My favorite zinger was directed against me by the mother of a college boyfriend.
"I've seen many photographs of you," she informed me when we first met, her eyes slowly — and with obvious disapproval — taking in my frizzy hair, fussy dress and sensible shoes.
"You're very … photogenic."
I would like to say I came back with a response so outrageously witty that her own husband turned around and applauded, but this being the real world, I could only marvel at my adversary's skill and mutter a feeble, "Why, thank you."
In the age of snark, clever put-downs are everywhere, from comedian Sarah Silverman's classic tweet regarding Charlie Sheen — "If I hung out w 20 year old porn stars all the time … I'd think I was a genius too" — to my onetime houseguest's wry observation as I prepared another not-quite-from-scratch meal: "You don't cook much, do you?"
Some disses are so direct you can't miss them. ("You've really packed on some pounds, kiddo!") Others are so subtle that you lose valuable response time trying to figure out, "Did he really say what I think he said?"
But the vast majority present the same basic challenge: How in the world are you going to respond?
"(There's) that terrible moment when you're supposed to come up with something and your mind is drawing a blank," says Jay Heinrichs, author of "Thank You for Arguing" (Three Rivers Press). "It's really hard to think of something to say in the spur of the moment."
In the spirit of public service — and in the hope of finally figuring out how to respond to that "photogenic" comment — I quizzed Heinrichs and Jay Carter, author of "Nasty People" (McGraw-Hill), about how to handle the stings and barbs of snark. I also consulted the book "Viva La Repartee" by Mardy Grothe.
Among the most useful suggestions:
Know what you want: "A good goal may actually not be to one-up an insult, but to enhance and sustain a relationship," says Heinrichs.
Ask yourself if you really want to be seen as the cleverest person at the party, or if it's more important to, say, keep the peace or come across as friendly and agreeable.
Maybe slaying your boyfriend's mom with a witty comeback would make you feel smart, but it could also alienate your boyfriend.
Buy yourself some time: If you do want to engage in a battle of wits, you can stall for time by repeating the last thing the person said. ("I'm photogenic? Funny you should say I'm photogenic.")
Meanwhile, Heinrichs says, you can frantically run through possible responses.
Don't take it personally: Maybe the speaker had a bad day, or is in a bad mood, says Carter. He points to the old Bill Cosby routine in which a teen tells another teen, "Hey, you're really ugly," causing the object of the insult to erupt in anger.
When the offending teen says the very same thing to an older and wiser 70-year-old, the response is markedly different: "What's the matter, son?" the older man says gently. "Are you having a bad day?"
Answer in kind: Heinrichs suggests extending the visual theme of the "photogenic" zinger by responding, "Well, obviously, I look different if you're not wearing your glasses."
A similar approach is on display in this classic retort reported in "Viva La Repartee":
When President John F. Kennedy's father, Joseph, remarked, "(Your daughter) Caroline's very bright, Jack. Smarter than you were at that age," JFK shot back, "Yes, she is. But look who she has for a father."
Answer out of left field: Pianist Oscar Levant once teased his friend George Gershwin, saying, "George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?" The composer's response: "Oscar, why don't you play us a medley of your hit?"
Agree: When Heinrichs' future mother-in-law told him, "I'm sure you're aware that my daughter could do better than you," he gallantly responded, "Well, then, we already agree on something."
Stop the momentum: A simple, "What did you say?" makes the speaker take responsibility for her snide remark, and allows you to assert yourself regardless of whether you can come up with a dazzling retort.
Give yourself bonus points if the source of the snark doesn't have the guts to repeat herself.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times