Upon finding themselves on the receiving end of a critical remark or even a simple (but uncomfortable) question, most people falter under the pressure. Without a staff of screenwriters from, say, 30 Rock, one is more likely than not to find himself victim to what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier. The phrase, which translates to “the wit of the staircase,” refers to the phenomenon of fabricating the perfect retaliatory comment long after the opportune moment.
The individual that keeps his composure in such situations is to be admired; those able to turn the tables on their aggressor through verbal wit are heroes. It would be ideal to fire off an original retort, but, as that is not always possible, I offer a few ways to make sure you are at least armed.
You really cannot go wrong with honesty. In fact, the man who coined the phrase, Denis Diderot, was being honest when he explained his dumbfounded silence in the scenario described above.
“A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.”
Granted, Diderot’s response came after he’d left the party, but you should feel free to throw it out there with slightly better timing. It is basically a more complicated, but effective, way of saying, “I don’t know what to say; I must think about it.”
Humor is often the best way to diffuse a situation or disarm an enemy. This tactic has been deployed by a number of political figures including Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Throughout my time at Texas A&M University it was not unusual to hear a freshman member of the Corps of Cadets, who are not allowed to answer “I don’t know,” offer the rapidly spoken:
“Sir/Ma’am, not being informed to the highest degree of accuracy I hesitate to articulate for fear that I may deviate from the true course of rectitude. In short Sir/Ma’am, I am a very dumb fish, and do not know, Sir/Ma’am!”
Out of context, this sounds corny, if not ridiculous. However, drop the titles and replace “fish” with “person,” and it is exactly the sort of ridiculousness to dispel rising tensions.
Answer With a Question
Whenever you are asked a question you don’t care to answer simply smile sweetly and ask, “Why do you want to know?” This lesser known alternative to “bless your heart” is an old trick employed by southern ladies. If it doesn’t stump your uncouth interviewer entirely, it will at least buy you a bit more time to compose a snappy rejoinder.
Comedian Louis C.K. has a great bit about dealing with an irate driver. He takes a situation from tense to absurd by responding to angry impatience with random crazy.
“I was driving in Manhattan. There’s traffic, nobody’s moving… The guy behind me is honking just at me. He kept yelling at me. I decided that I’m gonna argue with this guy, but I’m gonna argue about something else. I’m not having his argument; I’m having mine. So, he’s like, ‘Go!’ And I go, ‘Well give me back my jacket!’ And he stopped. I was like, ‘Yeah, you got my jacket! Give it back! I said you could borrow it, not have it! You’re stretching it out, you fat pig! Give it back, now!’ He got back in his car, and he locked his doors.”
Many people say a lot of things despite not having a lot to say. When verbally accosted by one of these challenging types, simply let him know his comments are not worth your time. I suggest you respond by paraphrasing the English statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli:
“Your statement has been noted. I shall lose no time considering my response.”
Deliver your line, smile, and return to enjoying your social event.
Despite being the smooth, classy, and intelligent reader of Plum Deluxe that you are, you may still find yourself without an appropriate rejoinder to a cleverly delivered barb. Not to worry. Simply refuse to take the bait by returning the volley in the form of a Mona Lisa smile. Consider throwing in a wryly raised eyebrow for added derisiveness. Nothing irks a combatant more than an adversary who will be neither ruffled nor engaged.
Photo credits: albert_debruijn, aurizio jaya costantino, jimwhimpey, and Public Domain.