L’espirit de l’escalier


My French is very limited, but my wife is fluent. So, when I saw the expression L’espirit de l’escalier, in my reading,  I asked her what it meant.  She said it is a French term for when you can’t come up with a response to a comment, but then you think of the perfect reply when it’s too late to respond.

It seems to me that other languages have more of these expressions for complicated situations than English (which does have plenty of its own idioms).

The origin of l’espirit de l’escalier is from the French philosopher, Denis Diderot. He explained in an essay that he was at a fancy dinner and was “overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him” and confused could only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs.

The “bottom of the stairs” for Diderot’ came to mean that a reply is only thought of after you have left the confrontation. The literal translation is closer to meaning “staircase wit.”

I think I am safe in saying that all of us have experienced this.  I was just recently talking about this idea with some friends when we were remembering all the missed opportunities of our school days when we couldn’t think of that “comeback”  that would silence our attacker until we got home.

English speakers sometimes call this “escalator wit”, or “staircase wit” and “afterwit” is a synonym, with “forewit” as its antonym.

Diderot thought this was a situation that was more of a problem for introverts than for extroverts who are generally sensitive in nature and so might be left speechless, especially in social situations.

Can you prepare yourself for situations of l’espirit de l’escalier? I did have a “comeback” training situation with one of my sons when he was in elementary school and getting some abuse from other boys. We prepped some ways to respond to some of the common comments that were being hurled at him. It worked. The comebacks were clever but also funny and that combination is a good one, and having some things prepared gave him confidence.

The putdowns and the need to prep don’t end with high school graduation. I found a book, Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation, that is a workplace guide to helping to end your “I wish I’d said” moments.

Here is an example from the workplace of George Costanza from Seinfeld.

We all have wished at work or outside that we could have a “do-over” after a conversation. It can work in different ways. Maybe you regret what you’ve said to someone. But here we’re talking about when you’re mad at yourself for not saying something better, stronger, more precise, or for just not saying anything in the moment.

L’espirit  de l’escalier affects the introvert and the extravert. We all need the ability to have “staircase wit” before we get to the bottom of the stairs.


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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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