Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Uber Chat Chat

I hardly ever drive my car anywhere in Nairobi these days, having become accustomed to the convenience of calling up an Uber Chap Chap. I so appreciate not having to deal with the heavy and unruly traffic, and not having to worry about parking. Plus, I enjoy chatting with many of my drivers. Not all of them, as some seem to prefer quietness. A few open our conversation, while with others I’m the one to get us going.

Amusingly, several of the chatty ones have started by asking me which country I’m from, and it shocks them to learn that while I wasn’t born here I have lived in Kenya for nearly half a century – before any of them were born, and for some even before their parents were.

This typically leads us to talking all the way to my destination, making the time go by much more quickly and enjoyably. Often we moan about the potholes and the general state of the roads, and about the aggressive matatu drivers and the entitled Prado ones with their tinted windows that provide them with that extra anonymity.

The most interesting and easiest conversations are about politics, as we dissect the state of the economy, how our leaders are handling the issues and how their skills at selling their policies and programmes so outweigh their ability to deliver on what they promise.

For those who stay quiet, and particularly for the more serious and unsmiling ones, I hold back, as I continue judging whether they’d be OK with some chatting or whether they would rather just focus on the driving. There’s speculation on my part here, as maybe they are more introverted types who prefer spending time with themselves, or maybe they just feel I might be such a person and it would be more respectful to restrain themselves unless I initiate interaction.

The easy test is to just to make a brief comment, about the weather maybe, or the traffic, and then to see how they react. If I am sufficiently encouraged I might follow up by asking how long they’ve been an Uber driver, or whether it’s their full-time job – as for some it is not and they are also studying or doing business or are otherwise engaged.

Recently I was shown a facility on the Uber app that asks us riders if we want to converse or not – impressive, and it avoids wrongful speculation on either side. I’ve also been informed by one driver that as part of their training they are advised to stay quiet – more so with women passengers, in case their chatting is misinterpreted – unless the rider starts chatting.

Hm, maybe that’s rather more prudent than necessary as surely, just as with us riders, they learn to assess who prefers silence and who would enjoy conversation – particularly if, like me, their passenger is sitting in the front seat next to them and they can observe body language more easily. Indeed the mere choice of sitting in front means one is more likely to be a chatty type.

For those who make my trip with them fun by chatting with me, they become my friend and I’m sorry to have to just MPESA them my fare and leave when we arrive at my destination, knowing it’s unlikely we’ll ever meet again. For the quiet ones, I respect their preference – provided they show adequate friendliness.

As I’ve been reflecting on these interactions with my Uber drivers it’s led me to think more broadly about how we and those beside us decide whether to stay quiet while spending time alongside each other. It can for instance be on adjacent airline seats, where we might well be together for several hours, including for one or more meals.

I love it when I can strike up a conversation with such a neighbour, accepting that it’s not what everyone wants. On a recent flight to London the lady sitting next to me spent the entire journey looking out of the window next to her or buried in her phone. I got the message!

How sensitive are you to what your Uber driver’s preferences may be? How good are you at launching conversations – whether with such a person or with anyone else? Some are better at it than others, putting those they are with at ease and having the time pass by more interestingly and enjoyably. It’s a skill worth developing if you are not.