On being ... maybe

By Ingrid Sapona

Fish, or cut bait. That’s an expression my contracts professor in law school used to use.

The first time he used that expression, I’m sure mine wasn’t the only confused look he got. His explanation for what it meant was something like this: when you’re a kid into fishing (or, more accurately, a boy growing up in the south who’s into fishing) you learn early on that on any given summer day you have to decide whether you’re going to go fishing that day, or whether you’re going to cut bait. You couldn’t do both because one was an on-water activity and one you did on land.

I imagine that for a kid, the decision was sometimes hard, as it depended on a lot of factors. You had to consider the weather and the water conditions, you had to figure out whether you’d have enough bait to last you the day without cutting more, not to mention thinking about what you really felt like doing and, if other kids were involved, what they wanted to do probably came into play too. But the bottom line was if you didn’t decide, you’d end up squandering the day.

The older I get, the more I dislike the word “maybe”. I know, to many, the concept of “maybe” represents hope. After all, it (literally) reminds us of all that “may be”. Indeed, as a child, “maybe” was often music to my ears. Maybe we’ll stop for ice cream on the way home. Maybe if you’re good, we’ll go to the movies. Maybe there’ll be so much snow on your birthday, you’ll have no school. (Being a February child growing up in Buffalo, that last one was an annual “maybe” I particularly relished.)

But even as a child, I realized that “maybe” also carries with it the possibility of disappointment. Maybe we won’t have time to stop for an ice cream. Maybe your parents said that to bribe you. Maybe you should have seen through that…

For me, “maybe” has lost whatever charm it once had. I realize there are times when “maybe” is an appropriate, or necessary, response. For example, you may have to check your calendar to confirm whether a particular day or time is open. Or you may have to check on something or check with someone else before you can commit one way or another. Or you may just want time to think about it – you know, mull it over – before making a decision.

But, in many cases, I think people hide behind “maybe” because it’s easier to say than “no”. People I’ve spoken to about this have told me they think saying “maybe” is more polite than simply saying “no”. I honestly don’t understand how a “maybe” is more polite than an outright “no”, especially when you have no intention of saying “yes” (Of course, like anything – politeness is as much about how you say it, but there are polite ways of saying “no”.)

As a response, “maybe” holds the possibility of a “yes”, and the possibility of a “no”. But if you have no genuine intention of saying “yes”, or of finding a way to say “yes”, how is it more polite to mislead someone with a “maybe”? Sure, being on the receiving end of “no” can be disappointing – but at least you know where you stand and you can then plan accordingly. “Maybe” keeps hope alive and when others are involved, it keeps them dangling.

I find it equally odd when someone says “maybe” when they have every intention of saying “yes” – after all, “maybe” is not the same as “yes”. “Maybe” is a hedge that provides the person saying it with a way out, but it leaves the person on the receiving end wondering whether the ultimate decision might rest on a change of circumstance or change of desire. (Are they waiting to see if something better comes along before they commit to my invitation?) Again, it leaves the person on the receiving end hanging.

If you intend to say “yes”, you should. Everyone knows that occasionally, things come up that require a change in plans – but by saying “yes” instead of “maybe”, your commitment to keeping your word will often help dictate how you handle any unforeseen issue that might interfere with whatever you said “yes” to.

Lately I’ve also come to see “maybe” as detrimental to the person saying it. I’ve seen friends tormented by the uncertainty inherent in “maybe”. When I ask them why they choose “maybe”, invariably they say they’re trying to keep their options open. But, as they’re weighing their options – or waiting for something that will be the deciding factor – they aren’t moving forward (or in any direction, for that matter). And often, in the interim, they miss out on other opportunities because of a pending “maybe”. Indeed, in such cases, more often than not, “maybe” ends up being neither.

I understand the desire to keep one’s options open. Many of us work hard to create a life where we have options – and I’m all for that. But the mere availability of options doesn’t make for happiness. It’s not all the “maybes” that you had in your life that will be your fondest memories – it’s the things that went from a “maybe” to a definite that you’ll remember.

So, I urge you – next time you’re tempted to respond with “maybe”, think of my professor instead and decide which it’ll be: fish, or cut bait?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a positive force

By Ingrid Sapona

I had two e-mail interactions this week that got me thinking. They weren’t related and neither was noteworthy when considered on its own, but the contrast between the way they left me feeling was rather startling.

The first interaction was with someone I work with on a volunteer committee. His e-mail (to everyone on the committee, not just me) was about the wording of some by-laws we had been working on. A few of us had gone back-and-forth about the wording, finalizing it while he was away on vacation. I hadn’t heard anything more about it until his e-mail this week.

He started his e-mail with: “I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on t.v, but….” and he went on to explain that someone had pointed out to him a potential source of confusion in the wording and he suggested alternative language. I realized right away that his opening was a variation on a line from ‘80s t.v. commercial for cough syrup that featured an actor who played a doctor on a soap opera. In the commercial the guy says, “I’m not an actor, but I play one on t.v. …” and he goes on to endorse the product. (I guess the line was meant as a disclaimer in case any viewers thought he was a real doctor.)

I know people jokingly throw that line around, but when I read it in his e-mail it struck a nerve. I couldn’t help think that it was a barb aimed at me since, as far as I know, I’m the only lawyer in the group that had worked on the by-laws. I realize I might have been misinterpreting the comment. He could have just been trying to be funny, or it could even have been a reflection of some insecurity on his part (if he was self-conscious about recommending different wording).

I resisted the urge to ask what he meant by the comment and, after I regained my composure, I considered the issue he raised. There was an ambiguity so I proposed new wording. Those on the committee who bothered to weigh in agreed with the fix I proposed but he wouldn’t let the matter rest until he and I went over the rationale for every single word and he was satisfied. The interchange was par for the course, as most of my dealings with him have left me frustrated and zapped of energy. (The interchange was useful, however, because it reaffirmed my desire to wind-down my involvement on this committee.)

The other e-mail exchange was with my friend Pam. Another friend had asked me if I could recommend a consultant to help her with something. I didn’t know anyone in that field but I thought Pam would know someone. Unfortunately, Pam is away (taking in the Olympics in Beijing), so I explained to my friend that I’d get back to her as soon as I could.

As luck would have it, later that day I was in touch with a colleague of Pam’s and I mentioned I planned on asking Pam for a recommendation for a consultant. Though I didn’t intend for her to, Pam’s colleague e-mailed Pam my question and the next morning I had an e-mail from Pam.

Pam’s response made me smile -- and not just because I thought it was thoughtful of her to take time to respond while on vacation halfway around the world. She gave me two names, adding, for emphasis: “both are very good”. The response was vintage Pam -- she always goes out of her way to describe people in positive terms. (She could just as easily have given me the names and not commented about them -- the fact she was recommending them would have been praise enough because I know she has high standards and is quite discerning -- but it’s not her style to mention someone without singing their praise.) Pam and I ended up exchanging a few brief e-mails about it and though her entire response was only four short sentences, as I passed on her recommendations and comment to my friend, I realized how my interchange with Pam left me feeling really positive.

Immediately after realizing how energized I felt after dealing with Pam, the sharp contrast between that and the previous day’s interchange came to mind and got me thinking. First, I felt gratitude that I have people in my life that exude positive energy, like Pam. Indeed, I thought about how blessed I am because I’ve got more energy-giving people in my life than energy zappers.

Then I wondered why that is -- and more importantly -- how to keep it that way. I think one reason I don’t have many negative people in my life is because I tend to distance myself from them. (My decision to tail off my involvement on the committee is a case in point.) But there has to be more to it than that. So I thought more about Pam and why -- or how -- it seems that everyone she knows is, as she would undoubtedly describe them: talented, outgoing, energetic, and positive.

That’s when I realized it -- it’s the law of attraction. Pam attracts high energy, positive people because she is energetic and positive. Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not implying that just because I’m a friend of hers, I’m nearly as positive as Pam is (if I were, I probably wouldn’t have taken that comment about playing a lawyer personally). But I daresay I’m more positive than some (certainly more positive than my fellow committee member) and now that I realize that I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the law of attraction, it sure makes me want to work hard at being a positive force myself, in hopes of surrounding myself with others like Pam.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona