“I’ll just do it myself” is a phrase that has escaped my mouth many a time, often uttered with a sigh. I know I’m not alone in my willingness to take matters into my own hands to have total control of a situation either — which is why so many of us wear a ‘perfectionist’ badge pinned to our chests.
When you expect things to be done to a certain standard, you often just end up doing it yourself so you’re not faced with disappointment or the inevitability of redoing a task. It’s something I’ve unknowingly done with partners, friends, family, and coworkers — it makes things easier for everyone, right? But what I failed to realize is that this sets an opposing standard for the person who I’m letting off the hook.
This dawned on me after watching TikTok videos of people making fun of their partners’ inability to do simple tasks, and the degree to which they have to handhold them. Like the woman who created a detailed A4 shopping list complete with photos of grocery products and what aisle number they were found in (as well as a hand-drawn map of the store), or the woman who is caring for her two young children while her partner “comes downstairs at 11 a.m. after sleeping in, sitting on the toilet for 45 min[utes], shaving and taking a long hot shower." The truth is that this is all learned behavior.
The phenomenon of shirking unpleasant tasks by pretending not to be able to do them has come to be known as weaponized incompetence, or strategic incompetence, a term first coined in 2007. And it's now trending on TikTok with #weaponizedincompetence holding over 5.6 million views, because, let's face it, things haven't really changed. While it’s categorized here by the trope of the negligent or obtuse husband, it can also manifest in the workplace, in various family structures, and in friendships.
When he was younger, the first time Neil Shyminsky, a professor at Cambrian College, was asked to wash the dishes by his mom, he told his little brother he had a strategy. “That strategy was that I would do such a bad job that she would never ask me to do it again,,” he said on TikTok. "I was faking incompetence [where] you pretend to be bad at something so somebody else will do it for you. It creates a lot of extra labour for everyone else."
TikTok user and motivational speaker Cindy Noir points out that the victims of weaponized incompetence are often the ones witnessing it. “What I can’t help but think about is how does weaponized incompetence impact the kids and the overall family dynamic?” she said on TikTok.
“Because weaponized incompetence shows kids that even though there’s two parents in the home, only one is trustworthy and reliable. And it shows kids what all kids have to do to get out of what they don’t want to do, as well as what they should allow and do in their future relationships,” she says.
Over time, the additional mental baggage and workload can build up and cause relationship tension, stress, and friction. The imbalance of labor is often something people have to unlearn, especially when it's gendered. Studies conducted during last year's lockdown confirm that the division of domestic labor in heterosexual couples still relies predominantly with cis-women. Of course, any partner in any relationship can find themselves guilty of this kind of manipulation, without even realizing they're doing it. But it doesn't have to be this way — partners can take active steps to try to balance chores and tasks out again, having open conversations as they go.
TikTok user @ThatDarnChat’s series “Division of Labor” dives into this complex topic. She recommends The Fair Play Deck: A Couple's Conversation Deck for Prioritizing What's Important, which includes tasks like, “who keeps in touch with the in-laws,” and “who buys gifts for people,” acknowledging the work that comes with community building and caregiving.
And the next time you feel the urge to take over a basic task that it looks like someone won't get just right, remember — just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.