I have been trying laboriously to find an equivalent idiom or a catchy phrase to the one we have in Arabic مثل الأطرش بالزقة which simply means, “He is like a deaf man at a wedding procession”.

It is used when two or more people are talking about a specific topic and one person in that group (or someone who happens to join in) is completely ignorant about the topic and cannot follow the conversation. That person might then say, “I’m like a deaf man at a wedding procession”, or the others may say it about him.

I was just curious if there was any similar idiom in English; or if not, is there anything in vicinity of it, or some catchy phrase which people usually say or any casual sayings?

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    Depending on your age and the informality of the conversation you might say, "So, I'm totally clueless here, but ..."
    – Jim
    Jul 23, 2014 at 4:19
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    Your explanation of the Arabic phrase is quite hard to follow. Do you mean when someone comes along from ‘the outside’ and butts into a conversation without knowing what the conversation was about at all, turning it into whatever he wanted to talk about? Or do you mean that he gives his viewpoints on whatever the conversation was about without knowing anything about the topic? Or something else entirely? If it's the former, a common phrase is “(He butted in) with all the tact of [something clumsy and tactless]”. The last bit can be anything that fits. Jul 23, 2014 at 7:31
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    "Like a dog in an art gallery" (with surprisingly few Google hits) has been used to describe the situation where a person is totally unaware of the significant events taking place all round them. Jul 23, 2014 at 10:01
  • @JanusBahsJacquet what it means is not butting in, it's just that someone has no idea about what a group of people are talking about (he is part of that group) so he uses that kind of simile in Arabic both humorously and in order to know what they are talking about, so is there anything in English likewise.
    – Keffiyeh
    Jul 23, 2014 at 18:36
  • @Keffiyeh So you mean that he is aware that the group is talking about something he is unable to follow, and then he himself might say, “I feel like a deaf man at a wedding procession!” to indicate that he doesn’t understand the topic? Jul 23, 2014 at 18:40

12 Answers 12


The most common figure of speech in a situation like the one you describe is to say that something (a conversation, a topic, or especially a joke) is (or goes) over someone’s head, as in sense 1 of this Oxford Dictionaries entry:

Beyond someone’s ability to understand:
the discussion was over my head

If the person who does not understand the conversation is the one saying it, it will often be in a slightly self-deprecating form, such as:

Woah … this is way over my head.

If others say it about him, they are quite likely to come off as fairly condescending.

From the notion of something passing over one’s head come two closely related gestures that are often used together:

  1. Moving one of your hands quickly over your head (from the front to the back), as if imitating something physically flying past you above your head; and
  2. Saying, “Whoooosh!”, imitating the sound of someone whooshing past very close to you.

Once again, this is seen as slightly self-deprecating if done by the person who does not understand, and definitely offensive if done by others.


An alternative to expressing that something goes over one’s head is to state that one is out of one’s depth (sense 1.2), an extended sense of a phrase meaning ‘standing in water that is too deep’:

In a situation that is beyond one’s capabilities:
they soon realized they were out of their depth in Division One
I find it difficult to talk in a situation like this—I’m out of my depth

This is a bit more polite and less self-deprecating; it’s also less of an idiom and more of a straightforward collocation. Something like the following is a quite polite way of saying that you don’t understand the topic:

I’m afraid I can’t follow you. I’m a bit out of my depth in this conversation.


"It's all Greek to me" is something that English-speakers say when they cannot understand or follow a discussion.


If you don't understand a conversation you might say I couldn't make heads or tails of what they were saying.


Possibly: "Being the odd man out."

  • Or maybe something like "he was in dreamland" ... or, "Earth to cloud nine!" ... that type of thing?
    – Fattie
    Jul 23, 2014 at 7:45

The lights are on, but nobody's home, meaning that the person gives the appearance of being alert and attentive but they really are not. Sometime this is because the subject is beyond their comprehension, but it is also used to mean that they are more generally incapable of coherent thought (i.e., they are not very smart). (ref, ref)

Poor Jen tried to keep up with the conversation. After returning from so long in that backwater on the west coast, we could see that all the lights were on, but nobody was home.

This is not a phrase one would use when referring to oneself.

Closer to your own phrase is he's as deaf as a post (ref), with the simile attributed to John Palsgrave's Acolastus:

How deaf an ear I intended to give him ... he were as good to tell his tale to a post.

This is literally about the ability to hear, and not about ability to comprehend, and could be used in a self-deprecating reference. I might say to someone (although many hearing impaired people would refuse to make such an admission):

You know I'm as deaf as a post, and I can't hear anything you're saying with all of this racket.

But shorter is better, and one wouldn't usually be so emphatic about oneself, so

You know I'm deaf...

would be better.

It is similar to the invective he's as dumb as a post, but that would not be used reflexively because it refers to one's intelligence rather than one's ability to speak.


"Out of the loop" is the expression I'd use. He either has no information on the subject, and therefore knows nothing about the topic, or he hasn't been paying attention to the conversation, and therefore can't follow it.

Two examples are:

"It's been so long since I read up on mobile phones that I'm completely out of the loop."


"I heard you guys were talking about vegans, I'm a vegan you know."
"You're so out of the loop, Jack, we were just talking how specialty diets are for people 
who are ignoring all the benefits of the technological advances of agriculture in our 

I think "over someone's head" describes the particular case of humor, as in "that joke went over his head", you wouldn't use that in context of a normal conversation.


"It's like "trying to teach algebra to a pig. Frustrates you, annoys the pig."

I believe I first heard this expression from the immortal (in spirit) Dr. Steven Covey, in the audio version of his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People".


"In one ear, and out the other"

This expression can be used to describe a conversation with someone who does not understand what is being said; the words that are said go in one ear, and immediately out the other ear, without stopping to register in the brain. "We tried to explain the technical issues to our nontechnical manager, but everything we told him seemed to go in one ear and out the other."

This expression can also be used by someone to describe a conversation they did not understand. "I tried to talk with those two Theoretical Physics professors about their latest research projects, but everything they said to me went in one ear and out the other."


While this one is a little long to explain and limited in the situations it applies to, I hope some will enjoy the humor, and find an opportunity to use it.

"Blank stares are still free."

Years ago, there was a popular sign, that experts in a field would post near their workspace. The sign advertised their "rates" for answering questions, and was placed so anyone who stopped in to ask them a question would see it. The prices listed on the sign went something like this:

"Due to rising costs and excessive numbers of dumb questions, the following rates now apply.

Answers: $50.00 Answers requiring thought: $100.00 Correct answers: $200.00


So, if someone stops by at work to ask me a question, that either does not make sense, or that I have no idea what the answer is, I will reassure them that no charges will apply, and tell them, "...blank stares are still free."


(his) "eyes glazed over"

Example: "I tried to explain the inner workings of an internal combustion engine to my grandmother, and she seemed understand about spark plugs igniting vaporized gasoline, but when I started discussing crankshafts and pistons and connecting rods, her eyes glazed over."

Example: "After 30 seconds of listening to the organic chemistry professor rattling off the chemical formulas and reactions involved in cells producing energy, my eyes glazed over, and I found an excuse to go talk to other people at the party.


Ur, can any one of you guys catch me up?

Ur, can any one of you guys fill me in (on what it's all about/on what's going on here)?

catch up

To bring someone up to date; brief someone: Let me catch you up on all the gossip. I read the Sunday newspaper to catch up on the news.


fill in

fill someone in also fill in someone (on something)

To give someone information that they want or need We filled her in on all the latest family news. I've asked Andy to fill in the marketing team about plans for the fall.



"Lost the Thread"

He lost the thread of the conversation.

  • No, that implies he knows what was going on but what momentarily distracted and then couldn't get back into the flow of the conversation again; it doesn't mean that he doesn't understand what the conversation is about. Jul 23, 2014 at 22:32

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