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


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