On Staircase Wit

At the party, you are a little bit drunk. A casual and fun conversation turns serious at the introduction of politics.

“That’s not exactly true,” you assert.

“Well,” the person you are in deep discussion with says. “Even if it isn’t true, that is strictly your opinion – and perhaps is one you should keep to yourself.”

Everyone laughs. It isn’t a particularly searing burn but is a burn nevertheless. You laugh along, mirroring those around you, careful to hide the blush that fills out your face. You let the conversation die, acquiescing to the other person’s conversational cunning.

You decide to leave the party shortly thereafter, by yourself. The conversation tumbles around your head, a load of intellectual laundry unable to dry. Why did you say that? Where was your comeback? You beat yourself up on the brain’s stage as you walk down the stairs. “Ah,” you think, placing yourself in that moment. “If I kept my opinions to myself, how else would you be able to make such an ass out of yourself?”

You stop, a foot on two different stairs. Why didn’t you say that? You proceed down the stairs and beat yourself up about that for the rest of the night.

This, friends, is a common experience, that conversational haunt of not saying the right thing then but being armed in the future with what you coulda, shoulda, woulda said. There’s a name for this too: l’esprit de l’escalier or “staircase wit.” It originates in the late 1700s, in France. Wikipedia (Apologies for sourcing from there!) explains the matter.

This name for the phenomenon comes from French encyclopedist and philosopher Denis Diderot’s description of such a situation in his Paradoxe sur le comédien. During a dinner at the home of statesman Jacques Necker, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time, because, he explains, “l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier” (“a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he finds himself] at the bottom of the stairs”).

I am a chronic sufferer of staircase wit or, as I like to call it, solo boxing, me beating myself up until the battle dissolves and I am the only person in the universe who cares to remember it. I suffered from solo boxing for what felt like my entire life until very recently. Perhaps this is a product of aging, perhaps I have learned to give up: I am unsure.

What I do know is that it is not a singular phenomena. In these experiences, know that the right answer comes to you on the stairs and that you can relish in your comeback with the banister as you mosey on out. Better late than never, right?

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