The Rockwood Files: A chance to press “mute”

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

About eight years ago, I wrote a column about how I almost never turn on the radio in the car anymore. Except for listening to the occasional podcast, I like it best when the car is quiet. The low hum of the road gives me time to think.

When I wrote the essay, I didn’t expect that small detail to evoke a response from busy readers. But it did. People sent emails to say they, too, like a quiet ride to wherever they’re going.

I was reminded of that old column today when I stumbled across a magazine article about something Uber did six months ago. The ride-sharing service put a button on their app that lets riders choose whether or not they’d like to chat with their driver during the ride. Customers can choose either “quiet preferred” or “happy to chat,” and then the driver accommodates the request.

And although this silence might be golden, it’s not free. This quiet feature is only available on the premium service called “Uber Black,” which costs more. (I’m guessing Uber knew the quiet feature would be popular and therefore priced it accordingly.)

But in the article I read today, the writer criticized Uber’s new feature for the way it “cuts off any possibility of human connection.” And to that I say an exasperated “Oh, hush.” The preference for a few minutes of peace and quiet doesn’t signal doom for human-to-human contact. It means people are often exhausted by our ultra-interactive world.

Every now and then, we need a brief reprieve from a world that constantly asks for something – phone calls, emails, texts, reviews, registrations, RSVPs, comments, and the ever-popular “likes.” There’s no shortage of ways to connect and interact in American society.

This doesn’t mean we should stop talking to Uber drivers or anyone else we encounter during the day. I’ve had great conversations with Uber and Lyft drivers and often get pointed to amazing restaurants in new cities, thanks to their recommendations.

But I don’t think it’s rude to use the app to request a few moments of peace to hear yourself think. In the midst of a busy day, sometimes those short rides are used for a chance to settle your nerves or pray or read or daydream or send a “happy birthday” text to a friend.

I imagine Uber drivers are sometimes relieved to pick up a “quiet preferred” rider. Most drivers are there to earn money, not because they relish the idea of having the same chit-chat with dozens of people every day. While driver courtesy is important, not every driver is a natural extrovert who’s happy to discuss the weather or the news of the day with a steady stream of strangers in and out of the backseat.

There’s a reason why the mute button on most television remotes is the one that gets the most action. We live in a loud, distracting world, one in which the volume seems to be going up. Sometimes we need it to stop – just for a few moments – so we can process all the sound and fury that comes our way each day.

That doesn’t mean we don’t want to connect with other people. It means we value a connection to our own sense of peace, too.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.