Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Imperfectionista in Britain

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Britain's got a big election coming up (May 6) and, while I can't vote, I will be backing Britain with a big shout out. Not a political one, just a wee praise.

When I left five months ago I was, like someone ready to leave, highly attuned to the UK's faults. But now, after some distance, I'm coming to terms with England. I'm thinking about the things the UK does well and the things I'd like to smuggle back into the States with me in a month.

One of the UK's strengths is the ability to be comfortable with imperfection. This might seem like a backhanded compliment, but I'm serious – I loved how much less pressure there is in the UK to be perfect.

I'd been thinking about this for a while, but two blog posts this week hoisted imperfection to the top of my mind. One was a post from an American in Britain on She's Not from Yorkshire about the English and the (real) female body and the other was from Rachel Held Evans on how perfectionism kills community. They got me thinking.


Sometimes I'd tell this to my British friends, how the drive to perfection is fainter there, how people just aren't as bothered trying to attain unreasonable standards, and they'd defend their country, "No, we feel it here too." And I'm thinking about several 'type A' Brits that silently defy my generalizations as I write. But still, I contend that as a culture, the disease of perfectionism is much fainter in the UK. America breeds it. It pushes you there.

As a recovering perfectionist, I don't want to bash current perfectionists when I label it a disease. Because I think the same ambition that fuels perfectionism also fuels excellence. Ambition is a double-edged sword. It's what makes American customer service impeccable and mediocrity a market failure. It's what makes an American baby shower as much of an event as a British wedding. It keeps teeth white and skin tanned and the self-improvement industry in full swing. I like the ambition of America, but sometimes, it can be a bit too much.

Trying to be perfect all the time can be exhausting. And a waste of time.

While the UK is an ambitious culture as well, it has more well-defined boundaries. Instead of crippling its population with unrealistic ideals, it's more accepting of the imperfect. I think British culture even takes special joy in the imperfect. Expectations are less airbrushed and there's a common understanding that, of course you're not perfect, you're human. Have a bit of a tummy? Good, you're enjoying life.

The UK is a great place to get over perfectionism - it certainly helped me kick the habit. And for that, I'm backing Britain today.

What do you guys think? Americans, do you think our culture places unrealistic expectations on people? Brits, do you agree?

{Photo from flickr Peter Denton}

9 comments:

rachael said...

Hi Alisha - interesting post. I am not qualified to speak about Americans, but I do agree that Brits have a tendency to bring attention to and indeed celebrate their own imperfections (as well as those of others). Jokes (in good spirit) about colleagues' foibles are always a major component of any British office banter. In my case, my tendency to spill things - ALL THE TIME.

However, I do think that admissions of flaws and imperfections in the UK are generally limited to the superficial level - those things that are obvious anyway, such as appearance, dizzyness, cynicism... People keep very quiet about things that might be less than perfect on a more intimate level - problems in relationships with family and partners, for example. I wonder whether this is related to what you've said previously on how much more comfortable Americans are than Brits with blogging? Perhaps, Brits aren't so ready to open their soul and share their deeper imperfections, even with close friends.

alisha said...

Rachael,

I love that you have a tendency to spill things, but I haven't seen it in action yet - maybe this weekend!

Good point about admissions of flaws being generally limited to the superficial. It's funny the things we are able to open up about and how there's not always consistency from shallow to deep.

On the superficial level though I do like Britain's approach. :)

Mandy said...

Hi Alisha
I love your reflections. I find them fascinating.
I think there defo is less pressure than the US to be perfect but it's all relative. I think the mass mag media is particularly pushy, cruel and unforgiving at times. With young teenagers Reading them I'm fearful of a less tolerant future where we do put increasing presuure to be perfect on the U40s.
Right now I'm off to vote. Democracy is great as long as people actually vote. I fear we are going to wake up to a right wing Tory government that thinks helping the poor is reducing inheritance tax on Mansions!

Nadine said...

I loved this post!

As a British-American, I've never been a perfectionist and but didn't really think about it till right now. Maybe it's my English heritage and if so, awesome. :)

Beautiful post and beautiful reflections Alisha.

alisha said...

Mandy, I agree that the British media can be cruel & unforgiving at times. I hope Britain doesn't lose its sense of perfectly imperfect though! Good luck in the election.

Nadine, I love how you use the words 'English heritage' and 'awesome' in the same sentence - you are the best of both worlds m'dear!

Alexis Grant said...

Hey,

Wish I'd spent enough time in the UK to know what that feels like! I also see you've recently been to NZ -- one of my favorite places EVER. Jealous!

Thanks for stopping by my blog. We've got a community of writers working on travel memoirs -- you should join us! Here's the info: http://alexisgrant.wordpress.com/travel-memoir/

Great to connect.

Laura H said...

Interesting, but I've got to disagree with you on this one. Pursuing Perfection doesn't bring you closer to excellence, it just devalues everything else.
In the words of our Catholic friends: 'Ambition is a vice which makes us seek our own honour with inordinate avidity'. Remember it has only been in the last century that the term 'Ambitious' has gone from being a huge criticism to a form of praise.
But then I am English :)

L/x

alisha said...

Laura, I agree with your disagreement that pursuing perfection doesn't lead to excellence, but devalues everything - I'm not a fan of perfectionism.

But I do think that there is a drive in America that pushes people and that it can be good. It can push people to excellence and it can be generous. BUT, it can get out of control and be self-serving and paralyzing.

I'm definitely still a fan of ambition but I think it has to be driven by love, not self-advancement. Creating anything or doing something worthwhile that goes against the grain requires a lot of ambition and audacity.

But you know that even after 4 years in the UK I'm still an American at heart. :)

alisha said...

Laura, I agree with your disagreement that pursuing perfection doesn't lead to excellence, but devalues everything - I'm not a fan of perfectionism.

But I do think that there is a drive in America that pushes people and that it can be good. It can push people to excellence and it can be generous. BUT, it can get out of control and be self-serving and paralyzing.

I'm definitely still a fan of ambition but I think it has to be driven by love, not self-advancement. Creating anything or doing something worthwhile that goes against the grain requires a lot of ambition and audacity.

But you know that even after 4 years in the UK I'm still an American at heart. :)

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