Stop trying to be perfect

Listen to this blog post here

Here are a few questions I’d like to ask you. Just answer yes or no.

Do you avoid saying something in English if you don’t know the right word?
Do you avoid using grammar structures until you have mastered them?
Do you spend more time doing grammar or vocabulary exercises than actually communicating in English?
Do you only want to speak English with native speakers?
Do you ask your teachers to correct every mistake and then feel discouraged when they do?
Do you get upset when you don’t get top marks in your test?
Do you always ask your teacher for the best way to say or write something and get annoyed when they are not able to provide a clear answer?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, than there is a good chance that you are a perfectionist.

What is a perfectionist? According to the Cambridge dictionary, a perfectionist is a person who wants everything to be perfect and demands the highest standards possible.

A short time ago, the Iphone 6 was released and many reviewers talked about it being the perfect smartphone. Until, some person realised that they may bend out of shape when you put them in your pocket. Even Apple are not yet able to produce the perfect smartphone.

And if we cannot find a perfect smartphone, why do we think we should be able to communicate perfectly? When we decide to express ourselves, in our first, second or sixth language, we have to make choices. Sometimes, these choices are reasonably simple. If someone asks you what the time is, you could say five to six or nearly six or five minutes before six or five fifty-five. When we express ideas or opinions, we have an unlimited set of options. If I am in a job interview and the interviewer asks me why I want the job, what do I say?

I need the money
I love your company
I’m the best man for the job
I believe I can be a great asset to this company
Because I want your job in 5 years time.

See what I mean. There are no perfect responses in spoken communication. Even if I am offered the job, I cannot say my answer to the question was ‘perfect’. Maybe the interviewer chose to give me the job despite not because of my answer. Maybe he gave me the job because he liked my CV or my suit, or I reminded him of his son or best friend, or I was the only person who applied for the job.

When we use the English language to perform a function, agree, disagree, complain, make somebody laugh, how we express ourselves is based on a combination of factors such as the words we use or our facial expressions.

And what we say is affected by other factors beyond our control: the relationship we have with the other person, the mood of the person we are speaking with, the temperature of the room, the time of the day, their relationship with their husband or wife, the kind of day they are having, what they want to achieve from the interaction, what they think about you, distractions which may lead them to think about something else, how much attention they are paying to our words. The list of factors is endless.

But, we often blame ourselves for imperfect communication rather than look for other reasons why we didn’t get the response we wanted.

Which is why we need to reflect upon what happened when we spoke. Was it what we said or how we said it that was wrong? Or was it an external factor beyond our control that caused the problem?

In the end, it always difficult to be certain about why something happened. All we can do is observe the reaction we get, make an educated guess about why we got this reaction, and make changes for the next time. Only by experimenting with different approaches can we find a suitable and successful way to say something: not the perfect way but a way that works.

We learn from our mistakes and through trial and error.

And remember, it’s better to say something imperfectly than say nothing perfectly.

2 thoughts on “Stop trying to be perfect

  1. It’s amazing that i said yes to absolutely every question you made in the beggining of the post!!
    I’m about to take the cambridge proficiency exam and i had placed a lot of pressure on myself regarding the speaking part of the exam. Your text has changed my way of thinking completely!!! I will possibly make a lot of “ehhhhhhH” sounds during my speaking test, but i will read your text as i get closer to the exam date and hopeffully try to relax a little bit more about it…
    Thank you for your blog. It’s really helpful.

    Ps: Sory for any written mistake. But it’s better to write something imperfectly than don’t write at all. 😉


    • Thanks for your comment Claudia. When I train students for high level exams, I get them playing the ‘Just a Minute’ game. They have to talk for 1 minute about a topic. There are only 3 rules: no hesitation, no repetition, no deviation. It’s great for developing fluency. Good luck with your exam.


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