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Perfectionists, and How to Annoy Them

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You've just drafted a business memo. Or maybe you've completed your diorama for the history fair. Perhaps you iced a cake for a friend's birthday party. Or else you just organised the books on your shelf. Then that person walks in. The one who looks at your memo and starts proofreading it for punctuation, or who murmurs something about an inconsistent size scale on your diorama, or who immediately smoothes the icing with a few pats, or who begs you to line up the spines of your books. You know that person. The one who works harder on every project, studies longer for every test, becomes an expert at every hobby and on every subject he or she takes up and whose ridiculously high standards you have no intention of ever matching. The perfectionist. You smile and admire how well the perfectionist tidies up your work, but deep down you dream of shipping the person off to agonise in Never-Never-Quite-Right Land so you can continue with your life of pleasant mediocrity.

Well, you can't do that, but there are many things you can do to make a perfectionist think twice before strolling in your direction.

Who Is a Perfectionist?

Perfectionists are people who set very high standards for every activity in which they are involved. They derive pleasure from painstaking effort. They often measure their self-worth in terms of their accomplishments. That might be enough to scare you off anyone in the category, but actually, there are two types of perfectionists:

  • Normal Perfectionists - Normal perfectionists have their high standards but are willing to lower them a tad in extenuating circumstances. Any perfectionist, in the months leading up to a history fair, will be mulling over their diorama while they eat, drink and sleep. Every spare second they will spend adjusting, fixing, adding and, well, perfecting. But if circumstances prevent them from giving it the time and effort they would like, normal perfectionists will scale down their ambitions and give it their best efforts, within reason. They might spend the entire fair fixing their diorama, but they won't sulk, at least not for very long.

  • Neurotic Perfectionists - Neurotic perfectionists are never happy with their work. These are the people who are futzing with their diorama all through the fair even if it looks exactly how they planned. Despite all their labours, these people are, for weeks after, likely to suddenly say, 'I should have put the castle in the centre and arranged a siege around it!' while you're discussing the weather or something equally intriguing and unrelated. They will bemoan their klutzy fingers that couldn't craft a realistic peasant hovel at 1:500 scale. They will honestly believe that their efforts were the worst at the fair, even though they probably weren't. Neurotic perfectionists have a greater risk of developing depression, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia and (last but not least) writer's block. You probably should not attempt to annoy a neurotic perfectionist. Instead, recoup your dignity by feeling sorry for them.

Whether some fields attract perfectionists or create them, they are more common in careers where the drive to be the best is necessary for survival. Professional athletes are often perfectionists, and every once in a while there's a scandal when one of them tries to become the best through unsportsmanlike means. Accountants should, preferably, be perfectionists, because a balance off by even a penny is as bad as a balance off by a hundred pounds.

How to Spot One

Okay, this isn't too hard. If you haven't spotted any perfectionists in your life yet, you may either bless your lucky stars or brush up on their taxonomy.

  • For starters, perfectionists notice mistakes. Mostly they notice theirs, but they also notice yours and everyone else's. If yours and everyone else's reflect on them, they will point it out and try to fix it. Sometimes they'll do that even if it doesn't reflect on them. Perfectionists may commandeer a group project figuring that if they want something done right they should do it themselves.

  • Perfectionists get very anxious over their mistakes. They honestly believe (can you fathom this?) that everyone will think less of them if they don't know the right answer immediately, if they misspell a single word or if they slip on their way up the stairs. If they're having trouble composing a memo or crafting a realistic peasant's hovel at a 1:500 scale they'll be very reluctant to ask for help, because that would reveal their dearth of ability in, say, firing someone or crafting very small peasant hovels. If their results don't impress them, they'll try to explain their failure to everyone in sight in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Usually this just draws people's attention to mistakes they would never have otherwise noticed. Sometimes, ordinary people still can't figure out what the perfectionist is talking about, and nod in a polite, commiserating way before hurrying off.

  • While perfectionists think they know how to do everything, they usually don't know when to stop. They think that if they fiddle just a bit longer it'll come out even better. They're the ones who are pencilling words into the memo as you tug it away from under their fingers; they are the ones constantly straightening their collar, the tablecloth, or the picture on the wall; and of course, they are the ones adjusting the pattern of the sea waves in their history diorama ten minutes before the fair is over.

  • Some people might describe perfectionists as disgustingly fussy and organised; perfectionists would probably prefer to call themselves methodical and efficient. These people colour code their post-it notes. They arrange their closets into sections for weekend clothes, workday clothes and dressy clothes. They think filing in triplicate is as standard a practice as brushing one's teeth. These people divide their history diorama into a grid and tackle one square a week on an immutable schedule ending well before the fair. They adore things like stackable glasses, shoe racks and desk organisers. It is not wise to tell them that you use whatever colour note is at hand, that your clothes are jumbled together, that you think triplicate filing emigrated from hell or that you threw your history project together the night before. Their astonishment will rapidly turn to disdain. They may even try to convert you to their system. Their method is faster and more efficient, and they will kindly try to set you on the right path.

  • It isn't wise to criticise a perfectionist. They can't handle it. Sure, they just spent the last 15 minutes describing every inaccuracy in their diorama and maybe even in yours, but don't you dare try to reciprocate. If they don't immediately become defensive about their efforts and vitriolic about yours it is because they are internalising your criticism and will return home to brood over what a deficient human being they are. Many perfectionists are prone to depression because they take their work so personally.

Why Annoy a Perfectionist?

That's easy. They annoyed you first.

Why Not Just Shoot Them?

Well, society does need some perfectionists. There's some comfort in knowing that the airplane you're flying in was designed by a perfectionist, and there are many who wish there were a few more nit-pickers in NASA. Movies directed by perfectionists contain fewer flaws, novels written by perfectionists contain fewer plot holes, publications proofread by perfectionists contain fewer grammatical errors, organisations directed by perfectionists contain fewer inefficiencies and foods cooked by perfectionists contain fewer unidentifiable lumps. Normal humans are consigned to earth with perfectionists in a 'can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em' position. You'll simply have to make the best of the situation by regaining your feeling of ascendancy through small, satisfying counterattacks.

How to Annoy a Perfectionist

The Kalami Method

In The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams defines 'Kalami' as the secret art of folding a road map properly. It's been said that the simplest way to drive a perfectionist raving mad is to refold a road map incorrectly in front of them. This premise can be applied to any speciality area. Annoy a programmer by using long and roundabout commands. Annoy a painter by using the wrong paintbrush. Irritate a Martha Stewart wannabe by using a serrated knife to cut a cheesecake. Play Doom 3 defensively in front of an avid gamer. Say things like 'I think that was around 0.4 ml - give or take' to a chemist. Then give them an airy smile and play along.

The 'Yes, You're Right,' Method

Even if a perfectionist does a mind-blowing job, they'll still have doubts about their performance. To elicit your reassurance, they'll tell you all about what they would have done if time or circumstances hadn't short-changed them. In this case, the most annoying thing you can do is nod and agree with them: yes, their job was a deficient one.

The 'Don't Be So Clever', or 'Do It Yourself' Method

Perfectionists love giving advice. They always know how to do everything better than you do. There's no reason you should have to put up with it. Simply admit your inferiority and let them take over.

If a perfectionist is giving you advice of dubious merit, don't try taking their suggestion and messing up anyway to prove them wrong. They will always be able to list in excruciating detail the ways you didn't quite follow their advice that caused your failure. Instead, tell them that if they want it done right they should do it themselves. Then hand them the controls and hover nearby to gloat - and offer advice.

What Did I Just Accomplish Again?

Well, for one, you assuaged your injured ego and satisfied your id. You may also have taught the perfectionist to leave you alone - maybe. At the very least, you've entertained yourself at someone else's expense. What perfect fun.

Please excuse any errors in this entry. Some people just love finding mistakes, and we try to accommodate everyone.

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