We’ve all experienced it, that d-d-d-duh moment when somebody snarks at you or disses you big-time in front of the smirking crowd and your mind blanks out.
Half an hour later — or maybe, if it’s really bad, three days later (after gnawing over the mauling) — your inner Clever Dude or Dudette finally kicks in and hands you a totally brilliant, absolutely useless “I-should’ve-said” come-back thought. ARGH!
The brilliant orphan remark remains in your head, a reminder of a might-have-been.
And then there are the times when El Smart Mouth runs rampant, blurting out some bit of devastating dimwittedness that makes it past your lips before your brain engages.
A whole series of trauma-dramas ensues. The result is hurt feelings all around and you feeling like a cake left out in the rain. YIPES!
That smart-ass, much-regretted remark that you’d like to disown stays with you as well, always available for replay when you’re feeling low and want to get really disheartened by the dumbness of you.
The funny thing about both of those social missteps is that they are the result of the same brain glitch.
I notice that you are more prone to experiencing the first if you are a quiet and slightly neurotic introvert. The second is more likely if you tend to be an irrepressible extrovert. If you’re an ambi-vert (sometimes intro- and sometimes extro-), you apparently get to experience both on a regular basis.
The other weird thing is that both of these types of conversationally induced regrets have the same name — “the spirit of the staircase” or “staircase wit” — in two different languages, French and German.
However, the French one refers to the first while the German one is a designation for the second type of remorseful kicking yourself in the head.
The credit for the naming of the first type of brain-freeze is said to belong to 18th-century philosopher and writer Denis Diderot.
At a fancy dinner party among a crew of glittering personalities, Diderot (an up-and-coming bright light who was apparently suffering from a touch of Imposter Syndrome and feeling a bit self-conscious and afraid of looking foolish) was challenged on some point or other.
He blanked out. Everybody laughed.
Feeling humiliated, Diderot left the party soon afterwards.
On his way down the sweeping long staircase to the front door, he kept replaying the embarrassing moment. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found the perfect retort.
Should he turn around, march back up those stairs and deliver his witty come-back? Of course not. It was too late.
In one of his published journals, Diderot wrote, “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.”
An (anonymous) reader of the journal coined the actual phrase, “l’esprit d’escalier,” the “spirit of the staircase.”
The German version of “staircase wit” is “treppenwitz”. This one, however, describes the remorse that ensues when inappropriate words shoot out of your mouth before your mind is properly engaged or you do a body-move that’s taken wrong.
The German version is used to refer to an incident when you say or do something that, in retrospect, was a bad joke…a spontaneous lame blurt or mimed reaction that plummets like a lead balloon.
The aftermath of either one is not fun, no matter what you call it.
Here’s a cute YouTube video, ”Have You Ever Come Up With a Comeback Too Late?,” published in 2018 by The Real Daytime TV where the girls, Tamera Mowrey-Housley, Jeannie Mai, Loni Love and Adrienne Houghton, discuss both forms of regrettable mouth failures.
WHY THE O-M-G HAPPENS….
The guys in the white lab coats say the reason our brains sometimes either gets stuck in neutral or goes to sleep at the wheel is mostly because each of us actually have three interconnected brains in our heads.
These brains developed over time during our evolutionary history to handle distinctly different functions. All of them are hard-wired together in a way that’s part of our body-survival promotion package.
The most primitive of our trio of brains is commonly called the “lizard brain.” It’s responsible for monitoring and regulating our everyday body needs and it’s pretty automatic. It is also the part of our brain that responds to threats mostly by freezing.
Our so-called “mammalian brain” is where our amygdalae, our emotion regulators, reside.
An amygdala is an almond-shaped cluster of neuron cells tucked deep inside the temporal lobe (the technical term for “mammalian brain”). There’s one set in each brain hemisphere.
This very short YouTube video published in 2016 by Neuroscientifically Challenged gives a simplistic overview of the amygdala and some of its functions.
As the 50-cent tour video says, our amygdalae process and integrate our physical reactions to emotional stimuli — especially fear and anger as well as more positive emotions — and affect our emotional behaviors and motivations
The amygdala has been compared to a smoke detector. It is best known for triggering assorted neurochemicals that help us mobilize our bodies in times of danger. It has also been known to hijack your brain functions at the most inconvenient times.
Whenever situations start getting heavy, the lizard and the mammalian brains take over. They are why the freeze/flight/fight responses happen.
Most of the time our executive-functioning “cortical brain” is in charge. This brain is a relatively recent development for us humans.
Of all the brains we are carrying around, the cortical brain is the most complex. It takes care of things like logic, language, telling time and playing with mind-constructs like strategies and tactics and stuff like that. Because of the cortical brain, all of our multi-faceted and varied interactions and connections with other people and the rest of the world are possible.
However, whenever you feel threatened, that feeling sets off your amygdala, which freaks out. Your body reacts immediately. All of the “unnecessary” features and functions shut down. Language, time-sense, critical thinking and social engagement skills don’t work so well any more.
Stressful situations tend to dump us out of our high-functioning cortical brain – the part that is most useful for assessing all of the variables of a situation – right into war-mode or rabbit-mode.
Your digestive system, peripheral vision, hearing, and every other non-essential organic function shuts down as your body prepares itself to either fight, flee, or freeze.
It doesn’t matter if the threat is not a physical one. Any emotional turmoil can (and often does) trigger this reaction.
WHY ALL OF THIS MATTERS
The important thing about these findings, I think, is knowing that “staircase wit”, in all of its permutations, is something that is a built-in part of your physical self. This means that you do actually have the ability to affect and, perhaps, change what happens naturally in your body.
It points to the possibility of training yourself to be less governed by the physical realities of your brain wiring in the same way that you can train your body’s muscles to be stronger, faster and more agile.
According to the smarty pants (as well as the ancient wise-guys and every communication expert who ever lived), it is entirely possible to rewire your brains and gain a more controlled approach in your stressful interactions with other people and better handle the vicissitudes of stressful head-games and avoid conversational regrets.
Just as there is an incredible variety of systems and methods to improve your muscles’ capabilities, there are mountains of books and courses and seminars and classes and workshops about how to rewire your brain and fine-tune your mental reflexes and such.
There are piles of yoga and meditation techniques.
You can repeat affirmations and do any number of spiritual practices of assorted varieties.
There are “improv” and other theatrical techniques and systems.
There are martial arts – both physical and mental.
It goes on and on.
One of the best compilations I’ve ever seen of tips and such for successfully constructing quick-witted comebacks is one I ran across in www.wikihow.com.
Click on this button for that:
Pick one. They all do work.
There are, you will notice, a few caveats along with all the tips.
Be aware that how well any of these systems, strategies, techniques and hacks work for you depends on whether your personal brain hardwiring suits and supports the system you choose to implement.
The efficacy of a particular system also depends on the quality of your practice and of your intention. Building new and improved neural pathways involves exactly the same kinds of processes as building big muscles. And, just like building big muscles, it does take time and practice and perseverance and consistency and so on and so forth.
Brain neural pathways persist. They take time to build and they take many, many repetitions to re-route.
CHOOSING YOUR ANTIDOTE
How you exorcise your “Spirit of the Staircase” and mitigate that pesky “Staircase Wit” does start with your intention.
You can choose to be the Come-back Kid – the clever one with the quick quip and the rollicking pyrotechnics on tap who is good at entertaining the masses.
No longer will you have to sit on the sidelines taking the slings and arrows thrown at you, mutely bleeding. As the lively, agile Come-back Kid, you can dodge and duck and throw those slings and arrows right on back.
You could choose to be a Magus or Aristo guy or gal with the Teflon-coated power-sphere built up of personal presence and charisma that makes a shell around you and repels those rude-and-nasty barbs. You can rise above it all.
Or you could just be your own, plain self and see where that one goes.
(Actually, that last one is probably the hardest one of all. How many of us actually know who we really are?)
NOBODY CAN TELL YOU WHICH TO CHOOSE
A lot of the effectiveness of any of these systems and techniques depends, as well, on how good you are at reading a situation.
This YouTube video, “How to Stand Up For Yourself,” published in 2018 by intuitive counselor, author and psychotherapist Jodi Aman, points this out.
For me, the most important point Aman makes in this video is the one where you choose not to take whatever another person says or does personally. This opens up a wider range of options for responding and leaves a lot of room for the Creative to move around in.
ONE MORE TAKE ON THE MATTER
My own personal favorite is this YouTube video, “Verbal Jiu-Jitsu,” which features Sifu Tim Tackett at the 2016 Combat Submission Wrestling Association World Conference, published in 2017 by Robert Burgee.
I do agree. Avoiding a dumb fight is always a very good strategy and one of the best forms of self-defense. As an old, gnarly dude-friend of mine used to say, “Masters don’t have to fight. They just aren’t there.”
Here’s a poem I wrote after one minor motor-mouth incident. (Like everybody else, I’m still working on it.)
Sometimes I forget
That golden, gleaming pride
Is all that holds some folks together,
The armor that surrounds
The layers of illusion wrapped
Around a heart too tender for
Exposure to the light of day
And the cold winds that
Blow out of the void,
A heart shrinking from the
Merest brush with uncertainty.
I know that anger,
The anger of a quaking heart.
I know that samurai glare,
The one that’s meant to wither
And desolate the world,
A reminder of a warrior’s power
And glory on display,
A product of the Legend looming large.
Now thoughts of Ozymandias dance in my head,
Of stories that lie scattered and forgotten,
Covered by the sands of Time.
I’ve been buffeted too long, I think,
By winds of uncertainty.
I’ve grown calluses where my scared should be.
It’s one of those side effects of
Standing naked in the light,
One the wise guys neglect to tell you about:
You get so used to being scared that
It starts tasting like hot chocolate.
I nevah mean for make you feel bad….
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture: “Conversation” by Vladimir Shioshvili via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
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