in the wrong direction, taking nine times to fit into a fairly generous street parking spot, to walking into our clearly labeled studio instead of entering the building that flies a man-sized Uber flag out front, it provides us with plenty of entertainment, inside jokes, and a little bit of fear.

That two inch window creates a divide between us and them. It’s just enough distance to make harsh jokes fair game. But how about when we actually hop in the car with one of these strangers? There is no thin veil to divide us, physically or virtually. For five to thirty minutes, we are both just two humans trying to get somewhere in life. As a frequent traveler and a self-proclaimed horrible driver, I spend a lot time with Uber drivers. Some days I jump into my ride and stare at my phone, hoping my driver has enough emotional intelligence to not ask me any questions. Other times, I feel curious, open, and chatty. It’s those times that I almost always leave my ride with a compelling, heartwarming, eye-opening, or sometimes just really weird story.

In fact, I am a bit notorious for what I learn in Ubers. Part of that is my training in empathy and ethnography, some of it is my authentic interest in how Uber is transforming the world of work, but most of it is my complete inability to manage small talk. Conversation topics that are acceptable include: the future of work, politics, religion, love/heartbreak, family drama, job struggles, addiction, questioning societal norms, or stories of insane passengers. What’s out: everything else. Needless to say, I know how to get deep…fast. And I prefer it.

Here are a few headlines of interesting stories I’ve heard in Uber rides:

  1. I met a man who adored his 70 grandchildren in Chicago. He had three wives, two of which had tragically passed away. He and his current wife started a non-profit for families in Chicago.
  2. In Charlotte, I met a woman who left years of running a successful family-owned limo management business with her husband to start her own pie delivery business. She was determined to prove to herself she could do something without any help from the men in her life.
  3. How about an Iranian immigrant in a 5 Series who told me he had only moved to NYC to fall in love with an American woman? His crossfit body, gold watch, and expensive cologne were indictators he had defined his strategy.
  4. On another airport ride I met a woman who had been married five times. She had a very strong opinion about addiction and relationships. Her last husband, who was a sex addict, never kept his promises about getting help. Uber was her first job in ten years.
  5. A few weeks ago I had a driver in his 70s. His car smelled like my grandma’s closet in 1989, but he couldn’t have been more excited about being an Uber driver. It was his way of staying productive and connected. He couldn’t keep up with his physically demanding job in solar panel installation anymore. He was devastated until his son recommended Uber as a great way put his people skills to good use.
Authentic shock after a story from a Seattle-based Uber driver.

Imagine that multiplied by approximately four to ten rides per week over the last four-ish years. I’ve heard a lot.

It occurred to me that I was meeting a mildly representative sample of American citizens and residents. I’ve intereacted with Uber drivers from multiple religious backgrounds, people from countries around the world, I’ve road with college students and retirees, and I’ve noticed that these drivers represent a range of socioeconomic levels. In today’s me, myself and I culture where all of our personal perspectives are reinforced on social media sites and self-selected news platform, this is different. This is face-to-face conversations with people who we might not have otherwise met in our day-to-day lives. It’s an accidental and rare opportunity to take the time to truly empathize. While I am now realizing the impact these conversations have had on me, I see an opportunity to intentionally make sense of what I am learning and share some of my insights.

As a part of my #100dayproject I am going to do just that — thoughtfully and creatively interpret my interactions with strangers.

Feel free to join me! The best part is the conversations are time-boxed. If you’re not jiving with your newest acquintance, the ride is almost over. If you do, however, maybe you will leave with a new understanding, awareness, or sense of acceptance. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who thinks radically different from you took a genuine interest in understanding your perspective? I’d say it is worth the risk.


Org Psych, Culture, & Design. Devoted to asking difficult questions and creating a more exceptional life.

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