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Transformations

I Chose to Stop Saying "I" for an Entire Week

It felt like conversing in Mad Libs. And it drove me fucking crazy.

David MacNeal

As a freelancer who works from home, __ tend not to have many coworkers to talk to. So __'ll often ring up my other telecommuter friend, Tony, for a couple minutes, or speak to my pet cockroach Bill "Fucking" Murray, whom __ experimented on while writing a book on insects. Needless to say, not many companions. So when I get a chance to socialize, __ tend to talk and talk and talk. __ furiously gab like a steam whistle at the end of the work day. __ hog up air time, and __ talk all about me. It's my vice.

That's why I chose to stop saying "I" for one entire week. It was an absurd exercise in self-constraint that I hoped would make me rethink how I connect with people outside of work—hopefully focusing more on others and less on myself. And as you just experienced, the experiment is very much like conversing in Mad Libs. It drove me fucking crazy.

I began on New Year's Day. I woke up (hungover) in my studio apartment, slumped out of bed, stretched, and said aloud to myself, "I need to do yoga."   Oh, goddammit! I then immediately picked up a pen to tally every slip up in a notepad entitled " 'I' Yai Yai." 

I realized that I often think aloud, and in the first person. But now I was self-policing. This was some marksman-level self-awareness. I had to snipe down those I's.

I met up with friends for brunch. As it turned out, conversations with friends, families, and strangers over the next week would become nerve-racking. My two friends arrived with their baby, and with no other course of action, I immediately started asking questions. They looked at me with worried anticipation, accurately reading that I was hiding something.

The downside of trying to avoid using the first-person singular pronoun is that you can't go cold turkey without sounding like a maniac. At some point, people will expect you to make a personal contribution to the conversation. So at brunch, I struck on an awful solution. 

"So you can't say any form of pronouns?" my out-of-town friend Emily asked.

"David can," I answered in third person, throwing up in my mouth. "David can say 'me' and 'my' and 'mine.' David just can't say the one that's a lone vowel." 

This psycho babble continued on for about three minutes before my friends grew concerned that all of brunch would continue on like this. For their sake, I pressed pause on the experiment. Day one: failure.

But I was resolved to see my "I"-solation through. I decided that for my sanity, I'd permit myself to think out loud without restraint, enacting the rule only with others. I experimented with my third-person cheat some more, and once on day three I said my own name 13 times in a 12-minute conversation. Friends had to ask me to stop.

But around this time I began noticing a gradual shift in how I approached conversation. I was doing more to facilitate exchange. I was playing the straight man the way, say, Scott Aukerman might on the improve show Comedy Bang Bang, setting up guests so they could riff freely. I also risked losing friends, so I decided to let the occasional "I" slip back into real conversation. But I would continue my experiment full-bore with strangers and during short interactions.

At points, the conversational limitation led to stilted interactions. But other times, it forced real personal moments. There's an employee at Trader Joes who I'm friendly with, but generally our interactions amount to curt head nods or exchanges about Star Wars. We're both fans. But plied by my newfound interest in her life—you ask a lot of questions when you can't say "I"—she revealed that she'd just married her girlfriend of eight years. It was spontaneous; they just went to the courthouse and got hitched. I congratulated and hugged her. I'd never even shook her hand, and in the past I'd even forgotten her name. But here we were, and it was brief and lovely.

I kept logging my slip-ups in my "I Yai Yai" journal, and sure enough, there were many. On my best day, there were only six. I made a note: "It feels good just writing 'I.'"

But I'm happy with the experiment. It was maddening, but it was also a wake-up call, a reminder that showing interest is its own reward. Removing myself from the conversations—however flawed the idea—forced me to focus more on other people. That's something David plans to continue.