Illustration by Oivind Hovland
I take pleasure in noting the minute things about me. I am interested even in the ways of the wild bees, and in all the little dramas and tragedies that occur in field and wood. — John Burroughs
4.68 stars. That was my Uber rider rating three months ago. I asked my friends about their ratings for proper comparison: 4.99, 4.95, 4.98. It was official: I was a relatively bad person. I dove headfirst into researching everything there was to know about Uber analytics (and no, a profile rating is not a simple average). My mission was clear: Improve my score to 4.9 as quickly as possible. My most generous calculations predicted a six-month effort, but I was prepared to invest whatever time was necessary to enter the elusive psyche of the Uber driver.
This may seem like a convoluted and desperate attempt at people-pleasing. Surely, all a high Uber rating requires is proper etiquette and a dash of charisma. Yet in the effort to understand my drivers, I developed a theory: Strangers may enrich our lives — perhaps as much as our friends and family do — by teaching us to find truth in details and meaning in moments.
As soon as I began this quest, my curiosity sharpened. At its core, curiosity is an insatiable desire for truth. I became something of an observation-hoarder, collecting details in my brain because “you never know when they’ll come in handy.” My Uber drivers placed all kinds of objects in their cars: strawberry-scented hand sanitizer, iPads with rapid-fire trivia games, Rolling Stones-themed fuzzy dice for the rearview mirror. As I found my attention drawn to these things, I let myself ponder their hidden meanings for their owners. Over time, objects combined with conversations to reveal a driver’s knowledge, feelings, even dreams — in one case, the dream of photographing rock stars.
Not only did I uncover tacit truths, but my self-awareness grew with every ride. I noticed myself adapting to an unfamiliar social climate. For four years, I had experienced the social terrarium that is a college campus — 10,000 seedlings of similar age receiving the perfect amount of sun and water to flourish and bond together. Then, once I graduated, I was lucky enough to move to an oasis city abundant with fellow Notre Dame alumni. Entering an Uber, though, was a brief trek through the desert. There were no rich commonalities for me to wrap my roots around. Instead, I connected with my drivers by cultivating the virtue of anticipation.
Anticipation is the ability to predict what a person wants and needs. It begins with focusing on another person who is trying to accomplish a goal, like an Uber driver completing your ride. Consider the ride from a driver’s perspective from pick-up to drop-off. It is a journey filled with emotion — like frustration after a delayed pick-up or relief as traffic subsides. By dialing into these emotions, a rider may see a driver’s wants and needs emerge. Now add variation: drivers with different motivations, varying weather conditions, trips in the city versus the suburbs. The magic of anticipation is understanding your subjects so well that you can imagine their lives beyond the moments you observe.
Anticipation is not assumption. Once I stepped into an Uber playing ’70s music, and the driver noticed my age and changed the radio to Britney Spears. Little did he know, he had switched off my favorite song. An assumption leaves no room for people to surprise us. Anticipation, on the other hand, is about constantly listening and refining our hypotheses about others. It requires us to soften a point of negative emotion, or heighten a point of positive emotion, so that we compose moments for others that are beneficial — and sometimes even meaningful.
My meaningful moment happened with Dennis. As I entered his car with friends, I noticed the backseat was sparse except for a book about how dogs save lives. He told us we had to listen to his favorite song from the Netflix series Ginny & Georgia, which he followed with “Share Your Address” by Ben Platt so we could assess if the lyrics were creepy. He was our eager jukebox, switching from Barry Manilow to Pink to The Pointer Sisters. When I reflected on this ride later, I realized it was one of the only Uber rides I’ve taken without anxiously checking the time. Why? Dennis seemed to have anticipated my desire for the journey to feel like a destination, so he put on a show. For the rest of my evening, my mindset shifted from impatience to delight.
What surprised me was how Dennis affected me, even after the ride was over. Strangers aren’t supposed to be able to do this; our encounters are typically too brief for any meaning-making to happen. Maybe Dennis was a happy accident, a perfect match between a fun-loving driver and a rider who grapples with her lack of punctuality. I happen to think this type of moment can be created with intention. When we learn to gather details and nurture truth, the length of our interactions alone no longer determines their impact.
Paying attention to people with shared goals — at the airport, the hair salon — shapes our behavior, the laws we enact, the design of our world. That one cup you own that is easier to hold and harder to spill than all your other cups exists because someone paid attention to people drinking out of cups. National parks exist because someone paid attention to people who enjoy nature and people who destroy it.
In a sense, anticipation teaches us how to authentically love and care for people we will never — or only briefly — meet. Curiosity attunes us to wants and needs that strike us as foreign. Others often find their wants and needs met within books that confuse us, or pieces of art we find silly. By listening to people who connect with these works and not just fine-tuning our argument against them, we love the people whom we have the most to learn from.
4.9 stars. That is my current Uber rating. It turns out 5 stars is not achievable once a rider has fallen from grace. I will admit learning this was temporarily devastating. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’m happy 5 stars is unattainable. The math reflects the limits on our time and empathy that prevent us from fully knowing the strangers we encounter. At the same time, the infinitesimally small slices between 4.99 and 5 stars — 4.999, 4.9999, 4.9999999 — represent connection: quick, small moments where our self expands to overlap with a piece of someone else before that person continues on their way. Strangers may remind us of our finitudes, but they also help us transcend them.
Mia Lecinski is a design researcher who lives and Ubers in Chicago.