An Uber driver answers all the questions you were too embarrassed to ask

Don’t be afraid to ask.
Don’t be afraid to ask.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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Ever wanted to chat with your Uber driver, but hesitated because, well, talking to you isn’t his job? Or felt the car was too warm, but been unsure how to ask the driver to lower the heat? For all that ride-hailing has become a new norm, the rules of riding aren’t those of a traditional taxi ride, where standards can be set by city ordinances. Your driver is less likely to be a full-time cabbie who you’ll never see again than someone from the neighborhood, driving his or her own car to make some extra money.

Quartz chatted with Christian Perea, a ride-share driver and head of operations at driver blog The Rideshare Guy, about the most common etiquette questions riders have when they book an Uber or Lyft. Perea shared how drivers think about everything from cranking up the A/C to picking up sweaty passengers who’ve just come from the gym. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Quartz: Can I ask my driver to adjust the A/C or heat, or roll up the window? Should I ask permission before rolling down my own window?

Perea: Yes, please ask that. The reason you want to ask is because a lot of times we’re trying to guess what you want, and it’s a little awkward. You just got in our car, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I’ve even had passengers rate me poorly and leave comments on “heat too high” or “AC was blasting.” Please tell us.

Rolling down the window, that’s fine. For windows, I usually just say, “I’m going to roll down the window,” and then I do it. Especially nowadays, there’s a lot of smells in the cars—usually a combination of cheap air fresheners and whatever’s leftover from the weekend.

Can I ask my driver to turn off or change the music or radio station?

Pretty much every driver is going to be ok with you asking to turn down the radio, turn off the radio, or change the station.

What about when people try to listen to their own music using an auxiliary cord?

When it comes to auxiliary (AUX) cords, it’s a joke among us that everything’s going to suck. Usually the passengers who want to use an AUX cord are rolling with a large group of friends, and everyone’s already drunk. There’s always this awkward part of the ride where we are trying to make sure “it’s working” because the passenger can’t get the song to buffer on their crappy cell connection. They crank up the volume on my stereo instead and then BOOM! There go my speakers.

What should I do if the car is dirty or smells bad?

Tell them politely that their car smells bad/is dirty. I think a lot of us spend so much time in our car that we have trouble gauging “if that smells bad” or if we are going crazy from driving. I usually blame it on the last passenger, and that way passengers don’t feel like I’m insulting them or anything.

Do drivers care if I ride shotgun vs. in the back, and is it different for a shared ride (UberPool, Lyft Line) vs. a private one?

If you want to be social, ride shotgun. If you want to chill out and stare at your phone some more, then ride in the back. If you ride Pool/Line, then I suggest always taking the front seat if it’s open. This prevents the awkward “let’s touch each others butts to find some seatbelts” situation if the Pool/Line is full. Further, there’s more space and the positioning makes it more difficult for the other weird passengers to talk to you.

Can I tell my driver that I don’t want to chat?

Please tell us. We would rather know than try to guess. I’ve been given bad ratings for talking too much and for not talking enough on the same day. A lot of times drivers are talking because they think you want to. We’re always going to do what you want to do in that situation.

I usually get around it by saying, “Hey, I’m just going to check my email back here.” The key thing to this communication is always to say it in a way so it’s not that you don’t want to talk to them as a driver, you just don’t want to talk in general.

If a driver tells me what sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, is it better to disengage or to try to debunk with hard facts that I’m Googling from the back seat?

My personal opinion is that people who believe in conspiracy theories have probably already made a conscious decision not to believe in facts. If they’re turning around to look at you then I would definitely disengage.

How do I politely indicate to my driver if my friend (other rider) and I are having a private conversation?

In general, I don’t think there’s really a reasonable expectation of having a private conversation in my car that I drive, that I own. In this case, I feel like I’m being treated like your help. It feels a little dehumanizing. I’m sitting six inches away from you, so if you don’t think I can hear everything you’re saying, you’re dumb.

Is my driver judging me if I’m a mess, like I’m openly crying, drunk, or I’ve just gone to the gym and am sweaty and gross?

We’re judging smells and sweat and stuff. So if you’ve just come from the gym and you haven’t made any effort to towel down, soak up your sweat, and you’re just going to leave it on my seat, that’s pretty rude. The risk is that somebody else is going to smell it, leaves a bad rating, and we pay the price.

The same thing goes for drunks and stoners. The problem for a lot of this comes with smells, because smells linger, especially alcohol and weed. Then people get in the car afterward and report to Lyft and Uber, “Hey, my driver smells like alcohol.” Uber and Lyft take that really seriously because it’s basically like saying, “My driver’s drunk.” Then they deactivate you for as little as two hours to as long as a week. The average time is probably about a day or two.

We’re people too, so if you’re crying, we’ll probably offer some tissues to help. We’re not really going to judge you—if anything, we’ll offer to talk to you. Those are actually the times when drivers feel like they’re making the biggest difference in someone’s day, because they are helping get people to where they need to go.

Is it rude to ask to borrow the driver’s phone charger? Not a spare designated for riders, but the one she has plugged into her phone.

Not at all, but we may need it back if our phone is low!

When is it ok to leave a driver less than five stars?

I usually leave less than five stars if the car is really dirty, if they’re rude, or disrespectful, if they have a bad attitude toward me, or mostly if they’re driving unsafely. If they’re distracted while driving, it’s a big one. Not using turn signals, all that stuff.

What should I do if my driver navigates poorly and/or drives in an unsafe manner?

If they’re navigating poorly, tell them where to go. We trust you more than the GPS. If they’re driving unsafely, tell them to slow down and that you get motion sickness. That tells them that you prefer a slow driver and also that you might throw up in their car. They don’t want that. If they are still unsafe, ask them to pull over, get out, and report that to Uber or Lyft. If they’re dozing off at the wheel, take a picture or a video, file a police report, and contact Uber or Lyft immediately.

Do drivers consider it rude if riders slam their doors or the trunk?

Yes. A lot of you still slam the doors like our 35kg aluminum Prius is a four-ton 1970’s Cadillac.

What are the top reasons that drivers leave riders bad ratings?

I think most bad passenger ratings lead back to being inconsiderate or disrespectful to the driver. Most of the bad ratings I give to passengers stem from people treating me like I am lower than them. Examples of this include not being ready, making us wait a long time for pickup, leaving a mess in my car, smelling badly (think alcohol, tobacco, weed, sweat), etc. A lot of this is fixed by simply apologizing or communicating with the driver.

Will my driver think I’m a jerk if I don’t tip?

If you ask for us to stop, wait, or take us on a long trip to the middle of nowhere it’s smart to tip. Most of the time, we will rate our passengers without any knowledge about whether or not they’ve tipped. In fact, we rate you before we even see what we got paid for the trip. This is meant to separate ratings from the finances of the ride.

We also know that if you offer to “tip us big” in order to overcrowd the car, allow open containers, or do other shady things, that you probably won’t tip us. One thing I’ve learned after 6,000 rides in the last three years is that every single person who brags about how much, how big, they tip will not tip you. The time that tips and ratings get connected is when you promise to tip me and then you don’t.

What tipping is really good for is repairing problems, so if you were wearing a bunch of glitter and the glitter got all over the seat, tipping and apologizing fixes the situation. One thing that can help is if you do tip in the app, tell them that you did it. Turn the phone around, show them the $2 button, and get out. If anything, that helps improve the driver’s mood for a day because we don’t get tipped that much in general.

What should I do if my driver is extremely biased or rude to other passengers? For example, refusing to pick up a passenger in a Pool because he “didn’t like their look.”

You should rate them poorly and report them to Uber or Lyft. And take good notes. If they said something particularly rude or racist, I would note that.