How to Seem Witty Even if You're Not

Relax, introverts: Crafting a comeback shouldn't induce anxiety.

by Jay Heinrichs
Jun 22 2017, 4:00pm

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The French have an old expression, l'esprit de l'escalier, the spirit of the staircase. The Germans (who probably stole the expression from the French though they'd never admit it), call it Stehr Witt: "Stair Wit." It's the snappy answer you manage to come up with after you've left the party. One of the guests teased you or made fun of your clothing or told an offensive joke, and you just stood there frozen. It wasn't until you were heading down the stairs when you thought of something clever.

Stair Wit. You might as well call it Missed Wit. Or Blew Wit. Or If I Weren't Such an Introvert I Could Trade Witty Barbs for Once Wit.

Full embarrassed disclosure: I'm an introvert. It's a prime reason I got into rhetoric, the art of persuasion, in the first place. Rhetoric teaches how to speak persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like you when you speak. In other words, rhetoric can help you fake being an extravert. Let's look at a few rhetorical techniques, starting with the most important one.

Target your audience
The cat that gets your tongue tends to be the person who made you uncomfortable in the first place—the very jerk you wish you had a snappy answer for. So here's the good news: That person usually doesn't count. Unless he's a dear friend (in which case we need to talk about your choice of friends), he probably won't care what you say. The cleverest barb will go unrecognized, the subtlest insult will barely stir the air in his head.

Instead, use some social peripheral vision. Who else is listening? Is there a group you want to impress? If not, give a cold stare and walk away. Or, if you like, chuckle humorously and head for the hors d'oeuvres. In rhetoric, the audience is everything. They're the people you want to persuade. And as often as not, they're not the ones talking. If you do reply to the jerk, your job is to leave an impression on bystanders, not on the jerk.

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I often get the question, "How do I persuade a person who's absolutely convinced he's right?" Answer: Don't try. Only try to persuade the persuadable. But what if we're talking about a social occasion? One where politics somehow never enters the picture? What's there to persuade?

Answer: Try to get the bystanders to like and trust you. It's the greatest gift a shy person can give herself. Instead of trying to impress an opponent with your wit, try to get the others to think you're a fine person.

Hold your fire
Introverts feel they have to be quick on the draw, with the perfect tip-of-the-tongue reply. Personally, I'm horrible at small talk, and witty people make me break out in a muck sweat. But I let myself off the hook with this reminder: You don't have to be speedy to be witty. If you can't think of anything to say, be agreeable. And appreciate your opponent's language.

Sarcastic jerk: Nice outfit.
You: Thanks. I wouldn't guess you were the discriminating type.

Jerk: I only discriminate against the tacky.
You: "Tacky." There's a word you don't hear very often.

Jerk: I only use it on special occasions. And your outfit makes it special.
You: [Laugh.]

Harness the power of repetition
If this were a scored match, you clearly lost that last exchange on points. But remember the audience. Some people probably felt bad for you and admire your restraint. (Just try not to blush.) But the game isn't over. Remember what your opponent said—or the topic at least—and bring it up later.

Jerk: I'm a huge Game of Thrones fan.
You: Which is not tacky at all.

Be prepared
Memorize a few expressions and whip them out on the right occasion.

You: "The more wit the less courage." Thomas Fuller, early eighteenth century.

Well, it might work, especially if your audience is the eggheaded type. Or think in advance of someone your audience is bound to hate, and accuse your opponent of plagiarizing that guy.

You: Didn't Donald Trump just tweet that? Or was it a Kardashian?

If all else fails, be the better person
This is my favorite introvert technique. Don't try to be the wittiest or snarkiest person in the room. These people aren't the best loved. The people people love are the ones who love people. Just say to yourself, "I love this person who's probably insecure but aren't we all?" I know—it sounds earnest and cheesy, but just aim to be the best, most ingenuous person in the room.

Will you win the prize for funniest or wildest? Most certainly not. But some people, the right people, will love you right back. Which counts as the greatest comeback of all.

Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

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