There is a saying in India, "Playing the flute to a buffalo" (is wasteful), generally used in the context of knowledge imparting to a stupid person. At the end of the day, stupidity still remains. Is there an English equivalent for that?

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    The saying is related to the instrument that snake charmers use, so it's a reed flute maybe or bagpipe chanter. Flute is very non specific. This saying is related to the snakecharmers that when they play their instruments, snake dances, but its vain if you so the same to a buffalo Commented May 4, 2017 at 2:40
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    So maybe it's not that the knowledge is imparted to a stupid person, but more like doing something for or to a person which doesn't have any effect on him. Commented May 4, 2017 at 2:43
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    fwiw, the French equivalent is « pisser dans un violon » (literally: pissing into a violin).
    – Grimmy
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 14:42
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    To me the, closest phrase in English would be talking to a brick wall. Just my two cents, language is very subjective. If I were you I would just use the original phrase, it sounds very poetic, and I could easily tell what it means:) Commented May 5, 2017 at 4:27
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    Given the further details about the flute, maybe translate it as "trying to snake-charm a buffalo" -- I think that would make perfect sense in English.
    – JPmiaou
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 13:10

14 Answers 14


Cast pearls before swine

It was first used in the Bible (Matthew 7:6), so it originally had religious overtones, but you can use it in the secular sense too:

(idiomatic) To give things of value to those who will not understand or appreciate it.

-- Wiktionary

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    Based on the context of "a stupid person," this seems to be not quite right. My interpretation is that the swine are heathens, rather than someone who is stupid.
    – Evan
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:50
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    @Evan Good point, but as Gary says, the notion of a swine has shifted a little from representing a heathen to a churl, particularly in highly secular / religiously diverse English speaking cultures like England, Australia, NZ, Canada. I have always understood the expression as Gary cites it and recall being a little indignant about it as a small child as I rather liked pigs and still do. Commented May 4, 2017 at 0:37
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    @aaa90210 I'm not "modern" but I'm not old either... and this is the first thought in my mind. I think this is a very relevant phrase - if not exactly something Rihanna or the Jenners would say.
    – WernerCD
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 3:22
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    @aaa90210 speak for yourself. I'd recognise it and probably use it, even though I'm not religious and did not know it was a biblical quote.
    – nigel222
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 9:27
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    @aaa90210, what evidence would convince you to change your mind? "Pearls before swine" is in every dictionary I checked. It has 33 hits on the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I think most educated people would recognize it, but if people don't recognize it, the imagery should be suggestive enough for them to get the meaning.
    – dangph
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 9:57

You have the saying: Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.

It is a quote by Robert A. Heinlein which has become quite common

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    "Never wrestle with a pig. You'll get dirty and the pig enjoys it.", "Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.", "Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience."
    – Mitch
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 13:07
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    While great turns of phrases, these are not sayings; they are quotes ascribed to noted authors and, as such, are not so universally known.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:12
  • This reminds me of a line from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle: "Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."
    – Evan
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:55
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    Never argue with a fool, for he is doing the same -- Les Barker
    – Ex Umbris
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 6:09
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    @Dancrumb, I actually heard this phrase before I read Heinlein's books. Just because you, personally, know who originally said it doesn't mean it isn't cultural knowledge. Commented May 4, 2017 at 17:58


like talking to a wall
Of a conversation, completely futile due to a lack of response from another person, often because the person isn't listening.

Talking to Eddie when he's watching TV is like talking to a wall!

Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

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    In both catalan and spanish it is pretty common.
    – Masclins
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 13:22
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    also commonly rendered as "like talking to a brick wall" Commented May 3, 2017 at 17:58
  • Also "You're wasting your breath."
    – rojo
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 1:37
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    What is "TFD"? Commented May 4, 2017 at 19:52
  • @PeterMortensen TFD is short for The Free Dictionary. Commented May 5, 2017 at 1:11

Given that a buffalo is not stupid, per se, but only regarded as such in our environment as opposed to its own, I think the above expression is a reasonably good fit.

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    This doesn't really answer the OP. If a request falls on deaf ears, the people who heard it might well understand it but choose not to respond. In the OP's situation the people who heard it don't appreciate it.
    – Rosie F
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 9:33

Banging your head against a brick wall

to do, say, or ask for something repeatedly but to be unable to change a situation

  • c.f. stonewalling, to delay or obstruct (a request, process, or person) by refusing to answer questions or by being evasive. This might be the reason for "brick" in the expressions where inertness rather than hostility is implied.
    – nigel222
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 9:14
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    This doesn't really answer the OP. The reason why the effort is futile is that it seems impossible to achieve the desired result. There needn't be any audience at all. In the OP's situation the person can achieve the desired result but the audience does not appreciate it.
    – Rosie F
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 9:30

Whistling in the wind

This phrase suggests the futility of some endeavor; for example, the futility of an attempt to impart wisdom to one not ready to receive it.

"The teacher told Carl to study before the test, but she was whistling in the wind."

This, and this suggest that the phrase "Bhains ke aage been bajana" points to the futility of playing a tune before an insensitive audience (I see no mention of stupidity). I would submit that the wind is at least as incapable of appreciating a whistled tune as a buffalo is of appreciating a fluted tune.

  • I'd suggest that is not the same sentiment as OP's version - it describes a futile action, but does not imply the target is dumb (the buffalo).
    – John U
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 8:59
  • @JohnU-- See the update to my answer. While OP mentions stupidity as a contextual feature of the idiom, I don't see this in the references I have found. On the other hand, futility does seem to be a salient feature of this expression.
    – user227518
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 13:45

Not yet had:

Showing a dog a card trick

Both a waste of your time (and the dog's) but also implies the dog will not understand/appreciate it.

Similar but not identical: Herding cats (an impossible / pointless task)

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    The dog will be happy for the attention anyway.
    – Joshua
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 17:46
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    @joshua The cats won't.
    – DonielF
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:12
  • Similar to the expression "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
    – kojow7
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 6:34
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    @kojow7 - not really, except that they both involve a dog.
    – John U
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 8:57

It's over his/her head

From Cambridge dictionary:

Too difficult or strange for you to understand:

I tried to take in what he was saying about nuclear fusion, but most of it went over my head.


There may be thousands of regional variations. One I've heard is...

giving strawberries to a donkey

It's a pointless waste of strawberries which are a bit of a luxury item. The donkey won't appreciate and savour them, it will just scoff them all the same as if they were a carrot or a hand full of grass.


A lot of it depends on context. If the context is referring to an individual not understanding, Casting Pearls Among Swine might be most appropriate. If the proverbial flutist doesn't know he is wasting his time, Whistling in the Wind seems appropriate. I would offer a new phrase: If the flutist knows he is wasting time, but doing it anyway Spinning Your Wheels might be good (this is generally a reference to someone whose car is stuck in the mud, but they hit the gas anyway in a futile attempt to get out).

However, I once heard an Indian saying that could work very nicely: "Playing the flute to a buffalo"--the implications translate well to English. See what I did there.


When I was teaching in a high school, we had a principal who loved to use a phrase that has to be a very old saying from deep country. He would say, "You are grinning up a dead mules butt, boy." He would always look the person directly in the eyes and grin.


Something else that could be said:

the lights are on but nobody is home

or more appropriately

a few sandwiches short of a picnic

emphasizing that person lacks in mental aptitude

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    I'd say "no" to this one. It does imply that the subject is, well, "dim," but it doesn't speak to the *situation at hand" - someone trying to explain something to the subject, and that being a waste of the speaker's time or effort. Commented May 4, 2017 at 19:15

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

(implies knowledge not actual food)

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    This saying is about stubbornness, not stupidity. Commented May 3, 2017 at 21:46

Flogging a dead horse

is used to refer to trying to make someone do something that they are never going to do in a futile attempt.

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    I thought this meant continuing an action past the point of completion, so that it becomes useless--i.e. you already beat the horse to death, so you might as well stop. Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:40
  • I think the beating is not the cause of the horse's dath. I thinkthe excessive demands exhausted the horse to the death.
    – Crowley
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 19:55
  • @Crowley and MissMonicaE, the expression says nothing about the cause of the horse's death. That's not the point. The point is: a whip administered to a live horse is likely to have an effect; administering one to a dead horse is entirely wasted effort.
    – user7318
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 20:44
  • @sampablokuper I agree
    – JTanner
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 20:35

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