Mark Twain famously said that “Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.”
He was right.
I shopped at a bookstore one day with a man I was dating; he wanted to buy a new Bible. We walked up an aisle filled with dizzying arrays of Bibles in a dozen different translations. New International Version. New Living Translation. New American Standard. New Revised Standard. New Jerusalem. He darted from one to another, uncertain which to buy.
“I’ve always preferred the King James version myself,” I commented, “just because it’s so poetic.” He cast me a disdainful look and snapped, “That’s why you don’t understand the Bible.”
(And let me just say right here that it is absolutely NOT true that I was ever arrested for boyfriend homicide.)
Much too late, I realized I could have responded that, no, the problem was that HE didn’t understand poetry. My delayed realization just proves the accuracy of Twain’s quote.
If I had a time machine, I suspect I would wear it out going back to make all the superb, cutting, decisive responses that I just couldn’t think of at the time. I’ve wondered, though, why it is that most of us can’t conjure up this brilliant badinage when we genuinely need it. And I think that I have hit on at least a possible answer – something I recall having read long ago in an article about the gulf between what we anticipate and what actually happens.
When we have trouble with a quick response, it’s because what was said to us is not what we expected. The veiled insult, the subtle snub, the snarky remark, the witty but utterly cutting and devastating quip – we spend a few seconds simply flabbergasted as our brain tries to rewire itself in response to the unexpected. While perhaps it isn’t true of the most recent generation, in years past, most of us were raised to be at least superficially polite. Consequently, we assume that people in social situations will at least pretend to be polite. Coming up against a contradiction to that assumption requires a split second of adjustment – and in a social situation, a split second can be quite a long time.
This is the same sort of reaction that a teenage clerk has when, having told a customer that the total price of his purchase is $9.17, is handed $20.17 in payment. As the young clerk stares at the money in confusion for a second, the mature customer gloats over the clerk’s ignorance. But the young clerk is not unintelligent; he is bewildered for just a moment because the money handed to him is not what he expected. He expected to be handed a ten or a twenty or even exact change. An extra neuron or two has to fire before he makes the connection to the fact that the customer wants only paper money, not coins, in change.
I’ve heard this explanation advanced, too, as the reason that we stare for a moment or two at a person who has a physical difference – a birthmark, a facial scar, something we perceive as outside the norm. Our brains simply take an extra split second to make the adjustment to what our eyes have perceived, resulting in that graceless additional moment in our glance—a nanosecond that is interpreted by others as a rude stare. It takes just seconds for our social awareness to kick in, reminding us that staring is impolite, but that is long enough to irritate others and infect us with guilt for what was no more than an involuntary reaction.
Returning to the question of repartee, I’ll never be any good at it. I worship those people with the ability to process a nasty remark and return some brilliantly-worded riposte with barely a pause. My own retorts usually take weeks to evolve.
But let me just say it here and now: Morris, you don’t understand a damned thing about poetry.