The staircase mind



You know that feeling you get when you nail a super-witty or biting comeback? Yeah, well, cherish it, because there may come a time when you no longer experience it – when you're unable to whip a sassy line from the recesses of your brain to make your audience laugh or clench their jaws with rage. This is the tragedy I’m living. An infuriatin­g wit impotence that leaves me flopping around in verbal agony as I struggle to string together a sentence on the spot, let alone one with punch.

It might be the result of ageing or having zero interest in Sudoku, but whatever the cause, my once-quick wit has gone. I’m now a victim of what the French (and Australian­s who speak enough French to add it to their Linkedin profile) call L’esprit de l’escalier, or ‘the staircase mind’.

Yes, those cunning linguists have summed up the plague that blights me: the inability to think of a witty comeback until it’s far too late. Many nights I lie in bed with the perfect retort to some innocuous comment rolling around in my head. I mentally play out the ways I could have nailed the delivery, followed by a sassy strut away – a stark contrast to the pitiful reply and awkward shuffle that actually played out.

But it’s not just witty comebacks that I’m lacking. I’ve found myself struggling to respond to even the simplest greetings or comments. A cheery “good morning” from a colleague has me staring into space. The response is obvious, right? Yeah, not to me. Recently I’ve resorted to weird hand gestures – a charade-like doffing of my invisible cap. I eat alone in the tearoom.

Being at dinner with friends is like crawling across no man’s land with a barrage of artillery fire from every angle. One-liners are thrown my way in anticipati­on of a jovial verbal back-and-forth. The comments bounce off my face and into my food with a dull splat. I sip my drink and chew my dinner as slowly as possible, using more gestures to indicate “I’d love to partake in this witty banter, but look, I’m eating.” My pals seem pretty happy to talk amongst themselves.

A voiceless Charlie Chaplin was a legend of his day – maybe I can ride his wave? I could bring back the silent character who moves through life with exaggerate­d expression­s. (I’m pale and wear a lot of black, so the whole greyscale thing could work for me, too.) My Chaplin routine would probably be better than the other option I seem to turn to: swearing. A lot. Curse words come easy to me – much more easily than pleasantri­es. But while expletives work OK for snarky rejoinders, they’re not so good in response to a kind remark. “Nice hair” doesn’t seem to justify, “Yeah, eat shit, loser!”

I know there are groups you can join to improve your public-speaking skills, but I’ve found they’re not so welcoming when you’re struggling with all your public utterances. (Maybe they should rebrand, because it feels like false advertisin­g.) I don’t suppose living alone has helped my ability to think on my feet, but the alternativ­e is full immersion in conversati­on with some stranger in their pyjamas. I doubt many housemates would last long when they’re constantly being told to eat shit by the resident mime.

Maybe my best option is to take to the mirror and rehearse a series of standard responses for a range of occasions, like how I practised the perfect insult to hurl at drivers who veer into the bicycle lane. Muscle memory is a real thing, not just a lie from the fitness industry. With a handful of standard retorts on rotation, I won’t be winning any awards for wit, but at least I’ll stave off my newfound fear of stairs.

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia