The Many Powers of Maybe

Refusing to Commit Has Never Been Easier, and It Says A Lot About Us

If I asked you to have dinner with me Friday night, would you say “yes”? (Great!) “No”? (Bummer.)

Or would you break my heart and say “maybe”?

It seems it wasn’t long ago that invitations required definitive answers. We would receive a phone call or a piece of mail requesting our attendance at an event, and we were expected to call or write back—with an affirmative or negative response.

But then electronic invites came along and made it way too easy for us to wriggle out of social engagements. All we had to do was click one little button: “Maybe.” Once we saw how easy that was—no stressful decision or long explanation necessary—we started typing it into emails and texts.

Catch a movie tonight? Maybe.

Brunch this weekend? Maybe.

Join us for Thanksgiving? Maybe.

See how easy it is? No commitment. No consequences.

Or so we’d like to think. Because we’re not speaking to someone directly and so don’t have to hear that person’s disappointment (or listen to her nag), we can fool ourselves into thinking there are no hard feelings. And now that we have unlimited access to each other through our smartphones, we feel we have the luxury of waiting until the last minute to make a decision because we can always call, email or text to say we’ve made up our mind—we’re going to show up after all.

Here’s the problem with “maybe”: It means different things to different people. And something always gets lost in translation.

“I thought ‘maybe’ meant ‘maybe,’ ” says Mamta Desai, a 26-year-old private-equity investment associate in Los Angeles. She learned otherwise when she and a friend threw a party last summer. They sent out a Facebook invite to 120 people. Fifty said they would attend and did. Twenty replied “maybe”—and just two of those people showed up.

Of course, some people who say “maybe” genuinely need to check their calendars. And many see it as a nice, gentle way to say “no.” (Doesn’t everyone know by now that on a Facebook invite, “yes” means “maybe” and “maybe” means “no”? I decided to ask Facebook. “Sometimes the best bet is the hedge bet until you know who’s said yes,” a spokeswoman explained.)

But for many, “maybe” is more complicated. “It seems to be about ambivalence, but it is really about power and boundaries,” says Prudence Gourguechon, a psychiatrist in Chicago. “Person A who says, ‘Yeah, maybe,’ essentially puts recipient B on hold. B is powerless.”

Some “maybe” people are trying to stall, buy time, work up their nerve to decline the offer or see if a better one comes along. Others suspect that on the date in question they just might prefer to curl up in bed with a good book. Parents use “maybe” to soften a negative response to a child. Ditto bosses and their underlings. And don’t get me started on the commitment-phobes and control freaks.


Getting Past ‘Maybe’

How do you deal with wafflers? Here are some suggestions:

  • Tell them how much you hate the word ‘maybe.’ I have been doing this, and twice recently it elicited commitments.
  • Send a proper, written invitation with an RSVP request.
  • Explain that the invitation isn’t a trick question. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do. Then accept the answer graciously.
  • Give a deadline. Anne Eddy, a health-care administrator from Needham, Mass., tells invited guests that if she doesn’t hear from them by a certain date, she’ll assume they can’t make it.
  • Let them know you have someone else lined up to take their place. ‘Sometimes this accelerates their decision,’ says Bill Kalmar, 67, a retired director of a state quality council from Lake Orion, Mich.
  • Throw it back at them. Dottie Woods, a 59-year-old Blacksburg, Va., bookkeeper, was fed up with all the ‘maybes’ who were no-shows to her Virginia Tech tailgate parties. Now, when she gets a maybe, she replies: ‘Maybe another time would be better for you?’ ‘It always works,’ she says.


“A ‘maybe’ protects us from being a promise-breaker,” says Gerald Goodman, professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He says that “maybes” sometimes are necessary to protect relationships. “Tender emotions turn broken promises into betrayal,” he says.

Alicia Gutierrez offers up maybes all the time—to requests to attend happy hours, concerts and dinner with friends. The invitations often sound great, but when the time comes, “I want to sit on my couch and be brain-dead and watch bad TV,” says the 38-year-old commercial-account manager for a large technology company.

Ms. Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, considers “maybe” to mean “no,” but recently found out that not everyone else does. When asked by an acquaintance to attend a charity event, she replied: “Sounds great, maybe.” Then she forgot about the invite.

On the night of the party, Ms. Gutierrez—at home on her couch in her pajamas—received a text from her pal, asking her where she was. She responded, “Sorry, I’m on a date.” The woman never spoke to her again. “A ‘maybe’ can be whatever you want it to be,” she says. “It has nothing to do with the person saying it—it’s really about the person who is interpreting it.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Just as “maybe” has various meanings to the people who say it, it also has different meanings to the people who hear it. ” ‘Maybe’ can be blurry to the listener,” says UCLA’s Dr. Goodman. “People who feel intolerant of ambiguity probably hate to hear ‘maybe’—it can give them an insecure feeling.”

Tell me about it. Some of my favorite people are chronic hedgers. I gave up decades ago on getting a firm response from my mom to any request. It took me two years to figure out that when my best friend says “maybe,” she unfailingly means “no.” And recently, one of my oldest friends declared me to be “high maintenance” for insisting on a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: “Are we on for dinner tonight?”

As much as I am accustomed to this waffling, it still sometimes unsettles me. I want my loved ones to jump with joy at my invites, of course. And if they don’t give me a definitive answer, I’m not really free to make other plans. But I also can’t help feeling a little rejected.

I’m not alone in finding this fence-straddling annoying. ” ‘Maybe’ is a weasel word,” says Kerry Fitzpatrick, 70, a retired chief executive of a horse-racing business who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“It says to me, ‘You are not that important; other people or things might come along that are really more important,'” says Lori West, 39, a nurse from Virginia Beach, Va.

“It makes me feel like my feelings have been discounted,” says Amanda Collins, 39, of Phoenix. One of her best friends answers every invite with, “I’m not sure. Maybe.” The owner of a marketing and communications firm, she has come up with a strategy: Every time her friend hedges, she calls him “Maybe Man” and demands a firm answer.

Perhaps I’ll try this on my own Maybe Man, my three-year-old nephew, Noah. On a recent visit, I asked him if he wanted to go swimming after lunch.

His answer? You guessed it.

Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal


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