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A good friend was driving on a two-way road in the Argentine pampas. After a bend, a traffic policeman, standing on the side of the road, signaled him to pull over. The policeman asked my friend for his ID and verified that everything was right. But instead of letting him go, the policeman told my friend that he had gone over to the other side at the curve. He would have to fine him.

My friend denied it. And he could do it with conviction and because he was sure that he had not gone over to the other side. But the policeman insisted with suspicious kindness: “I’m sorry, but I have to fine you. And it’s a lot of money”. Of course, there was something implicit, and not very unusual: the policeman expected a bribe. Indeed, he said a common phrase in Argentina: “At least give me something for the coffee.”

Then my good friend, tired of the blackmail, gave him the best answer I’ve heard for cases like this. Upon hearing it, the policeman apologized and told him he was free to go. And my good friend left without paying a cent.

I have noticed that happy writers live longer than sad ones. Denis Diderot was happy and lived to 70 in the 18th century. He largely owes his posthumous fame to the erudition he imbued the first encyclopedia with, along with d’Alembert, who was more versed in science.

Diderot’s contemporaries admired his erudition, but they appreciated his ingeniousness even more, his capacity to analyze what’s obvious. A novel by Diderot begins by saying: “So how did Jacques and I meet? By coincidence, like everybody else”.

Diderot coined the “l’esprit de l’escalier” expression to describe those situations when someone comes up with a good answer, but when it’s too late to give it. “Esprit” at the time was ingeniousness and the reference to the stairs (“escalier”) is because the witty answer comes when one is coming down the steps from the tribune where he was grilled.

The expression caught on because there was no word to describe the concept, even though all of us have been through similar situations. Especially when we are teenagers, we care a lot about what others think. In English it’s called “escalator wit” o “afterwit.”

A case of “l’esprit de l’escalier” can be seen in a Seinfeld chapter. George is at a work meeting with some snacks on the table. George, with little inhibition and education, has grabbed a bowl of shrimps that he’s wolfing down. Then a friend tells him: “Hey, George, the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp.” For the rest of the chapter, George will be regretting that he didn’t know what to respond. For example: “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you”.

Well then, what do we have to respond when someone asks for a bribe? We have to look at them sternly in the eyes and tell them: “I’m sorry, my profession does not allow me to.”


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