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Imagine a situation in which the whole place is on fire, a bomb is about to explode, everyone is running for their lives and someone is checking his looks on the mirror... pretty inappropriate for the situation, don't you think? I'm looking for an idiom or colloquial/slang/informal expression to describe such an indifferent stance.

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I would just call it Paris Hilton's normal day. –  Melisa Sep 12 '11 at 5:58
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Not an answer, but this reminds me of Kafka's Metamorphosis. –  djeidot Sep 12 '11 at 16:02
    
How about "the mainstream media" or simply "most Americans"? –  Ben Lee Mar 3 '12 at 2:02

11 Answers 11

up vote 66 down vote accepted

Copying from my comment to @Mitch's answer I think that rearranging the deck chairs is applicable in a scenario when someone tries to correct a doomed situation, cosmetically. In the scenario mentioned, I feel that “fiddling while Rome burns” might be a slightly more apt phrase.

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OK, I see. So the Titanic idiom is more like when someone does something pointless while the one you suggest is closer to the question, I think. –  Pantelis Sopasakis Sep 12 '11 at 9:49
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The classic:

Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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8  
To be fair, rearranging deck chairs might be a therapeutic activity for the stranded and doomed seafarers. But alas! nevermind me –  Adel Sep 12 '11 at 2:18
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To be a little pedantic, I think that rearranging the deck chairs is applicable in a scenario when someone tries to correct a doomed situation, cosmetically. In the scenario mentioned, I guess that maybe "fiddling while Rome burnt" might be a slightly more apt phrase. And I await the down votes :-) –  jogabonito Sep 12 '11 at 6:26
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@jogabonito: comments can't be down-voted. Only flagged. –  Joachim Sauer Sep 12 '11 at 6:30
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@jogabonito: I agree. You should write an answer. –  user4727 Sep 12 '11 at 6:45
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@jogabonito - In theory I agree that's probably how it should be used. However, I quite often hear it used in exactly the sense the OQ was asking for. –  T.E.D. Sep 12 '11 at 13:37

In this instance I'd definitely go with Mitch's suggestion (Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic) but as an alternative, someone who can't see the wood for the trees is someone who focuses on small details but fails to appreciate the wider context.

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9  
+1; also often spelled "can't see the forest for the trees." –  David Cary Sep 12 '11 at 14:30
    
But you can't forget "can't see the trees for the forest". I had a couple Computer Science professors who used this phrase to warn us not to forget the details. This could possibly be applied to mass hysteria, where people ignore details that could save their lives. –  tjameson Sep 27 '11 at 6:02

@Mitch & @Jogabonito's answers are perhaps more apt, but someone who sweats the petty things while neglecting the larger problem may also be considered "penny wise and pound foolish."

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+1: This was also the first answer that popped in my head. –  surfasb Sep 12 '11 at 16:36

I always liked the quote from the musical "The Music Man":

 There's a burglar in the bedroom while you're fiddlin' in the parlor!

Seems to fit fairly well.

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"Nero fiddled while Rome burned."

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Welcome to English Language & Usage, Bob. You made an excellent proposition, but unfortunately your form was poor. I would invite to edit your answer in order to flesh it out. –  Eldroß Sep 13 '11 at 12:43
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@Eldroß: How was it poor? I prefer compact answers over unnecessary text any day. –  user4727 Sep 14 '11 at 10:06
    
@Tim: might be, but what Bob did in this answer is writing the idiom and nothing else. Imagine if it were a question asking for a word, and only the answer would only contain the one word. I don't say he have to write a novel, but a little bit about why he choose this idiom, how he came to know about it, or a link would have come long way through, IMHO. Even just formulating a sentence (outside of the idiom) would have been good. –  Eldroß Sep 14 '11 at 10:22
    
Also, You can find the post here: english.stackexchange.com/review/… –  Eldroß Sep 14 '11 at 10:24

Recently heard the phrase:

He's making the beds while the house is on fire!

Which seems to be fitting for your question.

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In software engineering the term "bikeshedding" is used to describe this situation.

For more information read the Wikipedia entry for Parkinson's Law of Triviality.

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Besides being a bit domain-specific, I think this might be slightly less apt because it places emphasis on the trivial activity, and leaves the existence of more important tasks implicit - and the more important tasks might not be emergencies, either. –  Jefromi Sep 12 '11 at 21:38

"Ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the living room", or "failing to address" the same.

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If the person's nonchalance in the face of danger is due to informed confidence that the threat will be taken care of by others, I'd say they are "cool as a cucumber" or "steely-nerved".

If, on the other hand, it is due to irrational denial or dismissal of the threat, I'd say they are "bonkers", "loony", or some other synonym for "out of their gourd".

If, on the third hand, their lack of response is due to distraction or inattention that is keeping them from perceiving the threat, I'd say they are "out to lunch", or "bliv"--a contraction of "oblivious" that has been used as a derisive appellation in my family for decades.

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Lovely and well-explained answer and +1 for "cool as cucumber" :) –  Jamie Sep 26 '11 at 21:23
    
Is the "third hand" a legitimate expression as well, or am I missing some... innuendo? –  Pantelis Sopasakis Oct 4 '13 at 2:19
    
@PantelisSopasakis: Perhaps you should ask this as a fresh new question? "The Mote in God's Eye" by Niven and Pournelle is the first place I saw it -- as "on the gripping hand". –  David Cary Mar 6 at 16:44

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 13 '12 at 14:23

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