I want to start off this blog post by saying I know! It’s so weird that I don’t use TikTok, and I must be one of the last people on Earth not to have the app. I am behind with the times and the trends, but even though discussions of weaponised incompetence have been a trend on TikTok for around 3 years (with the hashtag #weaponizedincompetence having currently 63.4 million views), it’s a topic that has only recently come to my attention and is as important now as ever.
The topic of weaponised incompetence first came to my attention when I watched a reel created by @vulgadrawings on Instagram (it probably came from TikTok?!) Her video shows a woman asking her male partner to do simple domestic tasks, to which he responds with excuses for why he can’t do them. The video is quite funny, ending with two females rolling their eyes because the male can’t even sacrifice a goat to the dark lord correctly. This sort of humour is used to highlight the issue of weaponised incompetence whilst showing the ridiculousness of (typically) men’s examples and behaviours to get out of doing domestic chores.
What is weaponised incompetence?
This video got me really interested in finding out more about how incompetence is weaponised and where the term came from. After some digging, I found that ‘weaponised incompetence’ is not a new term, but rather was coined ‘strategic incompetence’ in 2007 by Jared Sandberg. Sandberg argues that “strategic incompetence isn't about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn't want to do -- without ever having to admit it.” Essentially, it is using your actions and behaviour to pretend you “can’t” do something and resulting in another person picking up the slack.
Where ‘strategic incompetence’ is used to describe feigning incompetence in the workplace, ‘weaponised incompetence’ is used to describe feigning incompetence in intimate or familial relationships, usually to avoid doing domestic chores. Both terms are interchangeable and mean the same thing, however, I have found this distinction to be the case. Emily Mendez M.S EdS states that “weaponized incompetence refers to pretending not to know how to do something when you do really know how to do it.” She then goes on to state that “in a relationship, it could be one person saying something like, ‘I don't know how to do that. So, I'll let you take care of it.’ This can be seen as a manipulation tactic.”
I think we can all think of a few examples from our work and personal lives where we have been subjected to weaponised incompetence – and this is not limited to the men in our lives. Weaponised incompetence is a learned behaviour all of us have probably used at some point – either knowingly or unknowingly.
How is weaponised incompetence harmful?
Using Mendez’ example, weaponised incompetence can be viewed as harmful as she highlights how pretending to not be able to do simple tasks almost forces the other person into doing them and can be manipulative behaviour. As the hundreds of videos on TikTok and millions of views they have received show, this type of behaviour is not only present in everyday relationships but deeply embedded into them. Mutanda explains that this behaviour can be learned from a young age, and she states that “for example, a child may learn that they can get out of cleaning their bedroom, by doing it really badly and this kind of behaviour can be carried into adult life.” So whilst it is a harmful behaviour and can become serious if you are being routinely manipulated into doing tasks by someone else, there is also room for hope that people can unlearn this behaviour through communication and education.
How can we tackle weaponised incompetence in our own relationships?
I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling weaponised incompetence in workplace and personal relationships, and I am certainly not an expert on the matter, but it does seem clear to me that communication is key to understanding harmful behaviours.
Since learning what weaponised incompetence is, I have had conversations with my friends and family to discuss what it is and how it affects our relationships. Knowing what it is has helped me to identify and be able to put a name to my frustration when my brother doesn’t cook for himself “because he doesn’t know how” or helping me identify when I use this behaviour myself to get out of doing the dishes because my boyfriend is “better at cleaning them” than me.
The term weaponised incompetence may have become a bit of a buzzword and a trend, but if it helps people to become aware of their behaviours, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, especially if it encourages change throughout society, from our friendships to our workplace relationships.
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Hannah Milner (She/Her) Hi, I'm Hannah (she/her) and I recently graduated from the uni of Strathclyde in Social Policy and English. I love reading books, am passionate about challenging social inequalities, and desperately want a pet cat.