9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

iStock/South_agency
iStock/South_agency

Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
iStock.com/Rawpixel

A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
iStock.com/RyanJLane

Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER