Like good Christians, most thoughtful Americans have readily admitted that our current state is always one subject to improvement. Why else would the preamble to the Constitution underscore that the document’s purpose is to establish the arc of our shared journey toward “a more perfect union”—or, for that matter, why would so many voters believe the nation’s future could be again turned to a condition as great as some idealized past? Like Navajo weavers who always put a deliberate slip-up into the making of a handmade rug, our public life has generally conceded that perfection remains an ideal, the state of liberty and justice for all a destination that shimmers vaguely, mirage-like, while remaining ever tantalizingly out of reach.
It is odd, then, that at this fractious time in our history we are facing an epidemic of perfect. I don’t mean the tiresome and endless stream of images of flawless meals and décor posted on Instagram or the top-this status updates on Facebook. No, I mean the way in which the word perfect has become an all-purpose response, an increasingly ubiquitous conversational smiley face that pops up in unexpected places and appears only tenuously connected to conventional meaning. Who’d have thought that at this, of all times, there would be so much perfect to go around?
Take the bank. Periodically, I have occasion to go to the credit union in person to deposit a check, decidedly imperfect in its magnitude, remunerating me for some work of freelance journalism. Because I am old-fashioned and have not adopted the mysterious protocols of paying with a smartphone, I ask for some cash back, let’s say $100.
“How would you like that?” the teller wants to know.
“Five 20s,” I respond.
“Perfect,” she says, popping open the cash drawer. But I’ve now done this enough times to know that if I ask, instead, for two 50s, or 10 Alexander Hamiltons, or practically any other combination of bills, I’ll get not just the cash, but the same word back. So I can hardly take her response as praise of my financial acumen, a terse acknowledgement of praise that this afternoon I’ve finally hit upon the ideal combination of bills totaling $100, any more than I can assume when a barista answers my order with “perfect” that the cardamom-infused iced latte special is in fact the single best thing on the chalkboard menu. Whatever the intended meaning, it is clearly not “can’t be improved,” which is what we mean most of the time when we describe something as perfect.
What is it, then? Given that we live in an age of not only rampant social-media buffing and preening, but of exceptional self-absorption, I might interpret the response as a selfish one, an almost unconscious admission that because I have worked out the math so well my request is easy to fulfill. In other words: “Great, your choice is going to get us both out of this transaction as quickly and painlessly as possible.” If that’s the case, then the only imperfect response I could make would be one involving undue complexity or outright error, like asking for five 20s and five 10s. In this, hearing perfect is synonymous with no problem, the other, more irritating anodyne response to customer requests that has become so rampant within service industries. Maybe it is, like no problem, what linguists call a “phatic expression,” a term or phrase—like the rote “how are you?” asked without any expectation of an authentic response—that serves as a mechanism of social bonding without conveying any specific meaning of value. The meaning might in other words equate to “I’ve heard you,” a phrase far too redolent of contentious counseling sessions to be appropriate for the quotidian exchanges in which perfect has proliferated. Some verbalization is needed, as acknowledgement of the act of communication, and perfect will do as well as any other.
But I prefer to interpret the word’s usage as inseparable from our political condition, which, almost anyone would agree, is an awfully long way from perfect. At a time when it has become achingly difficult to find honest and open venues for the airing of political differences, the wide turf of service industry interactions takes on increasing importance as a reminder of what we might still have in common. Who’s standing in line with me at the credit union? It’s the retiree with a MAGA cap, the genderfluid 20-something with purple hair, the Hispanic construction worker. It’s a random cross-section of our society at a time when cross-sections are almost as hard to find in person as they are in our vigorous online lives.
Sometimes there’s occasion for those of us waiting in line to share a light observation: the Friday-afternoon traffic sure is heavy; the weather’s unusual these days. You might call these exchanges superficial. But whenever I conclude some trivial conversation with a stranger I feel a sort of shivery frisson of satisfaction, an almost bodily sensation that says, we have engaged in a successful human interaction. We have traded with one another, if not in the volatile currency of political viewpoints then in a duller but more stable medium: the shared experience of being human at the same time and in the same place.
It’s an experience deeply familiar to those who labor in service industries, who of necessity have had to learn to be adept at communicating across political boundaries, to be open to all in a particular, well-defined frame of action. In a hyper-politicized age, success in these encounters rests precisely on a shared agreement to focus on the business at hand, to by mutual consent ignore potential differences. Doing so is an applied expression of the essayist Wendell Berry’s claim that “you can't exclude any members from a community,” lest you create an association instead of a true community. It’s a foundational expression of tolerance, even if it is acted out within the tightly constrained definitions of what makes a successful service interaction.
Maybe this is an indication that our expectations of public interaction have become embarrassingly low, resulting in a soft bigotry of diminished possibilities for the honest democratic sharing of viewpoints about serious issues. But I prefer to be more optimistic. The shift in our economy from one based largely on agriculture and manufacturing to one based largely on service has been far from painless; it has, in part, produced the economic and cultural uncertainties that have brought us to our parlous political state. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a new flowering of tolerance—even if, inevitably, never a perfect one—were to arise from the common ground of our seemingly blandest interactions?