Seth LindenSeth Linden

Beyond a lackluster IPO and less-than-stellar Q1 performance, there’s another Uber piece of news that should concern all of us in the public relations field.

This spring, the global ride hailing service announced a new app preference, which allows you, the passenger, to decide whether or not you’d like “to chat with your driver.”

I use Uber frequently and think highly of the service, but this announcement is concerning, even disrespectful.

Essentially it works like this: If you take Uber Black or Uber Black SUV trips, you can choose in advance whether you’d like to make small talk or not. Uber’s news release reads: “If you need to respond to email or are in the mood for a nap, make your trip a quieter one with just one tap. If you’re in the mood to chat, that’s an option too.”

We all can relate to being tired and not wanting to chat. But there’s a certain level of civility and decency in, at least, acknowledging your driver, asking him or her how everything is going, and even learning something along the way about where you are—geographically—or, possibly, what’s going on in another person’s life.

Uber, on the other hand, is further enabling executives and others to tolerate and even advocate for less civil engagement.

I know there are many who would argue they’re entitled to quiet time in the car, and that’s absolutely valid. I remember a taxi ride in Tampa last year where for 30 minutes I was forced to listen to 20 years of grievances, expressed in colorful language and accompanied by a good number of expletives.

I get the appeal of a silent ride. But as professional communicators, we know that we shouldn’t program ourselves and our lives to shut out others. We should make meaningful and reasonable attempts to connect with other people and promote communication. The name of our profession is often taken for granted, but indeed, relating to the public is part of our collective mission.

Diplomacy is part of our PR mission, too. I may be a rushed New Yorker and businessperson, but that doesn’t give me the right to completely disengage without being courteous. If the ride gets overly chatty, it’s important to maintain a sense of decorum to end the conversation politely, and then return to email, a phone call or yes, a nap.

Over the past 13 years that I’ve lived in New York, I’ve spoken to many drivers who at one point or another have driven celebrities. What always stands out are the famous people who engaged with their drivers as everyday people and who made the time to make conversation and connect. The drivers also seem to remember those who didn’t make the time of day.

Those in a service business should be concerned about the implications of Uber’s announcement. Most professionals have to prove constantly that they are not vendors, but rather smart, strategic advisors. Part of establishing our credibility is showing that we can speak to many issues whether it’s financial markets, sports, entertainment or public policy.

We often hear people talk about the “art of conversation,” and being able to relate to different kinds of people in varying venues and scenarios is an important skill to have regardless of your field or profession. If Uber riders get used to shutting off their drivers, who’s to say they won’t get used to doing the same to their communications advisors, let alone accountants, lawyers, servers in a restaurant, doctors, colleagues, you name it?

Uber has transformed the world of transportation, and made it much easier to get from one point to another. But this quieting practice should stop now. It will lead to less civility, less engagement, and create an environment that’s even more siloed and less gracious. Plus, what about human curiosity? Surely that can’t be lost.

I’ll keep my setting as is. And yes, I’ll chat even when not in the mood.


Seth Linden is President of Dukas Linden Public Relations.