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
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    How about "the mainstream media" or simply "most Americans"? – Ben Lee Mar 3 '12 at 2:02

11 Answers 11


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.


The classic:

Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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    To be fair, rearranging deck chairs might be a therapeutic activity for the stranded and doomed seafarers. But alas! nevermind me – Caffeinated 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 :-) – bobby Sep 12 '11 at 6:26
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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
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    @jogabonito: I find the 'fiddling while Rome burns' trope is usually invoked about the intransigence of a particular ruler in not caring about the problems of the masses and has only selfish concerns. But these are all in the same ball park, so reasonable alternatives. – Mitch Sep 12 '11 at 21:38

@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."


Recently heard the phrase:

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

Which seems to be fitting for your question.


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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    +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. – beatgammit Sep 27 '11 at 6:02

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. – Cascabel Sep 12 '11 at 21:38

I've heard straining at a gnat, but swallowing a camel.


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.


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


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.

  • 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 '14 at 16:44

There's this quote by Edmund Burke which neatly sums it up—

He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.

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