Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Staircase Wisdom

Well how about that...?

I've been using the phrase "staircase wisdom" for... well, ever. I knew there was a "proper" French term (l'esprit de escalier) which doesn't really translate effectively. Literally it would be "spirit of the staircase", but that does really capture the (ahem) spirit of the phrase.

Doing a Google search on "staircase wisdom" find surprisingly bad options for providing an illuminating link. It seems the more common english phrase is stairway wit. But I'm sticking to my preferred version.

So what is staircase wisdom?

You must have had an experience where you've walked away from an encounter - an argument; a one-upping contest of wit; a heated exchange of insults; or even a moment where you just 'know' there's a joke to be tossed into the conversation but damned if you can think of it - and later (two minutes, an hour, a day, a week) you think of the perfect response. That, my friend, is staircase wisdom. It's that witty riposte you come up with after you've left the party - on your way down the staircase to the street.

What does this have to do with asshole skepticism?

Well it comes down to where I ended my last proper post (the Mad Scientist Quiz doesn't count). Practice.

Once upon a time I used to be part of a comedy troupe (several over the course of years, but one in particular). We toured Canada and parts of the US for about six years. Every year we'd have a completely new show and we'd perform it anywhere between fifty and a hundred times over the course of the tour (and then again at follow up engagements over the rest of the year). After doing a show a couple of dozen times, patterns would develop. Most times we had a fair bit of opportunity for audience interaction - sometimes expressly invited, sometimes not. But we'd get to know the moments where it happened quite intimately. We'd identify the places where people would "spontaneously" say things and their wisecracks would before too long start to fit a pattern. For example, at one point in one of our shows there was a place where we specifically asked the audience to give us a suggestion for something that I would 'hypnotize' a fellow cast memeber to do. For some reason fully half the time the first person to open their mouth would shout "do the twist" or "impersonate Elvis." (An aside: To be perfectly honest we never fully grokked what subtle cue we had to have been giving that led to the consistency of those two suggestions. We did note the vague similarity between them though so figure it had to come from the same impulse. I figure it must have something similar to do with the phenomenon of most people thinking of carrots if asked to name a vegetable.) By the end of the second week of the show it was obvious to us that we were going to have to field those suggestions three or four more dozen times before the tour was over. So we brain stormed responses. Truth be told I can't recall any of the first things we tried. I do recall the response we found that got a big-laugh every night. I would retort back in a sarcastic voice "Oh, THAT's obvious." I guess it was funny because there was no obvious reason that it was obvious, but everyone in the audience had recieved the same priming so it wasn't too far from anyone's mind. (Another aside: Just going on a small nostalgia trip here... I still shake my head at that. it was a weird piece of comedy. It was one of the 'sure-fire' jokes in the show if we were given the chance to do it, and yet I really don't know why it was funny. Hardly satisfying from my perspective, but it's tough to refuse a surefire laugh.)

In our first few shows of the tour I had no response to those suggestions, but later after a chance to try out some options I had (an odd, but) a killer response.

Similarly, I'm not too timid to tell people to shut the fuck up in movie theatres - much to the mortification of more than a few dates. I find it surprising how many people come back with wisecrack responses when they've been asked to be quiet in a venue where it is pretty wide accepted that talking is bad-form. I really shake my head at that. But it's happened enough times that I have already come up with the staircase wisdom response to most of the stupid things they can say in their defence... and it's rare that people don't shut up after being made to look like a fool twice in one minute and they know they're out numbered.

That is what I mean by 'practice.' Have the conversations. Have the staircase wisdom. Be prepared to out wit the people you are discussing skeptical subjects with.

You actually don't even have to have the arguments in order to practice. Practice when listening to the radio or podcasts - trust me, there are plenty of chances to argue safely with people who can't fight back if you are listening to the right shows. But do it out loud. Actually saying the words as fludily and spontantously as you can will improve your ability to do so in the heat of real argument.
And when you get stuck and don't have something to say, don't worry about it, just wait until the stiarcase wisdom strikes you in the shower - and say it then. Next time you'll be better prepared.

But here's another thing... don't over think it. Sometimes it's just best to just start speaking and hope that there's a valid point or at least a joke at the end of your sentence.

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