Archived Story

The many levels of incompetence

Published 8:31am Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

I’m in a men’s bathroom somewhere — doesn’t matter where — standing by the sink. I stick my fingers under the faucet and wait for the water to start flowing so I can wash my hands. Nothing happens. I move my hands from side to side, wiggle my fingers around a bit, in case the sensor — the one that detects the shadow of my hand and fingers as it comes between it and the light source — is not where I expected.

As I look around the sink and counter, trying to find where that sensor is, I notice some handles set off to either side of the faucet: Handles that turn on and off both cold and hot water. Fancy that! A sink with manual handles in a public bathroom!

Did I ever feel like an idiot waving my hands about waiting for the magic sprinkles of water, especially since there were others using the facilities the same time as I was.

In my defense I will point out that the light in the ceiling was controlled by a sensor — a motion detector — that turned on automatically as I entered the bathroom. The toilet had a sensor. Even the paper towel dispenser used one. The only thing that worked “manually” was the sink.

None of those reasons for my mistake matter, of course, because waving my fingers under a faucet is just proof of my incompetence – in the eyes of my teenagers, anyway. But then, maybe teenagers don’t really need proof of incompetence when they’re out with their parents. Maybe they need proof we’re not as incompetent as they expect us to be.

They would be right about our incompetence, half of the time, because we parents often take longer to understand things that teenagers seem to know instinctively – how to do all kinds of cool and complicated things with smart phones, for example. Our clumsy attempts to send a text to someone amuses them, when it doesn’t irritate them. They use words we don’t understand at first, and then, when we do figure out what the words mean and use them ourselves, they snicker and text their friends about it.

They’re also right about me some of the time, my teenagers, because I am incredibly absent-minded. Even when I write notes to myself and mark calendars I forget all sorts of things — even important things.

It’s not just about our — my — authentic incompetence, however. Youthful arrogance is also part of the equation. According to them, they know everything anybody needs to know, anything worth knowing according to their standards. Or at least they give that impression. Even when they’re wrong, they’re right; they can’t see their own incompetence, and they certainly don’t want us — or their friends — to see it.

Beyond the intergenerational balance of competence and arrogance, it’s interesting how, generally speaking, we all have an inconsistent tolerance for incompetence. It’s not just about teenagers passing judgement on grownups. Some people are OK with incompetence in other people (setting aside the incompetence that leads to some kind of serious catastrophe — nuclear meltdown at a reactor, for example), while beating themselves down with the harshest criticism at even the slightest error. Others berate the incompetent they encounter for the most minor mistakes, while excusing or ignoring their own, even if they committed a huge blunder (it’s always somebody else’s fault). Politicians usually fall in that second category, by the way, regardless of ideology.

The truth is, we are all incompetent — in one way or another. It’s a part of being human. We are all flawed mortals, with skills that are unevenly distributed. I am a good cook — even my teenagers think that my incompetence doesn’t affect what I do in the kitchen. But give me a snow blower or a gas-powered lawnmower, and I will ruin it within a month or two.

Or put me in a public bathroom with old-fashioned fixtures.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.