How Some People Pretend To Be Unskilled at Certain Tasks To Avoid Doing Them
A classic example of “strategic incompetence” is men purposely being terrible at domestic chores.
This Diwali, as with almost every other festival, did you happen to notice women doing the lion’s share of festive preparations — making gujiyas and laddoos on top of everyone’s favorite food, cleaning and dusting the house, drawing rangolis, and preparing for the puja, while handing out endless cups of chai and coffee for the men of the household as they watch TV and comment on national politics? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here’s something else that you’ll probably recall witnessing: men saying they can’t possibly lend the women a hand because, well, how could they possibly demonstrate basic skills like cooking and cleaning?
On the other hand, however, there does happen to be a skill many of them have mastered. It’s called “strategic incompetence.” It’s art really — the “art of avoiding undesirable tasks” by pretending they can’t do it. As an article in The Guardian states, the “concept is surely as old as humanity.”
“To learn something… can be difficult. But to refrain from learning something requires years of practice and refinement… Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds,” reads a 2007 article in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
One of the most common applications of strategic incompetence is, of course, men employing it to get out of the equitable distribution of household labor. Some researchers even choose to call it “weaponized incompetence” because, at times, men don’t just “pretend” to not be able to do something, they “deliberately mess up” the task — like “ruining the laundry, leaving grease on the dishes, or ignoring the children” — so they’re never asked to do it again. “I’ll just do it,” a female member of the family would say, sighing as she picks up the slack. In fact, a pre-lockdown survey from 2019 found only 26% of Indian men reported doing any kind of housework.
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In fact, men have even admitted to resorting to this tactic. “[A]s I discovered at an early age, there’s one sure way to avoid being saddled with menial tasks: become notorious for being no good at them… And I strongly suspect I’m not the only man out there neatly avoiding unpleasant tasks through the art of acting dumb,” Christian Koch wrote in Daily Mail in 2018.
Last year, #weaponizedincompetence began trending on TikTok after a viral video caricatured how women often have to spoon-feed the minutest of instructions to get their male partners to help with domestic labor. Millions of women could relate.
But avoiding domestic chores isn’t the only goal of “strategic incompetence-enthusiasts.” They often feign incompetence of ancillary tasks at work — like organizing birthday parties for colleagues, “rounding up people” to attend meetings and seminars, and sending out agendas and action items — to ensure they’re never in charge of performing them. Earlier this year, on an Instagram post discussing the unfair burden of “office housework” on female workers, a woman commented about being forced to be the one to take notes at office meetings because her “male colleagues [would] come up with rubbish excuses like [having] poor handwriting.”
However, sometimes employees engage the tactic as a defence mechanism too — to ensure their desk doesn’t become “the dumping ground” for things no one else wanted to do. “The inability to grasp selective things can be very helpful in keeping your desk clear of unwanted clutter,” an HR executive told WSJ.
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The behavior persists outside domestic settings and workplaces too. Do you have a friend who pretends they’re bad at picking up the phone and making a reservation for dinner? Or one who refuses to ever return the courtesy of hosting their friends because — surprise, surprise — they’re bad at it? Or, did you ever have to write class projects as part of a team, where one or more team members would constantly opt-out of their duties stating they’re bad at… almost everything they’re handed?
Experts note that people develop the strategy in their growing up years as they look to avoid performing chores. “Maybe it’s natural for human beings to only do the minimum required. Maybe it’s natural to take advantage of someone who appears willing to give. Maybe it starts when they’re young,” one article states. Its author describes noticing her 15-year-old son employing the tactic to get out of folding laundry.
As people go to college, their habit of using strategic incompetence gets reinforced by diligent note-taking classmates, whose work is subsequently circulated for everyone else’s benefit right before the exams. But before they know it, strategic incompetence becomes their go-to strategy to avoid doing things they dislike — making life for those around them busier.
However, during this festive season, learning about strategic incompetence makes me wonder exactly what Smita Singh, a journalist, asked in 2019: “When did [women in the family] get the time to enjoy festivals? Did they enjoy it in the first place?”
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.