Anu Roy-Chaudhury: Talking to strangers

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 1:21pm

My dad loves to talk to taxi drivers. When family trips would take us to big cities, sitting in the back of a taxi was more like sitting in a living room, where small talk easily turned to real talk. My parents have long taught me the importance of talking to people, showing them respect by being curious about their lives, rather than being silent. With every taxi driver, my dad would ask them where they’re from, and that simple question would explode into a conversation about their journey, a journey parallel to our own, yet one which had now suddenly and spectacularly intersected with ours.

While my dad would be beaming and thoroughly invested in these conversations, I would feel the opposite. My cheeks would become hot, my hands clammy as I sat, embarrassed of my dad’s eagerness to talk to the people who were driving us around. I would sink lower and lower in my seat or stare intently out the window in an effort to avoid the conversation. Conversations would include personal stories about their family and their aspirations, and delve into their opinions on everything happening in the world outside the yellow cab. Yet, as I grew older, the embarrassment of these situations faded. In its place was curiosity. I began to listen. And now, like father like daughter, I talk to my driver. And as technology progressed and markets changed, the taxi driver was replaced with an Uber driver.

Despite recent controversies, Uber is still alive and well. I would like to point out now that this is not a praise for Uber, but rather, a praise for what ride-hailing apps of the kind have inadvertently created: a new environment, ripe for human connection.

On a campus like the University of Michigan’s, Uber is a life saver when the journey is too cold, too late, too far or, more often, all of the above. I imagine all of you have, at some point, sat in the back of an Uber, both alone and with friends. Yet, while being an innovative and efficient business to make our lives easier, it has simultaneously and unknowingly given us the opportunity to become more connected.

Last year, before I had the luxury of my 2003 Acura on campus, Uber-ing to the Detroit Metro Airport was frequent. During one of the many 35-minute trips to the airport, I had a conversation I’d never forget. He was a young, middle-aged Iraqi immigrant from Baghdad. What began with the usual “where are you from” question turned into him sharing his experience living in Baghdad in 2003 amid a tumultuous war.

Ironically, earlier that week I had been learning about post-9/11 America and the Iraq invasion of 2003 in my “20th Century Wars” lecture. Our conversation about his experience living and leaving a war-torn state was unnerving. Needless to say, 35 minutes was not a long time, but it was enough time. Enough to make me think, truly think, in a way I couldn’t by sitting in a lecture hall.

I have learned more in these short minutes, these brief journeys with strangers, than you would believe. It has made me open-minded and empathetic and altered my perspective on issues. Now, this isn’t to say every experience has been like this, no. But this type of dialogue between two people who lead completely different lives is important. Now I make an effort to have a conversation with my Uber drivers. Some don’t go anywhere, and some go everywhere. The notes section on my iPhone is filled with leftovers from my Uber conversations — from song recommendations to column ideas, each a tid-bit of an exchange with a stranger. Sometimes the conversations are funny, sometimes they are non-existent and sometimes they change you.

You may think I’m glorifying Uber, which, at its core, is a business venture aiming to make money. But it’s not the Uber aspect that’s important; rather, it’s the idea of talking to people outside of our bubbles, outside of our networks, who are different and who are similar. Everyone has a story. But understanding someone else’s experience, listening and reaching out to their stories can create empathy and change perspectives. Starting conversations, especially the unlikely ones, can be the pins that burst the comfortable Michigan bubbles we live in. And that is more important now than ever.

Certain words have been used more and more these days, not just nationally, but on our own campus as well — xenophobia, diversity, racism, inclusion, etc. Today’s political climate has been doused in assumptions, judgement and a basic lack of understanding of those around us. News headlines and rhetoric from certain politicians and groups show a polarizing atmosphere where being different is no longer met with acceptance but wariness and fear. But, much of this polarization is in our hands. Understanding someone’s point of view, listening to an experience that is not your own and having unlikely conversations in unlikely places (like the back of an Uber) is what can start to bridge gaps. Talk to people, listen to people — it makes all the difference.

Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu.