After sliding the on switch in my Uber app, I putter around the Indianapolis outskirts for about 10 minutes before receiving my first bat signal from a guy standing in front of a deeply suburban-looking office complex. He got right into my front seat, which I heard was an Uber party foul, but I didn’t want my first stranger interaction to open with me jerking my thumb and saying, “Backseat, buddy.”
A friendly, chatty Turkish immigrant, he’s headed back downtown after a job interview. He came to America years ago for an internship and simply stuck around. The Midwest, he says, was open and welcoming, but troublingly sedentary. He worried that our reliance on cars and endless fast-food options would make him look like a lot of the people he’s seen here. Random Fact No. 1: In Turkey, McDonald’s is considered something of a semi-expensive luxury meal.
I don’t usually care for small talk with a barista or Uber driver. So naturally I at first resisted the idea when SUCCESS asked me to drive for Uber to study the chance encounters that often come with participating in the YouEconomy—the massive entrepreneurial movement encapsulating the gig, sharing, freelance, on-demand and moonlighting economies that is already changing the life and work of one in three American adults.
For many YouEconomy participants, the opportunity to get to know people in their communities is a perk. But I’m an introvert. A three-hour road trip with friends is no effort. Driving strangers around for a few days? Pass.
As kids, we had solid, structured commandments about not talking to strangers. As adults, we’re forced to deal with them all the time. But even for an introvert like me, ignoring unfamiliar people sounds like a harsh, detached way to approach life. That’s the point made by author and TED speaker Kio Stark in her recent book, When Strangers Meet. Stark thinks we should all strive to interact more with strangers—not constantly, not at the expense of common sense, but as a way to grow and nurture the human parts of you that my mom worried about.
“Talking to people who are different from us can be radically transformative. It’s the antidote to fear.”
Talking to strangers, Stark writes, injects spontaneity into your day. It shakes you into full alertness. At its best it can obliterate prejudices, open doors and windows, and make you see people where you might have once seen labels: woman, old, millennial, gay, neck-tattooed, Southern, bearded, group of black teens, Muslim, crazy, poor. It forces you to recognize individuals, which goes some way to explaining the appeal of such bite-size bio projects as “Humans of New York” or StoryCorps. “Talking to people who are different from us can be radically transformative,” Stark writes. “It’s the antidote to fear.”
Related: 7 Keys to a Flawless Conversation
Not all stranger interactions are avenues to redemption, of course, and no one’s telling you to drop your comfort guard, physically or emotionally. And the approach isn’t for everybody. Stark writes that introverts tend to respond to her like this: “I have so much trouble talking to people in (social) situations where I’m supposed to. But I really enjoy talking to people who are walking a dog or working in public, asking them what they’re doing, finding out what they know about the world that I don’t, or just saying hello.” Extroverts chat with lots of people; for introverts, there’s safety in “the kind of exchange that happens just once,” conversational glimmers with a pre-installed half-life. So with that in mind—and a freshly vacuumed car—I signed up and hit the road.
Over the next few days, the calls were steady and the people utterly random. One guy was a local actor and fantasy author who’d written a comic-book series but was in need of an illustrator. You can find those locally, but he’s going with an artist in the Philippines. The trouble, he said, was finagling the finances, a task he approached with ambition and caution. “My parents taught me to compromise, but never acquiesce. This is a business, and once people know you do that, they’ll start to take advantage,” he says. This became Legitimate Parenting Advice No. 1 of the day—I definitely wasn’t expecting to get any of that.
Random Fact No. 2: Jail parking lots are hard to navigate. I received one call came from an address of a fast-food chicken joint, but while I sat in the parking lot smelling biscuits, my phone rang. My passenger said he was on the other side of the street, “in the parking lot of the correctional center,” he added, with the slightest hesitation. This did not fill me with a tremendous desire to leave the chicken joint. But he helpfully directed me into the large, twisting jail lot, and on the ride home talked about his job as a lawyer. I’d never been to a jail before.
Later, a short, snappily dressed blond guy loaded his golf clubs in my car and asked to be taken to an import car dealership. His wife was pregnant, so it was time to unload the fancy-pants ride, he said, not as resigned as I’d have thought.
One mom got in with her son, a 12-year-old she introduced as a child actor. The kid had a recurring role in Empire and the Spielberg-produced sci-fi series Extant with Halle Berry and had just returned from shooting a commercial in Prague. Random Fact No. 3: They have really good Pokémon Go in Prague.
On the last day of my weeklong experiment, I stopped for one final call, this one from a high school right around 2:30 p.m. I’ll be honest: I was less than optimistic about a pickup from a high school—I expected some degree of teenage obnoxiousness, or at least a lingering cloud of Axe body spray. Turns out it was a junior in need of a lift to her after-school job at Taco Bell. She’d get her license in three months, but until that time her dad had given her money to Uber herself to work. Not too many kids call Ubers, she said, but some do. Mostly it was a stopgap solution until she could drive, and I dropped her at work feeling pretty good about the next generation.
These were scraps, torn-away notes from lives I’d never bump into again. I liked it more than I’d have guessed.
At the risk of turning into a cliché, I felt pretty good about people overall. “I know not everyone wants to hear my shrill voice,” said the actor/comic book guy, whose voice wasn’t that shrill. “I know not everyone cares about how I’m feeling that day.” But he chatted anyway. (A lot.) After a few days, I had only a handful of passengers but an Evernote doc full of disconnected but oddly rich details: “trumpet player,” “doesn’t understand popularity of Taylor Swift,” “daughter is a D.C. magazine editor,” “been driving on suspended license for six years,” “walks 1.4 miles to work.” These were scraps, torn-away notes from lives I’d never bump into again. I liked it more than I’d have guessed.
Uber riding doesn’t always result in conversations, of course. Still, by the end of the week, I could see that Stark was totally right. These interactions were brief and without pressure—just people bumping into each other in the in-between times, during the set changes, on their way to whatever their real lives had them doing next. This is the time you never think of; spent with people you’ll never again see. I very much dug the injections of something new—I don’t often talk to Turkish immigrants, or 12-year-olds who sought out Pokémon in Prague, or local artists. Now I drive past that part of town and think, Oh right, this is where the comic book guy is from, I should see if my 12-year-old would be into comics. Or I remind myself to check out a jazz bar, which I don’t do terribly often. I got a week’s worth of advice, leads and conversation about topics I wouldn’t much encounter in my day-to-day.
Best of all, I got solid parenting advice and a few degrees of humanity replaced and restored. I also made a little money, though I dropped a few bucks on lunch at a Thai place I’d never heard of. It came highly recommended by one of my first passengers. He suggested the pad thai, and he was right.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.