L’esprit de L’escalier: When It’s Too Late for a Comeback

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L’esprit de L’escalier: When It’s Too Late for a Comeback

everyone at some point in their life has experienced a time when they could not respond with a quick, compelling retort/ Photo By WAYHOME studio via Shutterstock


In the midst of an intense argument or playful banter, there are moments when one could make the perfect comeback on the spot. It may only be a few moments later or as the days drag on that they are able to compose a witty or compelling response. This feeling is known as L’esprit de L’escalier which is French for “staircase wit.” According to Psychology Today, it means a “witty and/or incisive rejoinder that comes to mind just after an interaction".

Everyone at some point in their life has experienced a time when they could not respond with a quick, compelling retort. When this happens, often, a person may feel embarrassed and regret not being able to say anything witty in return. Improv comedians and freestyle rappers careers’ hinge on being able to create the perfect comebacks. They state that their jobs also help them to come up with better quips that they could use every time they have the chance to in their everyday life. In order to deliver a perfect response, they use a combination of listening, finding the right timing, and silencing their inner critic.

History of L’esprit de L’escalier

The term was said to have been first used by the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot in 1773. During his encounter with the French Finance Minister Jacques Necker, Necker made a remark which he was not able to answer to. Later, he recorded the event, writing, “A sensitive man overcome by the argument leveled against him becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the staircase.”

How to Make a Perfect Comeback

According to Mental Floss, these are the ways to avoid experiencing l’esprit de l’escalier:

Let the opponent finish speaking

It is advised that they concentrate more on what their opponent is saying rather than paying attention to their own potential response. Jim Tosone, an improve coach who developed the Improve Business Program, states that if a person delays their response until they have heard the complete argument of their opponent, their answers will be more accurate and as a result more effective.

Do not overthink

Another tip for making better retorts is not to overthink, Belina Raffy, CEO of Maffick says. She says that it is crucial because “You’re taking yourself out of the unfolding reality if you think too much.” She also employs improv skills in her business. It is necessary that the individual focuses on the present moment, as well as to be able to convey a comeback that corresponds to that moment.

Store witty responses for reference or train for spontaneity

The most famous comeback artists in history collected witticisms to be able to refer to them when the situation calls for it. When the chance to use the quip finally presented itself, they would be able to use the witticism which they kept in their memory.

Although Winston Churchill was recognized for his witty responses, the director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum, Tim Riley,  explains that his comebacks were not actually originally his own. However, he was able to think fast enough to be able to recall those lines and use them at the appropriate moment. This is the reason Churchill is considered the master of timing.

For example, one of his most well-known quotes was his answer to the politician Bessie Braddock’s insult to him. When Braddock told him, “Sir, you are drunk.” He swiftly responded with, “And you, Bessie are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley elaborates that it was a dialogue taken from the comic W.C. Field. He expounds, “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier and that he was waiting to perform.”

Practicing improv trains the person be less restricted and say whatever is on their mind/ Photo By fizkes via Shutterstock


In some circumstances though, the comeback must be composed on the spot. The New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokin states that preparing for spontaneity on stage can aid a person in using clever comebacks in social situations. He uses the analogy of flexing a muscle, stating that with each practice or flex, they increase their spontaneous muscle.

Silence the inner critic

Practicing improv trains the person be less restricted and say whatever is on their mind. Raffy declares, “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves.” A method that may help people silence their inner critic is to picture themselves performing on stage. Douglas Widick, an improv performer, reveals that the most humorous comebacks happen so suddenly. In addition, he says that if people do not refer to their conscience, they will be able to surrender themselves to their deepest fantasies and in turn, letting them utter things they usually would not say.

Pause for a while

There is also a risk of countering with a lame response when they get a high from their heated exchange.  L’esprit de l’escalier’s German counterpart, Treppenwitz, which also translates to wit of the stairs, is the opposite concept. This term pertains to the regret of what one has said. Being able to take a brief pause, Tosone suggests, if they have a few seconds to spare, may help in making them launch a more impressive and effective comeback.



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