You’ve heard of joie de vivre, pièce de résistance, and other French bon mots…. But have you heard of l’esprit de l’escalier?
“Doggone it, there is something important I keep meaning to tell you, but I keep forgetting what it is!” I exclaimed during a recent meeting with my lawyer. “Of course, I’ll think of it as soon as I leave.”
“Exactly,” responded my well-read lawyer and friend. “That’s what Diderot called l’esprit de l’escalier. You only remember what you meant to say, or the clever repartee you wish you had responded, on the way home after you leave the situation that inspired it.” This was news to me, and being a language nerd and erstwhile student of French, exciting news. “Oui, oui! Très bien!” I said. I went home and looked it up immediately—after remembering what I had wanted to say as soon as I drove away from the lawyer’s office.
It happens to all of us: after an insult or challenge at a dinner party or meeting, the brain freezes and we are rendered speechless. But on the way home—on the elevator, the staircase, or in the car—we think of the perfect retort. Translated literally as “spirit of the staircase,” and variously known in English as Staircase Mind or Staircase Wit, this French idiom refers to the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply or witty comeback too late—in other words, when a conversational rejoinder only occurs to us after the opportunity to make it has passed.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784), French philosopher, art critic, and encyclopedist during the Age of Enlightenment, came up with the phrase to describe an event that occurred in his own life. During dinner at the home of a statesman, a remark was made which left Diderot speechless because, as he explained, “the sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, loses his head and only recovers it at the bottom of the stairs.” In the mansion Diderot was visiting—typical of France at that time—the reception rooms were one floor above the ground floor. So, the staircase symbolizes one’s departure from the gathering where the response was needed.
In an entertaining example from Seinfeld (which can be viewed on YouTube), George is talking with his mouth full as he inhales shrimp at a lunch meeting. “Hey, George,” mocks one of his coworkers across the table. “The Ocean called. They said they’re running out of shrimp!” George fumes silently as raucous laughter encircles the table. The next frame shows George in his car, driving home. “Yes, that’s what I should’ve said, damn it!” he exclaims, and later tells Jerry his afterthought comeback: “Hey, the Jerk Store called. They said they’re running out of you!”
Merriam-Webster.com offers another example. “When he bragged about sleeping like a baby, I should have added the bit about waking up crying every two hours—but that’s just l’esprit de l’escalier. At the time I just nodded and said nothing.”
“Matthieu criticized me for being too shy,” we find on lawlessfrench.com. I should have told him that he was just like me when he was younger, but I have staircase wit and, as usual, didn’t think of it until the next day.” I’m sure you have your own examples! Fortunately, these days we have email that allows us to send our witty response to the correspondent well after the fact.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) also uses the staircase as a transitional space, a locus of decision-making and symbol of moral direction in his classic novel Crime and Punishment. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, often changes his mind on the staircase. When he descends a staircase, he tends to move toward wrongdoing or depravity, whereas when he ascends he achieves moral clarity and moves toward redemption. The struggle between these two states in Raskolnikov’s psyche form the heart of the novel. “Stairs, as a type of threshold, can be a place of transition, questioning, and decision-making…. they reveal a state of psychological liminality experienced by a character while situating that character in a space of physical liminality” (‘liminal’ means occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold) (D. M. Lavendier, digitalcommons.ric.edu). This shift in consciousness evoked by the staircase is similar to l’esprit de l’escalier.
A related cognitive phenomenon is the more recently discovered psychological phenomenon known as the Doorway Effect. You know the drill: you get up from the couch and go into the kitchen to get some scissors. You pass through the doorway into the kitchen, and—wait a minute! What did I come in here for? You can’t for the life of you remember why you came to the kitchen in the first place. Oh well, might as well get a glass of milk! And going back through the door to the living room rarely helps. This happens so often, you begin to doubt your sanity. Fortunately, our new open floor plans help avoid this problem!
The Doorway Effect was identified in 2006 by Gabriel Radvansky and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, who continue to do studies exploring the phenomenon and other behaviors of memory. These studies, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Scientific American, have shown that passing through a doorway and entering a different room creates a ‘mental block’ in the brain that resets the memory to make room for the creation of a new episode. In other words, it erases short-term memory to prepare the mind for a fresh start—kind of like a scene change in the movie of your mind.
Half the time, I have to return to my original destination twice! Say I’m in the car in the driveway, and realize I need to take my water bottle with me on my errands. I return to the house, spot the letter I meant to mail and pick it up, return to the car, and doh! I forgot to get the water bottle! Sound familiar? And, of course, at my age, I don’t even need a doorway to bring this on.
The Doorway Effect reflects the reliance of our memories on the environment we’re in. As our brains work on multiple levels to accomplish complex actions, changing the physical and mental environments at once can throw us for a loop. I must remember to stop at the Post Office…did I bring my keys… I should also stop at the library, etc. My actions are on speed dial and my brain is on overload. No wonder I forget!
In a way, these two phenomena are opposites. In the first, the forgetting occurs on the spot, and is only remembered with a change of scene. In the second, we know our plan clearly at the beginning, but the change of scene causes us to forget it. Only a psychologist could explain this paradox—all I can say is that the human mind is an amazing and unpredictable instrument. Be it a doorway or a staircase, these “transitional spaces” cause our minds to play tricks that are beyond our control. But it is comforting to know that we are not alone. These unexpected memory gymnastics happen to all of us, and are less a sign of weakness than of complex brain processing.