The Wit of the Staircase

And the Art of NOT Always Getting the Last Word

Wit of the Staircase-2

The French seem to always be in possession of le mot juste (the right word). They indeed have a phrase for the moment following a tense or embarrassing incident that happens to those who are not gifted with a quick wit:

“l’esprit de l’escalier”

Translated, it means “the wit of the staircase”. Or, more clearly as it relates to a situation where you only come up with a witty response to a verbal challenge or situation after you’ve turned on your heel and left the scene.

According to Wikipedia, it is the name for the phenomenon that comes from French philosopher Denis Diderot’s description of such an occurrence. At some point during a dinner at the home of statesman Jacques Necker, according to history, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time. In French he says, “l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier.”

Translated into English it means, “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”.

I can relate to that feeling, can’t you?

In this case, “the bottom of the stairs” refers only to the architecture of the kind of hôtel particulier or stately home to which Diderot had been invited. Obviously the reception rooms were located on an upper level or at least one floor above the ground floor. Therefore, to have reached the bottom of the stairs means definitively to have left the gathering and left the awkward or embarrassing exchange that had just occurred.

But I think that there is much more to this than just an architectural consideration. I believe that Diderot is describing a feeling that is not unique to himself alone. I believe that he is describing that feeling that you and I have from time to time after a verbal exchange with our leaders or with those that we lead.

So, what is the leadership principle here?

It is this. Regardless of the extremely witty, pithy, and potentially powerful retort that comes to mind after the fact, we, like Diderot, are best to utter it at the bottom of the staircase and under our breath rather than in the anger or frustration of the moment. Even worse would be to climb the stairs and re-enter the fray and deliver hurtful or cutting remarks that we would surely regret later.

How about you? Do you always think of just the “right” retort just after the moment passes? Do you always feel the need to get the last word in? Are you using it as a way to measure your cleverness and wit?

Think of some situations in which you did get the last word in. Was the outcome as positive as it could have been?

Consider the same thought presented in different words:

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

These words, or variants of these words, according to, have been attributed to none other than Abraham Lincoln, Confucius, Mark Twain, and even Al Capone. It has also been attributed to the lesser known Mark Switzer, L. Frank Baum (Yes, the author of The Wizard of Oz), Arthur Burns, and “Doc” Rockwell. It is even given a Biblical origin in the Proverbs.

Here is the point one more time.

As leaders, we need to control our tongue. It is one of the most difficult things for many of us to do. We need to realize that it is not the end of the world for someone to think that they have gotten the best of us in that moment. Real leadership is exhibited over time and not in the quick-witted repartee in a social setting.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leader -|- Follower -|- Guide

I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.