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.

“Learn to Shut Your Mouth” by Juli via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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.

“petit staircase” by andy lapham via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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.


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.

Brain” by AJ Cann via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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.

“Brainade!” by Emilio Garcia via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
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.


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.

“Bucharest” by Andrei Rosca via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]


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?)


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.


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.


My bad.


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.


Been there.

Done that.


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.


Sorry, eh?

I nevah mean for make you feel bad….

by Netta Kanoho

Header picture: “Conversation” by Vladimir Shioshvili via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]



(Click on each of the post titles below and see where it takes you…)


Thanks for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.

32 thoughts on “OVERRIDE “STAIRCASE WIT”

  1. I think it depends on who you’re talking to or who hurls insults at you.  For me, if I’m close to that person, if I get brain freeze, then I can always come back and throw a nice retort or a sarcastic one if I want to.

    If I don’t really know the person or if he is known to be really sarcastic, then I’ll just ignore. He is not worth my time. He is also somebody who feels inferior himself.

    I believe male and female brains are wired differently as well.


    1. I like your points, Marita.  Every situation is certainly different and one of the factors to consider is your relationships with the other people involved.  Also, as you say, every person is wired differently.  

      There really is no one-size-fits all solutions.  We all just play it as we can.  

      Please do come again.

  2. I have never heard the term staircase wit before, but I have personally experienced both situations before! It’s nice to know it’s not because one is “dumb” but because of our brain wiring!

    Personally – I just avoid confrontation. Makes it all easier! . 

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Sherry.  Discovering that the brain-glitches were part of a natural process rather than evidence of me being dumb was certainly a grand thing!

      I do understand your wanting to avoid confrontation, but doesn’t it kind of cramp your style sometimes?

      Please do come again.

  3. I can relate to the first scenario where you only come up with a good come back line well after it is needed. I see further down in the post that these sorts are more introverted than the ones that blurt out something they may regret later.

    That probably pertains to me. Very interesting article topic and it was interesting to read how the brain works in this case with the lizard and the mammalian brain parts coming into play. This causes us to freeze or alternatively fight. Not sure which one is better, but it is not nice when it happens to you.

    Thanks for going over the story of staircase wit, which I didn’t know about and it was nice to know the story behind the phrase.

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Michel.  I’m glad you found the post interesting.

      Please do come again.

  4. OMG! I never knew other people experience this brain freeze in the middle of a confrontation. Seriously, it gets really annoying when I finally get the right target words I should have spoken figured out in my head eventually, and realise oh! Too late, can’t say it anymore!

    I do fall in between into and extrovert but I always end up with more of the  brain freeze to the blurting out before thinking scenarios. 

    And this is also the first time I am reading about being able to control these manifestations through our brain wiring, and it sounds really great if it does work.

    But I guess I will have to try one of your listed options to find that out.

    By the way, I finally understood why the name “spirit of the stairway” lol. 

    And your poem was also very nice.


    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Queen.  I know, right?  The fact that other people also get glitched up is a biggie!  (Ho, wow!  I’m not the only one!)

      Rewiring brains is about the same as getting toned, fit and all that.  It does take work and time and it’s the same process as building up muscles, learning how to run marathons or how to surf, learning how to make your fingers move that way so you can play a musical instrument well or anything else like that.

      Practice, practice, practice…and all that.

      Glad you found the post interesting.

      Please do come again….

  5. Good evening Netta,

    I am one of those people, I will have the best ever reply the next day.

    Luckily with age, I have learned to keep my mouth more shut than open but it took me many years to learn.

    To keep our 3 brains functioning well we should adopt a healthy lifestyle including real food. Throw in 3 big spoons of coconut oil which is fuel for your brain and we should be ok.

    As your brain does not distinguish between real and imaginary repeating will build new neuron pathways and your brain accepts it as being true. You are what you eat but also what you think.

    I like to remain my naughty old self. I felt sad after reading your poem. Good post, Netta.

    Regards, Taetske

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Taetske. 

      Your suggestion about maintaining your brain health by eating real food and by adding the coconut oil to your diet is a good one, and you’re right — the brain doesn’t really distinguish between real and “imaginary” repetitions especially where words are concerned.  You really are what you think.  

      I’m so glad you liked the post.  (Like you I do prefer to remain “my old naughty self” too.)

      Please do come again.

  6. Dear Netta,

    I am speechless! What an excellent article! Let me first say that besides the content itself, I loved the lively language it is written in, presence of humor, the illustrations, the videos, composition, and of course the poem… which brings me to the content.

    I found your post very educational, inspiring and encouraging. I’ve never heard “the spirit of the staircase” or “staircase wit” expression before.

    Yes, every now and then, we all get ourselves in the 2 scenarios you described. I appreciate the fact that you look at the situation from both sides: your article teaches how to not humiliate or diminish others as well as how to not let others hurt your own feelings.

    I totally agree with Jodi Aman: “That is about them, not about me”.

    I also appreciate the advice you are giving to your readers to only use strategies and techniques that work for them. I think that this advice is good for many situations, including running a business.

    We learn how other people do whatever the subject of our interest is, and then we must adapt what we learned to our personalities, to the way we are wired. Some people confuse this with getting out of a comfort zone. That’s not the same.

    We should be able to get out of our comfort zone and occasionally do things that are required even if we are not comfortable doing them. But a long-term strategy only works when we are comfortable with what we do.

    Thank you very much. I really enjoyed reading your ‘Override “Staircase Wit” ‘

    ~ Julia

    1. Julia, thank you for the visit.  I am really pleased that you found the post useful.  

      It is a truth, I think, that every one of us has the same sorts of vulnerabilities and strengths — just in different proportions.  In order to get along, we do need to remain mindful of each other, but in order to carry on doing our own, we also have to be able to honor our own selves.

      The one thing I’ve noticed is that converts to a new mindset tend to be rabid for a while.  (Eventually they do calm down but they can raise your hackles without even trying!) 

      Maybe because I have tasted and tested so many different mindsets over the years, it is easier for me to see that some things that work well for others just suck for me. 

      I also noticed that it really doesn’t matter how you get to the place where, when people see you coming, they smile (rather than frown or cringe).  Mostly, I think, that’s the acid test for whether what you’re doing is working or not.

      I do thank you for sharing your enjoyment of the post.  

      Please do come again. 

  7. Awesome!  I’ve always been a “Treppenwitz” as far back as I can remember.  That’s nearly 50 years!  Either a rush of inappropriateness comes out or the “uh, uh, uh” (only to be solved far too late with a semi-witty response).  

    Now that I’m living in Germany and not being a native-speaker, at least I have an excuse when I stick my foot in my mouth or can’t even find my mouth.  

    Now, I’m excused as most folks just chalk it up to my lack of German language skills.  Yay!  Not sure I want to change that, but oh so heart-warming to know that it’s actually “a thing.”

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Michelle.  You made me smile!

      It is cool knowing that it’s a “thing.”

      Please do come again….

  8. Hi! I have experienced both! Blanking out when I needed to present a defense and I have also experienced saying something I afterward regret. Both are equally uncomfortable.

    Yes, our brain can be slow at times. And I always like to be in full control of my actions. Reading your post has given me a new approach to this issue. Thank you very much!

    1. Ann, thanks for your visit and for sharing your story.  I am pleased the post was helpful to you.

      Please come again.

  9. I love the fresh, humorous way you put in perspective the failures and behavior of our brains! 

    You are approaching our common, sometimes embarrassing behavior with a pinch of salt and understanding.

    The post is uplifting and gives us confidence that we are not the only ones (Diderot too) having moments when our brains are letting us down!

    Finishing the post with a poem is a nice artistic touch, wonderful post!

    1. Daniela, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I do appreciate it and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.  

      Please do come again.

  10. Thanks for this insightful article. Although I would have to totally disagree about us evolving and especially having 3 brain interlocked.

    However I think whenever someone makes a snide mark to you the first time your not expecting it and therefore don’t know how to respond.

    But over time if this keeps happening to you, you’ll eventually learn what to say on the spot — kind of like a stand- up comedian.

    Anyways thanks again for this post. 

    Also what are some things you’ve said to people that have made such remarks to you, or did you simply walk away?

    1. Michael, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  

      I do agree that if you get slammed by somebody unexpectedly it can leave you speechless and a bit non-plussed.

      Unfortunately, I am one of those people who has a very sharp tongue and I do know how to use it.  (I grew up with a whole bunch of cousins who were all older than me and way into tormenting the littlest dumpling.)

      My own struggle has been NOT to go for the jugular and NOT to burn people down to the ground.  It has been a really massive struggle.  I am peaceable now.  Really I am.  (Also, nobody wants to get crossways of a self-professed tita, so that helps a lot.)


      Please do come again.

  11. Awinikistevie says:

    Hi Netta,

    I have once experience a public blow severely and  it caused me to be much more of an introvert.  I only regain consciousness of the  event after I was able to back away from it. 

    I haven’t heard of the name ‘staircase wit’ before but I refer to it as “medicine after death”.  It is interesting to know that this happened to me not because I was dumb then but as a result of my configuration.

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful information.

    1. Welcome back, Awinikistevie.  I think your name for staircase wit, “medicine after death,” pretty much describes it perfectly.  Figuring out the perfect comeback after the fact is just about as effective as trying to take medicine after you’ve already been killed.  Good one!

      I am glad the post was helpful to you.  Knowing that we’re wired a certain way lets us try to figure out workarounds better, I think.

      Please do come again.

  12. OMG, I can just relate with this.  I remember in high school when this guy poured cold water on me during lunch by calling me “mango head” I didn’t just know how to respond.  I was cold to my feet, I could feel goosebumps on my skin, and some minutes later I realized I could have responded LOL😂.

    But I know better now, I don’t have to be upset when people try to make me feel bad.  I’ve realized I’m a king and I should be in control of my emotions.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jomata, thank you for your visit and for sharing your story.  It is a truth.  Very often, it isn’t what happens to you, but how you respond that matters.  When the “perfect” response is slow in coming, it can be frustrating.

      However, as you said, if you can realize that you are a worthy person no matter what other people say or do, then your reactions (and the emotions from which they arise) will become more and more aligned and congruent with the person that you know you are.  

      I’m glad the post resonated with you.

      Please do come again.

  13. Lizzychris says:

    I must commend you for this post, I can relate!

    I have found myself in such situations a number of times, I can keep count!  So many times I wish I hadn’t said that.  I didn’t give the right answer…so much regrets! 

    But thanks to this article, I will choose the best antidote that works for me …working on it! Thanks

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Lizzychris.  I am glad the post was helpful to you.  

      It is a truth that motor-mouth can run away with you.  I, too, have to work on that one still.

      Please do come again.  

  14. That is so true!  

    I can’t count how many times someone says something, then it’s like an hour later that an answer just comes to you and you’re like, “Ah…that would have been perfect! 

    This is a really good read — especially nowadays.  It seems as if people have gotten a lot more aggressive since the pandemic.

    1. Jeff, thank you for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I know, right?  It can be the most frustrating thing!

      Please do come again.

  15. LineCowley says:

    Oh you describe it so brilliantly when you cannot immediately thinking of a clever reply to a snarky comment, and then it comes up later. And you keep on thinking about the things that you should have said. It is something that can sometimes bug me for days afterwards. 

    But then I have also had many moments of feeling I should have just kept quiet. That feeling that I should have engaged my brain before opening my mouth. Love the videos you are sharing, great to remind myself that I can stand up for myself.

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, LineCowley.  I’m glad you found the post engaging.

      And thanks for noticing the videos.  Other people have such cool takes on this stuff!

      Please do come again.

  16. A reputation built over decades could be spoiled in a moment. I wish I could have answered right or wouldn’t have done it. Think carefully before you act. It was advice from my long-time mentor.

    How did the Priyanka Chopra (the queen) come up with all the perfect answers to her husband (who is in deep love with another woman without thinking for a moment in the award-winning movie “Bajirao Mastani”? 

    How does Oprah Winfrey handle her shows so well?

    Your post took me quite a bit of time to read. It was telling me my unforgettable life situations which I should have corrected then but can’t go back to now.

    You know what? I am not the only “staircase wit”. Your post made me realize that.

    Why do people have a hard time beating my answers in my favorite subject in college? I mostly win. Why do  I fail mostly in any other situation and feel terrible? 

    I find some answers now. I took assertiveness training when working at a corporation. It helped a little. 

    Sometimes I become too straight forward and it’s not taken well. I lose people from my life permanently.

    One of my ~50year friends who I met after decades offended me thinking I am poor (I was) bragging about his wealth. I never have asked him for money in my lifetime. He was demeaning me, criticizing my family, and teasing me. I could not believe it. It was hurtful and I stepped away from him without feeling even a little guilty. I don’t call him anymore. I feel safe.

    I am a victim of millions of situations of different kinds. Your blog is a wake-up call for me. I read every word of it and watched 2 videos. 

    It gives knowledge about the brain and how practice, training, meditation, and self-confidence can help improve these kinds of situations.

    I liked your poem though I need to read it once more. 

    I am not the only one regretting at the end of the staircase and no way to go back up to correct me. I am hopeful, I will improve.

    Thank you for improving my life. This post will help many.

    1. You are right, Anusuya.  You are certainly not the only one “regretting at the end of the staircase and no way to go back up.”  We’ve all been there.  We all work on through these situations in our own ways.

      I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      Please do come again.

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