I’m traveling for work this week, and yesterday, I needed a ride from the airport to a hotel near a client campus. Enter Uber, a service I hadn’t used since January.
I’d like to claim that I deleted the app after Uber’s misogynistic “bro” culture was exposed earlier this year. But my long hiatus was really just due to the fact that I can’t use it where I live (in rural West Virginia). And when I found myself needing a lift yesterday, Uber was the path of least resistance. I didn’t have Lyft installed, and I didn’t want to bother tracking down a reputable taxi service.
So, although I felt a twinge of guilt, I requested an Uber ride. Less than two minutes after tapping the button, a silver Prius rolled up. I heaved my suitcase into its trunk and slid into the backseat. Off we went.
After a few minutes of small talk, the driver asked a question that took me by surprise. “Man, why’s your Uber rating so low? You seem fine.”
I was confused. “‘So low’?” I repeated. “What do you mean?” This was only my tenth Uber trip—ever. How could my rating be low? The driver explained that my score was 4.33 (out of a possible 5). That didn’t seem too bad; wasn’t that a solid B? I said as much, and the driver shook his head ruefully. “Nah, man. That’s a really bad rating.”
Doubt and cynicism set in. Was this some headgame that drivers play to pry tips out of their passengers? As we continued to chat, I whipped out my phone and checked Google: “What is a low Uber passenger rating?” It turns out, my driver was spot on. Any passenger score below 4.5 is a red flag in the Uber world.
My skepticism was replaced with anxiety. Why did past Uber drivers rate me so low? I had thought I was a model Uber citizen; I had never forced a driver to wait. I don’t drink, so riding while hammered wasn’t a worry. I had never slammed a door or tracked in mud. Why didn’t they like me? Was I oblivious to my own obnoxiousness? Did I have a subpar personality?
Maybe. But, after more Googling and reflection, I think my low score reflects my fundamental misunderstanding of the service. I didn’t even realize I had a passenger rating. I thought that Uber was a one-way street, like any customer-to-merchant business. I had failed to grasp that Uber is a network, not a service. It’s not a company that I pay to deliver me across town. It’s a connection concierge; I pay Uber to connect me to drivers. That’s a subtle distinction, but failure to grasp it led to some embarrassing mistakes:
For example, before yesterday, I had never tipped an Uber driver. That may make me sound like cheap jerk; forgive my n00b status. I didn’t even know that Uber tipping was a thing. When I last used the service, tips hadn’t been added to the app. I assumed that one major appeal of the ride-sharing revolution was that Uber discouraged gratuities, instead bundling my tip into its fare. This cashless economy is great, I thought. Who wants to carry a wad of small bills in his pocket, anyways?
I was wrong. Uber drivers expect tips. It seems likely that I earned a one-star review or two by walking away without slipping my driver a fiver.
A second mistake I made as an Uber rookie? I underrated my drivers. On several past trips, I rated the ride like a restaurant on Yelp—i.e., honestly. If the car smelled gross or the driver was too chatty, I withheld a star or two. In fact, most of the ratings I had given before yesterday were less than five stars. That seemed fair; I mean, 4/5 is still pretty good, right?
Wrong. Drivers prize their Uber rating, and scores under five are reserved for disastrous service. Like it or not, grade inflation has spilled over into the gig economy; everybody wants an A.
It’s at least possible that my past drivers noticed when I gave them less than five stars; they might have marked me down in revenge.
Whatever the reason for my subpar rating, I’m now uber-conscious of how drivers see me, and I’m determined to do everything I can to earn a perfect score on each drive. My new philosophy is simple: drivers get five stars if I don’t die en route. And I plan to tip everyone, regardless of the level of service I receive.
Yes, this effectively makes Uber’s review system meaningless. The Prius yesterday reeked of cheap cologne and boasted mysterious stains (what causes an inch-wide white blotch on a headrest? Do I want to know?). But I’m too terrified of getting down-rated to make my displeasure known.
On yesterday’s trip, at least, my newly-enlightened dishonesty worked. A few minutes after checking into my hotel, I checked Uber again; my score had ticked up to a more-respectable 4.4. I’m officially a little less of a jerk. ■