There is an unsettling feeling I walk around with daily. It's not important or pervasive or world-altering; it's actually quite silly. But it's still there, a tiny pinprick in my pinpricked moral conscience, a shiver of injustice in an utterly unjust world. It's this: I have a "bad" Uber rating.
The thing is, I didn't even know it was bad. When I first started using the taxi alternative that you can order through your phone, I played fast and loose. I canceled late, sometimes (this apparently can't affect your rating, but I remain unsure — someone must pay the piper somewhere!). I may have been drunk during a few late-night rides, some shared with other drunk people, and you know how drunk people get: obnoxious. I may have made out with a fellow passenger in the back seat; who's to say? I definitely Ubered for other people, ordering a car for them and letting them do whatever they might do in it unsupervised, just because I felt generous. I changed Uber destinations mid-ride. I had more than one stop, sometimes! I may have simply been more or less chatty than my Uber driver would have liked.
But I can say for certain I never vomited in a cab, I never threatened or yelled at a driver, I never hit on a driver, and I never tried to sit next to a driver in the front seat. I said thank you every time I left a car. And in the beginning, before friends told me you're not supposed to tip — which is why, along with the frequently-better-than-cabs navigational abilities and on-demand ordering, you take Uber in the first place — I actually tipped with cash. One guy blessed me when taking my money.
Which is why it was so jarring when, on a recent Uber ride, my driver turned and looked at me quizzically. "Why do you have such a bad rating?" he asked. "I have a bad rating?" I asked, my heart sinking. After all, I was a girl who cried when I got a C in gym (it turned out to be a mistake). I made straight A+s my senior year in high school, when everyone cooler than me (i.e., everyone) was having fun. I pride myself on politeness. I like to be liked and I like to be good at what I do, including riding in cars that I've paid to ride in. "What's my rating?" I asked, and when he told me 4.6-something, I relaxed. "That's not even that bad!" I said, thinking of certain book ratings on Amazon that go way lower than that. He begged to differ — 4.6 put me in the category of drivers MAYBE NOT EVEN WANTING TO PICK ME UP.
The next guy I rode with agreed. "You seem nice," he began. "Why do you have such a bad rating?" This time I was more prepared. "What is it now?" I asked, and he repeated something in the 4.6s, but told me HE was a 4.89 and felt he'd been unfairly judged by New Yorkers. "Some of 'em just refuse to give five stars," he said. "To a New Yorker, four is good enough, but it's not good enough! You get suspended if you go too low!" He and I mutually agreed to give each other five stars, and I kept my end of the bargain, but there's no telling what he actually did when I left his car. But, of course, I nearly always give a five, as did other riders I spoke to. "The only time I didn't give five was the time the guy was high and drove the wrong way on a one way," said New York Uberer Maureen O'Connor. If I was giving fives and my drivers were giving me fours, where had I gone wrong? I felt cheated.
I resolved to work at restoring my Uber rating to the one I truly deserved, the one that reflected my conscientious passengering. I doubled down, cheerier than ever. I said please and thank you. I smiled and made polite conversation. I didn't assert my musical tastes over the tastes of the driver. I admired their lemon scented and shaped air fresheners, the new car smell of their cars. I sipped gently from the bottles of Poland Spring they offered me, and I tried to reflect positivity. I hated myself, but my drivers loved me! Or so I thought, until a few weeks later, confident that I'd upped my ponderous rating, I checked it. (You can do this on your own by going to Help, then Account, then "I'd Like to Know My Rating" in your Uber phone app.)
An all-time low flashed before me. I was now at an appalling 4.47. I could only imagine what my next driver would tell me.
I sought the advice of my fellow Uberers. New York resident Choire Sicha had recently posted his perfect shining 5.0 on Twitter. How had he done it?, I inquired. "Ahhhhhhhh well it helps that I infrequently Uber for sure," he explained (which made me feel a bit better — if you Uber a lot, chances are someone's going to hate you, right? — before it made me feel worse). "Here's the trick," he added. "I'm aggressively subservient. I had an Uber driver on Friday in Miami Beach who was blasting ads on the radio the whole ride and was also complaining about how the radio plays too many ads! In real life I would have been like IF ONLY WE COULD DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT but in an Uber I stared quietly at my phone. She gave me five and I gave her five. The system is broken and the moral is: It's better to take the crappy rating."
I stared quietly at my phone a lot! Was I staring wrong? But I took some solace in the fact that all around me, other people were also freaking out about their ratings, including Sicha, who later emailed "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ME TONIGHT" to report he'd sunk to a 4.91. At a bar, I overheard two men chatting about their ratings. "I've started giving my drivers $10 bills when I get out, just to up mine," said one. "Why do you have a bad rating in the first place?" asked the other. "I don't know, sometimes they're just cranky!" the first shouted. A brief perusal of the internet turns up a variety of advice on how to increase your rating, for which I suspect there is only partial success. Because just like passengers can be wild cards, so can drivers. "If they think you're going to give them a bad rating, they'll give you a bad one first," one confessed.
It's uncomfortable, this turning the heads on the "customer is always right" mantra. What if your delivery guy walked into your apartment, handed you a bag of Thai food, and then left, rating you as "slightly smelly," "still in pajamas," and "a hoarder"? What if the department store saleslady wouldn't let you buy a swimsuit because the last time you'd been in one, you'd left all of the suits you'd tried on in a pile on the dressing room floor, making you a 3.4 in her book? "It's different because we do enter their cars," says O'Connor. "But other people enter our homes!" I said. "I guess it's like, whose turf are we on?" she mused. "We are really at our drivers' mercy."
That is, if we care. David Cho, who averages 12 Ubers a week, told me that his ranking had recently slipped from a 4.64 to a 4.62, which made me wonder if I hadn't been bad but there had just been some reckoning of the system, like clearing bots from Twitter. "Once I knew my rating, I started paying attention to individual rides to see if it went up or not, and on the day when it went down .02, my two rides were VERY innocuous and I was very well behaved," he explained. But he wasn't worried. "I'm pretty sure it's just a scare tactic. I've still been able to always get an Uber when I needed one, so provided they keep giving me rides places, I honestly don't care."
I admired his nonchalance, but still I yearned for a better rating. O'Connor, who has a 4.66, sympathized: "An Uber driver once told me I had a low ranking and I felt so bad!," she said. "Maybe they just don't like where we live or something," she added. "Or are sexist." Maybe. Or maybe, like Cho, if I was going to take Ubers, I'd have to care a little bit less. OR: I'd get my ranking back up to snuff if it nearly killed me! I chose the latter, and I have, you know. After much hard work, I'm now at a 4.8.
But recently, when I summoned a car to head from downtown Manhattan to Gramercy Park, it was a cab, not an Uber. It was so convenient, just there for the hailing. After a few moments of confusion about how to turn off Taxi TV, I relaxed visibly, and giddily told my fellow passenger, "We can do whatever we want in here and not be rated for it!" Toward the end of the ride, several busloads of naked people painted in full body paint in celebration of NYC Bodypainting Day (it's real) passed by us waving and hollering and our driver burst into laughter, and we joined in. In all felt so free, so joyous, just like old times — before we became all too obsessed with the numbers next to our names in the apps in our phones. I'd give it 5.5 stars.