I started trying to communicate exclusively in E-Prime in the summer of 2008. I felt motivated to do this primarily by this claim:

The translation [into E-Prime of the sentence “the movie was good”, which could become “I liked the movie”] communicates the speaker’s subjective experience of the movie rather than the speaker’s judgment of the movie. In this example, using E-Prime makes it harder for the writer or reader to confuse a statement of opinion with a statement of fact.

This claim resonated with me for at least two reasons: I tend to judge quickly, and sometimes harshly, so I wanted to reduce the amount of judging I do; and I pride myself on distinguishing opinion from fact, so I’d like any tool that helps me do that more effectively.

Rather than reproduce a general argument about the benefit of E-Prime, I’d rather share an incident that occurred recently to illustrate how E-Prime could improve communication. Granted, each of us gets to decide what constitutes an improvement.

I had just delivered a two-hour presentation to managers on the subject of test-driven development. I spent the first hour providing the context for test-driven development, reviewing how to apply concepts from Lean manufacturing to software, but focusing on design: concepts like YAGNI, evolutionary design, writing tests first, and refactoring. I spent the second hour taking questions from the audience in batches of five and answering them quickly — about ten minutes per batch. I felt good about the session; however, one person decided to give me some feedback just before we closed.

He did an excellent job of introducing his feedback, almost as though he had recently learned some popular feedback-giving model. He said, almost verbatim:

I have a comment for you. It’s more of a Simon Cowell comment.

I told him that I felt ready to receive his comment.

The first hour was useless evangelism. The second hour was much more valuable. I wish you had run the first hour like the second hour.

If I had felt particularly insecure at that moment, I’d have likely reacted strongly and negatively. Fortunately, I felt great, so I interpreted his comment more generously. I appreciated his directness, and although I thought he used unnecessarily judgmental language, I didn’t mind that he did so in front of the rest of the group. That gave me the opportunity to ask this question.

Why didn’t you say that after ten minutes?

He realized I had made a Lean-related joke, so he smiled and shrugged, before answering that he held his tongue out of respect. I understood. I followed up by telling him that I would have found it more respectful if he had saved me from wasting 50 minutes of everyone’s time.

If we’d had more time, I would have taken that moment to launch into a discussion of the Satir Interaction Model, given this perfect example of an action (not interrupting me to claim I was wasting people’s time) with two diametrically opposing interpretations: paying respect by not interrupting; showing lack of respect by letting me crash and burn on stage. You can probably reduce any rocky communication to an instance of a severe difference in interpretation.

What if this person had communicated using E-Prime? How might this have played out? I offer this potential translation of my commenter’s comments into E-Prime.

I have a comment for you in the style of Simon Cowell. I found the first hour useless, as though you wanted to proselytize me. I found the second hour much more valuable. I wish you had run the first hour more like the second hour.

As I wrote this, I hesitated on translating “evangelism”. I settled on the periphrasis “you proselytized me”, which I think captures the essence of “evangelism” well. I know I could have chosen different words there. I recognize that the words I chose reflect my lingering subconscious feelings about the incident. By writing his comment this way, I better surface my interpretation of it, which I find both clearer and quite instructive. I could have translated it this way.

I have a comment for you in the style of Simon Cowell. I found the first hour useless, as though you simply wanted to evangelize about TDD. …

I react to this slightly less strongly than to the first version, but that difference doesn’t interest me much. I more care about which the commenter would have chosen: did he choose the word “evangelize” because he wanted to emphasize how I related to him, or because he wanted to emphasize my intention? I believe that knowing that would have helped save me from a harsh reaction had I received his comment from a less centered place than I happened to find myself at the time.

Communicating with E-Prime could have helped avoid a gross difference in interpretation between the commenter and I, and perhaps could do so more regularly. I count this as one of the many reasons I choose to communicate as much as I can in E-Prime.