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The Spirit of the Stairway

Updated: Jun 20

l'esprit de l’ escalier

I was at a party decades ago with my then girlfriend to welcome home a friend upon his return to town. 

I’d introduced the crowd to my date. Cordialities were exchanged by all. Beers and a pizza were consumed and afterwards the men sequestered themselves away from the women folk for talk. 

“Boy!” one of the more bellicose boys of the group shouted about my date, “That… is way too nice for me. I couldn’t stand that!” 

I said nothing. Was that a sling? Kind of. I was at a loss of what to say. I was a bit stunned as to why this person I casually knew threw out something about my date. The party concluded, but the man’s comment stayed stuck to me like adhesive tape. 

What could I have said to the guy? Something clever such as, I guess you're not accustomed to nice women. 

A nagging, undoneness of not responding with a quip gnawed at me. 

And so, ruminating, I am reminded of the spirit of the stairway, l'esprit de l’ escalier, also known as thinking of the perfect reply too late.

The English call it a repartee thought of on the escalator down. 

Cleverness in western cultures is prized; quick responses are looked upon as wit. 

A quip for the ages is seen in the verbal sparring between American born aristocrat Lady Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill, in the 20th century.

Over a breakfast at Blenheim Palace in England Lady Aster said to Winston Churchill, “Sir if you were my husband I’d poison your tea.”

Churchill responded, “Madam, if you were my wife I’d drink it.”

It is doubtful the twice prime minister of Britain ever came up short of witty retorts. But many of us when needing a clever reply are caught halfway down the stairway, metaphorically, before we  come up, I should have said that.   

According to the blog, Thought Co, The 18th century French philosopher, Denis Diderot, is attributed to originating l'esprit de l’ escalier. In 1775 he wrote in an essay, explaining the coinage of the phrase. He said despite his culture where witty repartees were valued, he lacked the skill for such. 

“The sensitive man such as myself, entirely absorbed by things that are being subjected to him, loses his mind, and only recovers at the bottom of the stairs.” 

Diderot meant that when challenged in a conversation, he got so upset that he was unable to concentrate until it was too late to say something clever or to give a good answer. 

The stoic philosopher Epitetus said over 2000 years ago, it is not the thing, but how one reacts to the thing. His contemporaries, Cicero and Cato, said, a sharp-witted put down is rarely the best response. 

Neel Burton, author of Stoic Stories and an MD, writes in Psychology Today, the usual response to an insult is anger. But returning the insult is the weakest antidote

He says an offense occurs not in the insult but in the reaction to it. Our reaction is completely within our control. Even if one is quick-witted with a response, however brilliant as it sounds, it equalizes the insult and legitimizes it.

So, what to do, if you find yourself amongst a taunter and come up short of a repartee? 

Dr.Burton says check the insult. If there is truth in it and said with kidding benevolence then why the need to have a comeback?

It seems one way to determine whether a snideness is done in good faith is to ask whether it is said in the confines of you and the insulter; or was it said to a group about you, with ridicule. If it is the former, smile, take it, move on. And if the put down is done acerbically, then smile and move on too.

Good bantering done between friends with a hint of constructive criticism might be helpful. But when that same person or another snubs you publicly, then it’s toxic. Truth or not, if your anger surges, then you know any retort will feed your anger. And anger and cleverness are oil and water.

A reposite has to be clever, said without a caring aire of being hurt and returned quickly. Burton advises also that humor, and even running with the comment, such as, if you knew me better you’d find even more fault with me.

Over the decades before and after the episode of welcoming home my friend, I’ve experienced my share of wisecracks. Like Diderot, I usually had no repartees in my quiver.  

I married that ‘too nice of a date’. And when I talk to her ad nauseam about such matters as l'esprit de l'escalier, and how I should have….. she listens, with no need to engage with anything but a ‘smile and nod’.

So, perhaps, for ‘we the less clever’ that’s the simple antidote.  

#Philosophical Perspectives on Insults and Reactions

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Dear Spirit of the Stairway, I think your ruminations on the subject are that of quite a clever thinker. And isn't it nice to get that brilliant smile and nod from such a nice person?

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