American Sociological Association

Adopting a Cloak of Incompetence: Impression Management Techniques for Feigning Lesser Selves

The “cloak of competence” concept captures attempts to disguise limitations and exaggerate abilities. The author examines the conceptual converse: the “cloak of incompetence,” or the various ways people deliberately disregard, disguise, downplay, or diminish their personal abilities. Drawing on a comparative analysis of manifold empirical cases, the author identifies three generic competence-concealing techniques—avoidance, performance, and neutralization—and considers some of the interactional contingencies that can enhance or reduce their effectiveness. Avoidance and performance techniques are used to manage creditable competence. Neutralization techniques are used to manage credited competence. Each strategy obstructs the appearance and attribution of competence in a particular way: avoidance techniques prevent the dramatic realization of competence, performance techniques dramatically realize incompetence, and neutralization techniques discount, downplay, distance, or otherwise explain away evident but undesirable competent performances. The author concludes by discussing some implications for sociologies of persons, culture, and structure.


Arthur McLuhan





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