Beware The Bumbler

Just after Thanksgiving, I read The Myth of the Male Bumbler, by Lilil Loofbourow. It's a timely piece for many reasons. First, it explodes the stereotype of the guy who doesn't know the difference between sexual harassment and romantic overtures. (If women can tell the difference, certainly men can do the same.) Just as importantly, though, it addresses an all-too-common dynamic between men and women: the bumbler vs. the savior.

Think about this for a moment. How many sitcom episodes have you seen in which a bumbling dad makes a ridiculous mistake--like putting a diaper on backwards--to uproarious laughter? We're trained to see this as evidence that women are more competent than men, since Mom always comes to the rescue. Dad is chagrined, but he learns to appreciate her. Mom then asks him to promise that he'll never diaper the baby again.

<<Cut to commercial>>

That sitcom is actually a bumbler training video. Any man who watches it quickly learns that ineptitude is his most effective tool: mess up the diapering, maybe you won't be asked to do it again.

Bumbling takes on many different forms, and it's especially present this time of year. That coworker who asks you to be in charge of the annual office party because "I'm just no good at that sort of thing"? Bumbler. The romantic partner who assumes you'll manage the holiday social calendar because "I’m terrible at keeping track of all that stuff"?  Bumbler. The spouse who purchases a Christmas gift for you, but assumes you'll do all the shopping for other family members--including any children you might be raising together--because "I never know what to get people"? Huge bumbler.

There are, of course, female bumblers—but they're pretty rare. That's because women are judged differently for their ineptitude. (Can you imagine the response to a mother doesn't know what to buy her child for Christmas? I'm pretty sure it wouldn’t be uproarious laughter.) Even when women's bumbling is supposedly acceptable--in car repair, for instance--there's a price to pay. No doubt you've heard stories of women being ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics.

Male bumblers, on the other hand, are so conspicuous as to be a stereotype. They're on TV, as I've noted, but also in movies and magazine ads. They're sitting right beside us in the workplace--they don't even try to hide themselves. The current president has been generously described as a "newcomer" to politics who's making "rookie mistakes." No man's bumbling is serious enough to warrant real concern, apparently.

There are men who make genuine errors as they learn, just as women do--but there's a difference between a learning experience and the claim to being a bumbler. The first suggests an intention of repeating a behavior more effectively; the second exists specifically to make a repeated effort unnecessary. If someone else will do the work you don’t want to do anyway, why not let them?

If women are going to change this dynamic, there are two things we have to understand: why men bumble, and how to stop the bumbling.


The better question is why not? Bumbling gets you out of a lot of tedious work. Even better, it excuses all manner of careless or thoughtless behavior. No matter what you've done, you can blame it on the fact that you're a bumbler and promise to let someone more competent take the lead next time around.  Problem solved!

I think the main reason why this behavior persists is that there are so many bumbling role models. Until we start seeing mainstream portrayals of the average guy as a competent man, we should expect to see bumbling continue.

So how do we shut it down?  

The first step is to see it for what it is--not a well-meaning gesture that went awry, but a failure even to make an honest attempt. Or a failure to plan time effectively. Whatever the problem, don't roll your eyes and let it go because he's a bumbler. Understand that this is a strategy designed to excuse certain behaviors and compel others.

The next step is to let the bumbler fail. Don't swoop in to save him. I can't tell you how many women have told me they always take care of something because "I'd rather have it done right." Well, okay. If "right" means having things exactly the way you want them, go for it. Just know you've forfeited the right to complain about the role you've chosen. But if you actually don't want to plan every holiday office party, you have to stop doing it. 

Maybe that means next year's party will consist of a too-small cake and room temperature soda. So be it. No one is going to die from drinking warmish Diet Coke.

Finally, call it out. Make sure the bumbler is aware that you know exactly what happened. When he laughs at his ineptitude and says "I guess you'll have to go back to planning the party next year," identify the problem he ran into. Offer to share the checklist you've used for parties in past years, if the problem was a lack of preparation. If he says "I just don't have the room in my schedule for things like this," shrug and say "Everyone has to determine their own priorities." The key thing is not to let his bumbling shape your behavior. That's what it's designed to do.

All of this ignores power relationships, of course. If you're the administrative assistant whose job it is to plan the office party, then of course that's what you'll do. But if you're the wife and mother who's picking up a lot of slack because your partner "just isn't good at that sort of thing," then it might be time to put an end to the bumbling once and for all.