Explain weaponized incompetence to just about any woman, and she will recognize it immediately. Women are painfully familiar with the frustration of asking for equal participation from their male partners and being told they won’t get it — due to a lack of know-how.
“I’m not good at XYZ Household Chore, but you are, therefore I’ll leave it for you to do.”
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.
The other day, I assigned my 15-year-old the task of folding the laundry. I had to finish a work assignment and teach two violin lessons via Zoom. My 11-year-old daughter was responsible for cleaning the kitchen.
When I emerged from my lessons, the kitchen was gleaming and the laundry was … not done. Most of it was folded, but sloppily, with the shirts bunched in such a way that you couldn’t really tell what you were looking at. The basket still had a pile of clothes in it — a mix of various people’s underwear, socks, and workout clothes. The clothes that were folded were not separated by family member. A pair of my shorts was mixed in with my son’s clothes, and my daughter’s skirt and joggers were in the pile that I was pretty sure was meant to be mine.
My son had been drifting between the piano and the laundry basket, obviously only minimally committed to the task after having had an hour to work on it. I reminded him that he couldn’t get back online until he was finished.
“I am finished,” he said with conviction.
I detailed the reasons why he was not, in fact, finished. He pushed back, claiming that he didn’t know which clothes belonged to which family member and that he didn’t know how to fold underwear or socks.
You know how the character Anger from the movie “Inside Out” blows his head off in a fiery rage? I did that. The top of my head actually blew off in a gush of flames.
Through clenched teeth, I told my son there was a name for what he was doing. “It’s called weaponized incompetence,” I said. “And it’s disgusting. And I will not tolerate it.”
I told him if he didn’t understand how to accomplish any part of a task I’d given him, part of the job was to figure out how to accomplish it. It’s totally unacceptable, I told him, to just opt out.
I made him fold the clothes he’d left in the basket, and I made him unfold and look at the clothing items he claimed not to know the owners for. When he looked at his 11-year-old sister’s jungle print three-tiered skirt and claimed he thought it was mine, I lost my shit even more. No, child. You are smarter than this. We will not play this game.
He finally gave up the act — because that’s what it was; an act — and finished folding the clothes the way I taught him.
We talked about it again later, and I told him I expect him to do better than this. I didn’t want him to develop a habit of trying to get out of helping out by claiming lack of know-how. I told him weaponized incompetence is a tactic used by far too many men in marriages and that it’s something that can ruin a relationship. He said he didn’t believe that was really a common issue. I shared with him the studies about the inequitable splits of invisible labor and household chores, how so frequently the bulk of the burden falls on women. I showed him the comment threads of thousands of women at the ends of their ropes with their husbands who used “not knowing how” as a way to get out of participating in the running of a household.
The concept of weaponized incompetence — also known as strategic incompetence — was on my mind because I’d recently seen a video about it on TikTok that perfectly demonstrated what it looks like.
Watching this video made my scalp crawl. I had experience with this sort of pretense of “not knowing” how to do something and that being the reason to get out of having to do the thing. It’s gross.
As angry as I was at my son for playing dumb to try to get out of completing the job the way I knew he could, though, I expect this from an adolescent. It’s developmentally appropriate for him to test my boundaries, to see what he can get away with. And he’s a great kid most of the time — thoughtful, compassionate, helpful.
Adults do this too, though, and that’s when it’s especially gross. Weaponized incompetence can happen in any kind of relationship — friendships, business, familial. But studies and mountains of anecdotal evidence show it’s most likely to be used as a way to dodge responsibilities in cisgender heterosexual romantic relationships, and that it’s most likely to be perpetrated by the man in the relationship.
“I’m not a good cook,” a man will say, as if cooking is an impossible skill to acquire. Or “I keep shrinking your sweaters; I guess I’m just not good at laundry!” The solution they propose is to simply no longer attempt the chore they are supposedly terrible at.
So how do you combat weaponized incompetence in your relationship?
I’ve read enough articles over the years that suggest women simply tell their husbands what they need from them when it comes to helping out around the house. As if men are too stupid to figure it out on their own. In my opinion though, the solution to this shitty cop-out behavior is to expect more.
Weaponized incompetence is not a matter of actual incompetence. It’s not a matter of stupidity or lack of know-how. It’s a matter of laziness and exploitation.
“Can you handle the grocery shopping this week?” “Will you tell me what we need?” “No, sorry. Part of the task of going grocery shopping is looking in the fridge and pantry and determining what we need. I’m sure you can manage it.”
There’s nothing wrong with dividing up the labor in a home so that one partner is responsible for specific chores. The arrangement has to be equitable, though, and everyone has to agree to it. It isn’t fair to have one person shirking their responsibilities because, by their own supposed estimation, they’re “not good at” the tasks they’ve been asked to help with.
We’re well into the 21st century now. We’ve moved beyond “asking for help.” It’s time to start expecting it. No excuses. If you really feel you don’t know how to accomplish a task, that’s what YouTube is for. Figure it out.