Mind Wide Open: Quotable (on the l’esprit d’escalier)

I am currently reading Steven Johnson’s book on neuroscience, Mind Wide Open. It feels a bit odd to read a book published in 2004 (so much new in neuroscience has been discovered in the last six years), but Mind Wide Open has been sitting on my shelf, begging my attention the last two years. I’ve finally decided that I needed to read it.

There’s a great quote in the book regarding a phenomenon we all often encounter. Imagine you’re engaged in dialogue and are processing what the other person is saying. The other person says something witty or sharp, something that your brain consciously processes. But you want to be able to respond with wit as well, and perhaps you fail. Moments later you step away from the conversation and it hits you: I know what I should have said. Is there a word for such a phrase?

Turns out, the French have an expression: l’esprit d’escalier (or l’esprit de l’escalier). Quoting from Mind Wide Open:

You can see this mechanism captured in the wonderful French expressions l’esprit d’escalier—literally, “the wit of the staircase”—that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations defines as follows: “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.” We haven’t thought of the smart retort in the drawing room because the barb we’re responding to surprised us, caught us off guard. We have plenty of good retorts handy for predictable comments; it’s the ones that come out of the blue that perplex us. Sometimes we’re still mulling over potential retorts on the way down the staircase because we’ve suffered a social slight by not being quick-witted enough to respond. But we’re also mulling because our memory is designed to dwell on events that surprise us.

So next you find yourself wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that when I had the chance,” know that it happens to everyone… What’s interesting, to me, is that there are ways to train our brain to act less surprised, so that we have a greater chance of being able to express that clever retort at the right time.

Note: you may also be interested in reading a post I published earlier this year, Lost in Translation.

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