Pretending not to hear

If you want to observe teenagers in an environment where they think they’re not being observed, the best place is probably a bus. No adult is officially in charge of them and the adults nearby tend to ignore them (out of politeness or fear). Teenagers on a bus tend to assume that nobody with the power to ruin their day is paying any attention to them.. So they behave naturally, by which I mean that everything they do is carefully calculated for its social impact.

If you’re having trouble picking out the king or queen of a particular social scene, I’ll give you a clue: they’ll be the one pretending not to hear. And the more dominant they are, the shorter, ruder and louder their claims not to hear will be. So you might get something like this:

Beta Male: “We was going down the park, yeah, and – “
Alpha Male: “UHHH?”

Let’s be clear on this. It’s incredibly unlikely that Alpha Male has really failed to hear what’s being said to him. I heard it perfectly well and I’m much older than him (no doubt with the failing hearing that my advanced age brings). And, more to the point, I’m sitting five seats away trying to read a book.

Alpha Male’s pretended deafness is about reinforcing dominance. He goes “UHHH?” to disrupt Beta Male’s story, to test boundaries by forcing Beta Male to repeat himself. And they both know their respective status. That’s why I’ve never yet heard an “UHHH?” challenged. If they were of equal social status, you might expect a reply along the lines of “God, are you going deaf?” or “Clean your ears out!” But you don’t. The less dominant person usually simply resumes their story, but with less confidence than before.

I used to think this phenomenon was just confined to teenagers, until the day I boarded a bus with two old ladies on it. They knew each other, but one chose to sit directly in front of the other, facing forwards. She was the Alpha Female. The Beta Female sat behind.

I watched and listened as the Beta Female repeatedly attempted to engage the Alpha Female in conversation, her submissive body language sadly wasted on a woman who refused to turn round. But she never got through a whole sentence, because every time she spoke a few words, Alpha Female would interrupt with “PARN?” (This was clearly a corruption of “Pardon?” and an older, genteeler version of “UHHH?”.) Beta Female tried multiple times and then finally gave up, lapsing sadly into silence. I sneaked a look at Alpha Female. A huge, triumphant grin was all over her face.

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