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"Captain Wentworth, however, came from his window, apparently not ill-disposed for conversation; but Charles Hayter soon put an end to his attempts by seating himself near the table, and taking up the newspaper; and Captain Wentworth returned to his window."

What are our characters to do when they want to pretend to be busy, avoid small talk, hide their embarrassment, back out of an uncomfortable situation, create a minor distraction, avoid suspicion when they do something suspicious, or don't want to look bored or unoccupied?

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Here are some options (Sub-Tropes):

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Here are some other options:

  • Fake reading is a common thing to do. Having a small book or a magazine in one's bag is not unusual because sometimes you really want to read and learn something new, or it's genuinely useful if you need to kill some time commuting or waiting somewhere. If you have nothing to read of your own, you can grab whatever leaflet you see lying around. Or you can pretend to read posters or announcement on a noticeboard.
  • Window-shopping or looking at goods at shops without any intention to actually buy anything.
  • Watching and admiring a painting or a statue, toys, art/stamp/book collection, taxidermy... Anything that is available and on display.
  • Wearing headphones and pretending to listen to music.
  • Doing household chores when it's not really needed, like washing clean things or re-organising stuff at home.
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  • Pretending to need to use the bathroom.
  • Ladies can powder their nose or check their make-up.
  • If our characters have a Soul-Sucking Retail Job or Soul-Crushing Desk Job, pretending to have important but actually meaningless tasks can save their poor nerves to some extent.
  • Playing with one's jewellery or accessories.
  • ... and more!

Sometimes the 'pretend occupations' can appear perfectly normal and ordinary. Sometimes the activity can be quite useful or even entertaining to some degree, but often it's all too clear that people have hidden or ulterior motives. Some of those activities almost never look natural and they clearly signal that something is off or that you are bored. Especially if the characters are very honest or bad liars, they'll make a poor job of this and end up Acting Unnatural. Which means they're likely to draw all the unwanted attention to themselves.

A common thing to do in fiction as well as in real life.


Examples:

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    Film 
  • In Crocodile Dundee 2, one cop is watching and following Mike who immediately figures it out. The cop pretends to be selling hot dogs to avoid suspicion. As soon as Mike is out of his sight, he hands the stuff to the real seller and pursues Mike. Later he also pretends to be looking at fruit and vegetables by a street stand.
  • In the short film adaptation of Harrison Bergeron called 2081, Hazel washes dishes while her son Harrison stages on-screen revolution at a ballet. Clearly she's doing this so she doesn't have to watch his inevitable demise.
  • Love Comes Softly: Marty pretends she's reading when she actually wants Clark to ask her to stay. He doesn't know that because he hasn't found her note and doesn't know what she's expecting of him. Clark notices she's not reading though.
    Clark: I haven't seen you turn a page for 30 minutes.
    Marty: I can't seem to concentrate.
  • A few times in the classic Star Wars films, whenever Darth Vader punishes an officer for screwing up, any nearby mooks immediately look busy at their consoles rather than draw the Dark Lord's attention.
  • The third Austin Powers movie has Dr. Evil acknowledge a guy "arbitrarily turning knobs making it seem like you're doing something''.

    Jokes and Comedy routines 
  • Lukas Pavlasek has a routine about working in IT. He says he was fond of sleeping under a desk with computers. He pretended to fiddle with wires and said he had to fix something down under the desk. Then everyone assumed he was doing something important and no one would wake him up.

    Literature 
  • Persuasion:
    • Anne dedicates her evening parties to playing the piano and providing music to others so she doesn't have to dance, and at one dinner party, she plays the piano to avoid talking to people and to avoid mortifying, painful conversation with her ex-fiance.
    • Charles Hayter takes up newspaper when he wants to avoid having a conversation with Captain Wethworth because he's jealous (they both court Miss Musgrove... which Captain Wentworth doesn't know).
    • At the evening party at Sir Walter and Miss Elliot's, Anne and Captain Wenthworth pretend they admire displayed greenhouse plants. They actually want to talk in private.
  • Pride and Prejudice:
    • Lizzy doesn't want to play cards with the Netherfield party, so she declines their offer to join them. She says she'll amuse herself for the short time she can stay in the parlour with a book. However, their conversation turns out to be too interesting, so Elizabeth soon ditches the book and starts observing their game.
    • When Mrs Hurst is bored during one evening as others except her husband don't want to play cards, she plays with her bracelets and rings.
    • Miss Bingley takes a book to read during one evening to ape Mr Darcy (who really wants to read) in order to impress him with her "accomplished" and cultured mind.
      Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page.
    • Mr Collins joins Mr Bennet in the library and pretends to be reading, but he's just bored and he keeps distracting Mr Bennet who genuinely wants to read and wishes to be left alone.
      Mr Collins was to attend them [to Meryton], at the request of Mr Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of him, and have his library to himself; for thither Mr Collins had followed him after breakfast, and there he would continue, nominally engaged with one of the largest folios in the collection, but really talking to Mr Bennet, with little cessation, of his house and garden at Hunsford. Such doings discomposed Mr Bennet exceedingly. In his library he had been always sure of leisure and tranquillity.
    • After Mr Darcy has asked Mr Bennet for his permission to marry Elizabeth, he approaches a table where Lizzy sits and pretends to admire her needlework. He whispers her she's wanted by her father in the library.
  • Safehold: At one point in Hell's Foundations Quiver, the Inquisitor in charge of security for a meeting pretends to be in the nearby park for a picnic lunch and some reading in the sun.
  • The Lost Redeemer: In the beginning of the book, Nahlia's pretends to be scrubbing a table while she's eavesdropping on Thane's conversation with the locals.
  • In Warrior Cats, cats commonly do this when they're up to something. For example, at one point the POV character wants to eavesdrop on a conversation and sits nearby at the fresh-kill pile, pretending that they're trying to decide what they want to eat.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Friends: Ross and Emily's wedding reception is very awkward because Ross said "Rachel" during their wows. Ross tries to change the atmosphere by encouraging people to start dancing. It doesn't quite work.
    Ross: People should be dancing! Huh? Hey, this is a party! Come on! Joey, dance! [Joey starts to dance but stops almost immediately because no one else joins him.]
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Master of Coin) shows Lord Ned Stark (newly appointed Hand of the King) people in the gardens in King's Landing. He notes that they are all spies who pretend to be doing something else. A little boy playing with another kid is one of spymaster Varys' 'little birds'; a man who is working in the garden is the Queen's spy, while Septa pretending to read a book is his.
    • When Cersei Lannister becomes Queen Regent to her son King Tommen and starts a feud with their House Tyrell allies, she's visited by the no-nonsense Lady Olenna Tyrell. Cersei tries to ape her father Tywin's habit of writing letters while receiving visitors as a dominance play, but while Tywin actually did have important matters to attend to, she's just faking it. Lady Olenna isn't impressed, and tells her to just get down to business.
  • Seinfeld: George is explaining to Jerry how he managed to get out of doing actual work at his job: if you look annoyed, people assume you are busy.
    George: If you look annoyed all the time, people think you're busy.
  • In one episode of Speechless, Kenneth and Ray are conspiring together to get rid of a bear camera with embarrassing footage of them on it. Whenever anyone comes in, they attempt to act natural and fail spectacularly. No one bats an eye, making them ask each other if they really are just that weird all the time.

    Video Games 
  • Fate/Grand Order: Akuta Hinako, one of the member of Crypters, seems like a nerdy Bookworm who prefers to read alone than talk to her fellow members. But the story notes that she doesn't actually read her books; she uses her book more to detach herself from others and to secretly watch them from a distance.

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama, "The Duh Vinci Code": Robot Animatronio pretends to be selling ice-cream while he's spying on Fry, Professor Farnsworth and others who try to find out some big secret about Leonardo da Vinci. Animatronio wants to stop them.
  • In one episode of Gravity Falls, Wendy and Mabel are goofing around in the Mystery Shack's gift shop while Dipper supposedly is doing inventory. He really is keeping an eye on his crush (Wendy) and he is literally writing "I am pretending to write something down" on his clipboard.

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