“…Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.”
--- Gabriel García Márquez
So this one time, I was a at a café in Dhanmondi, sipping coffee, minding my own business, when this really tall, intimidating-looking guy walks in, stares me down for a while and strikes up a conversation.
Him: You're in my seat.
Me: I'm sorry, I don't see a “reserved” sign.
Him: What? Are you messing with me? Do you know who I am?
Me: Wait, let me guess. Are you the brown Big Show? No, no, wait. Khal Drogo?
Him: *Exasperated* [Shifts to tui] Are you making fun of me? In my own area?
Me: You need a shave, man. And put on some clothes. Winter is coming, you know.
At this point he starts screaming and bangs his guitar into the ground, probably to intimidate me.
Me: You're gifted. You should totally try out for the Idol contest.
Of course, most of the above conversation happened inside my head, as I was heading out. I left after he asked if I knew him. I didn't want to die, you know? And more importantly, I couldn't think of anything to say at that moment.
I've been in many situations when the right things to say came to mind after the moment of opportunity had passed, and I'm pretty sure the readers have as well. Be it a conversation, an argument with the better half, an intense trash-talking competition with friends or when trying to shush a bully -- somehow we often fail to come up with the proper retort in the time of need. Not until we're either leaving or later at night, before we go to sleep, replaying the event inside our head over and over, do we come up with plausible ripostes that we could have used. But by then, it's no longer of any use, and that leaves us feeling idiotic. And that is why this situation is known as “staircase wit” (derived from the French phrase L'esprit de l'escalier), or after-wit.
I know not of any particular reason for why we fall short in coming up with apt responses when needed. It might be because we feel shy or intimidated, or the nervousness of the moment leaves our minds blanked-out. Unfortunately, this renders us speechless and often enraged, and rage amplifies the numbness of the mind. Consequently, all we can think of in the vein of rebuttals are obscenities and very lame “Yo Mama” jokes that make our arguments bleaker, and us more socially awkward.
Having said that, after-wit has its own perks. Many comedians use it as a tool to make original content for their acts. Often stand-up comedians act out scenes based on their experience -- or so they claim -- regarding failing to say something instantaneously when needed; Russell Peters has a few jokes of that nature, such as the infamous 'CostCo' one. Otherwise, they think of plausible comebacks at a later time, and use that on stage as part of their performance. However, it's not only limited to comedians.
Staircase wit usually makes for good stories that you can share with your friends afterward for laughs.
Thinking on one's feet is a rather impressive trait that not everyone possesses, and that's one reason debaters and negotiators are so sought after. Some people also use sarcasm for witty comebacks. Such quick thinkers are not in abundance though. But as I pointed out earlier, that's nothing to feel discouraged about. Use the after-wit to make stories that you can entertain people with later and pretend to be an expert at verbal jousting.