I'm coming out from the word absent-mindedness:

Absent-mindedness is where a person shows inattentive or forgetful behaviour. It can have three different causes:

  • a low level of attention ("blanking" or "zoning out")
  • intense attention to a single object of focus (hyperfocus) that makes a person oblivious to events around him or her;

I'm wondering whether there is a word for a person who only looks to behave like this, but in fact listens to everything around them.

I do this a lot. Whenever I'm in a group of people, I either look like I'm zoned-out thinking about my work stuff, or listening to only one person, but in fact I'm carefully taking in everything other people are speaking.

Another good example would be the character Columbo from the show of the same name. He always looked like he was ignoring everyone, totally absent-minded, while in fact he was doing this on purpose to keep his suspects from being too careful around him.

What is the word for such a person?

  • Columbo is pretty famous so maybe 'a Columbo'? Nov 2, 2015 at 18:39
  • @chaslyfromUK - I tried watching Colombo a couple of days ago. It's unbelievably slow. There's like 10 minutes worth of plot in each episode; the rest is fluff, fluff, and more fluff. It was kind of awkward - I felt sorry for the actors.
    – Ricky
    Nov 2, 2015 at 18:49
  • 4
    @Ricky: that's very subjective I'd say. I love the show, every episode of it. The behavior of Columbo is one of the main elements of the show, so the episodes are not supposed to be purely plot, but mainly the 'fluff' you obviously don't like.
    – Frantisek
    Nov 2, 2015 at 19:03
  • I've never watched it. However I still know the meme. That's why I suggested it. Nov 2, 2015 at 19:20
  • 1
    Feign: To give a false appearance of:
    – Joe Dark
    Nov 2, 2015 at 19:41

5 Answers 5


Playing dumb

Based on your description this seems to encompass the sentiment.



Deceptively absent-minded

  • 1
    Anyone can play dumb. It's not a character trait. By the way, I didn't downvote you: I don't downvote: I leave that kind of thing to people who are fond of that kind of thing.
    – Ricky
    Nov 2, 2015 at 19:42
  • 2
    Well I do downvote. But I upvoted this one.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:02

Idiot-savant comes to mind, but that's neither accurate nor indeed specific enough. I've looked up some synonyms: no cigar. The problem with defining such people is there's more to their patterns of behavior than meets the eye. They're whimsical. One never knows when they're:

  1. Pretending to be absentminded to throw everybody off
  2. Pretending to be absentminded because they're bored with what the others are discussing or doing
  3. Being genuinely absentminded
  4. Pretending to be absentminded because they don't know how to answer a question
  5. Pretending to be absentminded just to spite everybody

    • and so forth.

Also, you never know how much of it is deliberate, and how much instinctive. Like that sleepy Texas sheriff. You know:

He's parked behind a tree, with the radar pointed in the right direction. He's dozing off. Cars keep zooming by on the highway. He couldn't care less. A whole bunch of cars rolls by, all of them most definitely over the speed limit. 80 mph. 85. 90. 85 again. 80. 92. 93. 85. And so forth. Nothing: no reaction from the sheriff. All of a sudden this souped-up Porsche flies by, doing 140! The sheriff opens one eye, looks at the radar, and goes, "Wow, I'll be f***!" The next moment, the engine is running, the lights and siren are on, and he swings onto the highway in pursuit of the offending Porsche.

He wasn't pretending to be absentminded. He was actually being absentminded. Which didn't stop him from acting quickly when it became really necessary to do his duty. Something like that.


Maybe you could say "deceptively attentive."

  • 1
    I was going to suggest deceptively alert but since that's so close to yours, I'll just leave it as a comment. Nov 2, 2015 at 19:55
  • 2
    Wouldn't it be deceptively inattentive?
    – WS2
    Nov 2, 2015 at 21:32
  • 1
    Nope. The person is actually attentive. He deceives you into thinking he's not. So he's deceptively attentive.
    – user139454
    Nov 2, 2015 at 21:33
  • 2
    Deceptively attentive or alert should be used for someone who appears wide awake in a meeting, but is actually daydreaming.
    – mkennedy
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:51
  • The right use of "deceptively" is actually really weird. It's one of those words where you think it's easy, and then you think about it and realize it can be taken both ways. (It's deceptively easy!) english.stackexchange.com/questions/25013/…
    – Yee-Lum
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:58

Poker face

Poker face, from Merriam Webster: "An expression on your face that does not show your thoughts or feelings; an inscrutable face that reveals no hint of a person's thoughts or feelings."

Poker face, from the Urban Dictionary: "A face on a person that shows no emotion, often called poker face because in the game of poker it would be foolish to show any emotional traits that might screw the game for you."

Sentence: "Don't let his poker face fool you; he absorbs everything, and a day later he might analyze the entire discussion."

Another Sentence: "Hey, poker face! What are you thinking?"

  • 1
    Wouldn't a poker face have a totally different connotation, though? A poker face is put on because someone is super-focused on the game at hand--they're hiding their emotions on purpose as part of their strategy. The question is asking for a word to describe that guy who looks like he's drifted off to a different planet and has no idea what game is even being played--but is actually very mentally "present".
    – Yee-Lum
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:56
  • The term can be, and is, adopted for the guy who looks mentally absent but is mentally present, even if it is not part of his strategy.
    – ab2
    Nov 3, 2015 at 0:00

You are only superficially inattentive.

Merriam Webster:


2b : seen on the surface : external

2c : presenting only an appearance without substance or significance

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