Pretending to hear

We’ve all done it. Someone says something to you and for whatever reason – it’s noisy, you’re not listening, you’re not wearing the hearing aid you need – you don’t hear them. And for whatever reason –  you’re tired, you’re bored, you’ve already asked them to repeat themselves once – you can’t face asking them to repeat themselves. So you just pretend to hear. You adopt what you hope is a suitable facial expression and nod and hope.

My conversational tactic isn’t for that part of the conversation. I assume you’ve already got that covered. You use the other person’s facial expression and gestures and whatever words you can catch to mould your response to something appropriate. Advanced but more high-risk techniques include verbal responses like “I really feel for the team” or “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

My tactic is for just after the pretending-to-hear moment. And it’s more of an anti-tactic, because it’s about what you mustn’t do.

Within five minutes of a nod ‘n’ smile fake response, try to avoid broaching new topics of conversation. Be especially careful about drawing the other person’s attention to interesting nearby objects or landmarks. Also be careful about very obvious remarks.

Why? Because those topics may well not be new. If you nod and smile at a comment, then minutes later make an identical comment yourself, your cover is blown.

This didn’t properly dawn on me until I’d been on the other end of a few cover-blown nods ‘n’ smiles myself. Most recently this happened at the supermarket when I pointed out an item near the conveyor belt to a fellow shopper and explained why it was there. She half-laughed as if my comment had been a joke, which aroused my suspicions that she hadn’t really heard me, but I couldn’t be sure until three or four minutes later when she finally spotted the item herself, pointed it out to me and asked if I knew why it was there.

When a surefire conversational winner is met by an expression of surprise and slight hurt, rather than the interest or amusement you were expecting, that’s when you know you’ve just blown your pretending-to-hear cover.

So the key thing after a nod ‘n’ smile is: think before you speak. Think about what you’re going to say. Unusual or curveball topics are probably safe. But always, before you start, ask yourself: “Could the thing I’m about to say possibly be the thing I just pretended to hear?” Suddenly launching into a tale of your travels in China might make you appear boring and self-obsessed. But it’s way safer than pointing out the funny thing happening on the next table at the restaurant, especially when the thing-you-didn’t-hear was, now you come to think about it, accompanied by subtle pointing in that very direction.

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