. Although it sounds like it means nothing, it is something we have all experienced. It is something we can all relate to, but which affects introverts more than the rest of us due to their sensitive nature. We’ve all had that annoying moment where we walk away from an argument and only then think of the perfect retort. We kick ourselves for not thinking of it sooner and wish we could turn back to clock to land the perfect comeback. L’espirit de l’escalier is the French term for the annoying inability to come up with a response to a comment, then thinking of the perfect reply when it’s too late to respond. Although the phrase ‘staircase wit’ sounds odd, it actually makes a lot of sense when you know where it comes from.
The name l’espirit de l’escalier comes from a French philosopher, Denis Diderot, who described the situation in his dramatic essay Paradoxe sur le Comédien (Paradox of an Actor). A comment was made during a dinner at the home of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, which rendered Diderot dumbstruck. In his essay, he explained that “A sensitive man such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs.” ‘The bottom of the stairs’, in Diderot’s case meant to have left the event. French architecture and custom meant that reception rooms were traditionally on the first floor.
Therefore, as were the social gatherings. This lead to the term, the wit of the staircase, or l’espirit de l’escalier, because a reply is only thought of at the bottom of the stairs or, nowadays, after one has left the occasion. Diderot explains in his own experience why l’espirit de l’escalier is more a problem for introverts than for extroverts. Introverts are generally sensitive in nature and can become overwhelmed at social gatherings, even more so when comments are made against them. This can leave them speechless in the moment.
Then, once they have gathered themselves, they can think properly and come up with a witty retort. Because introverts are thoughtful creatures, they can come up with some pretty impressive replies. This makes it all the more annoying that they weren’t thought of at the time of the interaction. This experience can be endlessly frustrating, especially for those who experience it more often than not. Luckily, we can indeed avoid staircase wit in the future. It takes some time to build up tolerance and experience. However, it is well worth it not to get caught out in awkward encounters.
The ability to think on one’s feet is an important life skill. It comes from a certain level of flexibility and adaptability to certain situations and having the confidence to express yourself. Think about previous instances where you have been frustrated that you have been unable to get a point across or think of an appropriate response. Consider what you could have done differently in that situation. When it arises again, take a deep breath and take five seconds to think before you speak. Be aware of your own style of communication and the influence you have in the conversation.
There are times where it is better to keep things to yourself and times where it is important to speak out. It is also important to be aware of the communicative style of others. Some are more aggressive than others and this may take some adaptation. If you know that a certain individual is difficult to communicate with, prepare yourself beforehand. Come up with some conversation topics, or even playing out how you feel the conversation goes. In large social gatherings, it is a little more difficult to prepare yourself for situations of l’espirit de l’escalier. You may be caught off guard with a comment and be rendered speechless. Although annoying, it may take some practice and few staircase wit moments before you adapt to this.
The key is exposing yourself to different situations. Take the time to reflect on what you can do differently next time. You can never expect others to treat you differently. Being able to adapt to different situations is the key to avoiding staircase wit in the future.
The ability to avoid staircase wit is an important life skill, aiding us both in our personal and professional lives. We all have something important to say, which we should feel the ability to voice and discuss.
Then there are times where you really just want to land that witty comment in response to another. Staying calm and allowing yourself time to learn and adapt is the way to avoid the staircase and enjoy the party. R.
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