Having the perfect comeback … after the fact.
L’esprit de l’escalier, or “staircase wit”, is when you think of the perfect thing to say … but it’s too late. The French name for this phenomenon comes from thinking of the perfect retort on your way down the stairs after leaving the conversation/argument. It’s a common enough experience that the phenomenon has a name. Thinking of what you should have said, after the fact, happens to everyone.
Staircase wit touches on counterfactual thinking, where we imagine alternate scenarios for events that have already happened. Deliberating on how things could have played out can lead to arguing with ourselves, where we try a discussion a second time in our minds trying to come up with the best response (witty or otherwise).
In the heat of the moment
When our ideas are challenged we can become flustered and emotional. It can be difficult to think straight, let alone to be witty, when you’re uncomfortable. Fear and anxiety can cause us to focus on a single line of thinking (depth-first processing) which, if you are trying to be witty, makes it more difficult to formulate a creative response.
When you’re in a good mood you’re more open to new ideas and are more creative (breadth-first processing). Wit requires creativity, confidence, and timing. Staying relaxed can help you be witty in the moment … and not after the fact on the staircase.
Added info: Oscar Wilde, a master of wit, still has a lot to teach us on the art of turning a phrase. Browse the internet or pick up a collection of his more memorable quotations for inspiration. If all else fails you can quote Wilde since, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” – W. Somerset Maugham (a quote often misattributed to Wilde).
L’esprit de l’escalier is the basis for the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback” in season 8. George realizes the “perfect” comeback after being insulted in a meeting, only to screw things up again later.