How to Use Body Language to Pretend You're Paying Attention

Here's how to pretend you're paying even if you aren't.

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #407

Growing up, my parents would sometimes call me a “Space Cadet” for zoning out during a conversation. Turns out my mind wasn’t necessarily in the clouds on purpose, but rather it was a result of having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which made paying attention challenging. In fact, it’s not only difficult, it’s downright stressful when I realize that I’ve missed out on several key issues of a conversation by mistake.

However, having ADHD isn’t an Achilles’ heal for me, and I’m not one to use it as a crutch. It is what it is, and with that, I’ve learned how to make sure to be overly polite in my sometimes lapse of details during a conversation. Now, I’m here to pass my knowledge onto Mannerly Nation. Here are three ways to pretend you're paying attention.

Tip #1: Smile and Nod

Body language is key during a conversation, and I'll touch on that later. But for now I want to focus on the easiest ways to have the person across from you see your attentiveness. We’ve all heard the expression, “fake it to make it,” which can be used in many aspects of one’s life. Fake it to make it by agreeing with your whacky boss who you really can’t stand so they don’t fire you. Fake it to make it by acting like you actually enjoy being around your partner’s annoying friend, so your partner won’t complain about your rudeness. All normal situations that make trying to simply get by—without appearing like you’re in utter misery due to someone else’s unmannerly ways—very daunting.  So, when I say fake it to make it, I’m not using that as a way to appear misleading, manipulative, or even rude. Here, I’m simply saying that smiling and nodding to pretend you’re paying attention will save you a world of embarrassment. Smiling and nodding is a go-to technique to get your mind in the practice of always making sure you pay attention rather than ignore someone, which may result in the terrifying words, “Are you even listening to me?” Ugh, can’t tell you how many times I heard that one growing up. Call me crazy, but I’ll take the pretend way of paying attention in hopes of someone believing I’m 100% engaged, rather than having them call me out on it.

Mannerly Nation, let’s be real; not every encounter with someone will be pleasant or riveting but you can’t let that affect how you’re perceived. However, with this tip I can’t stress enough that I’m not advocating faking your enthusiasm for someone, just to make them like you. This isn’t about deception either:  this is about survival. Mannerly survival at that. Take how my parents used to call me a Space Cadet and put that into your professional and personal life. Being accused of not listening (purposefully or not) could be a deal breaker on multiple levels. When you politely smile and nod, it shows engagement and attentiveness, as well it gives someone the confidence that they are not being ignored … even if at times you’re not always taking in what they’re saying. Smiling and nodding, also wakes up the body to get you out of your dazed funk. Kind of like how you smack your cheeks to keep you awake during a long car ride or having to power through some late night paper work. So if your brain yells, “Save me! Run! SOS!” smile, nod and fake it to make it to survive the onslaught of boredom. All of which will buy you time, and some mannerly points.

Tip #2: Change the Subject

Along with firmly believing that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame is my long lost little brother, he’s also my favorite philosopher.  I use his insight to better illustrate my point about properly pretending to pay attention, with this cartoon and quote (Calvin speaking to Hobbes): “When a person pauses in mid-sentence to choose a word, that’s the best time to jump in and change the subject.” This is a beautifully astute point about changing the subject by what appears to be a hyperactive elementary school child, that also happens to be 100% correct. It’s Manners 101 never to interrupt someone, and this fact has to be remembered when there comes a time in which your attentiveness isn’t exactly working in your favor during a conversation. See, there is a great difference between interrupting and changing the subject. Interrupting would be speaking over someone or completely derailing the conversation to something you prefer to discuss. Politely changing the subject, is when you have the snippet of time to alter the discussion to a more engaging topic.  When there’s a break in the conversation, there is no “shushing” someone, or rudely dismissing their train of thought. Here, it’s an open door to save the conversation when your brain has taken a hiatus. Use that pause to strike and take over.