The world is full of tick boxes, particularly in our social lives. We want answers and RSVPs, and we want them now. From the cult of the ‘yes man’ to the ‘it’s okay to say no’ revolution – as celebrated in countless lifestyle columns – it sometimes feels like we’re caught in a tug-of-war between definitives.
In reality, both “yes” and “no” have hugely important applications in life. The ability to seize good opportunities when they come your way is as valuable as feeling able to assert your boundaries when you can’t – or shouldn’t – do something. But what about those situations that fall in between?
I’ve only recently started using that little button that sits beside “Going” and “Can’t Go” on Facebook event pages – but its very existence makes me feel seen.
“Maybe” has truly changed my life.
Previously, I was left feeling flaky over low-stakes social events if a) I changed my mind; b) became overwhelmed; or c) was simply no longer up to attending. Having said I’d go, I’d find myself on the event page, painfully close to crunch time, writing a response along the lines of “I’m soooo sorry but... ”
This is a classic scenario where the urge to people-please and automatically say “yes” results in a situation that’s not ideal for you or your host.
Now, while I don’t overuse “maybe” and always turn out for the important stuff, I’m so glad it’s an option. Maybe acknowledges that sometimes our wants and energies are in flux – and it gives us power over that. People change their minds all the time, and I wish we had a culture of respecting that more.
As conversations around consent in all its forms become more commonplace, it’s good to acknowledge that medium “maybe” feelings do exist.
Using this little word in my social and professional life actually reduces my likelihood of flaking."
“Maybe” is seen as the reserve of the flaky. “I hate that, I hate those people – commit!” says my colleague Connor. “There’s nothing more infuriating.” To which I say, using this little word in my social and professional life actually reduces my likelihood of flaking. It also reduces disappointment, increases transparency, and makes communication better for everyone involved.
Earlier this week, a friend of mine was playing a gig late on a work-night – and I have early starts. He asked me the day before if I’d be able to make it, and, being a bad sleeper, I told him it was a maybe: “It really depends on if I can get a proper good night’s sleep the night before – if I do, then definitely.”
In the event, I slept terribly and had to be up at 5am the next day. If I’d ended up going it would have knocked my sleeping for the rest of the week, and thrown me in what is a busy time at work. I’m sad I missed my friend’s gig, but my heads-up meant I didn’t bail on him last minute.
Tools like diaries go a long way in forward planning your life, but contingencies always come up. And sometimes you’re just having a crap day. Of course, it’s valid simply to change your “yes” to a “no”, but if you really can’t predict how you’ll be feeling by the next calendar page, by all means deploy a “maybe”.
This ‘something in-between’ gives you time to reflect on a decision when you’re put on the spot. Say a friend or a colleague asks if you’re able to take on a task for them – you might want to check your calendar first, have a little think about what’s being demanded of you, or mull it over for an evening, and “maybe” gives you that chance; it buys you some time.
Taking time is especially important if you’re someone who finds it hard to get in touch with how you’re feeling, or often does things out of a sense of obligation, who only afterwards realises you don’t actually want to go to that party or feel able to take on that extra bit of work. In this context, “maybe” helps you work out what you’re really capable of.
Of course, the concept can be used in ways that are irritating or harmful. A “maybe” that sparks joy for you can leave the other person in the dark if not deployed responsibly – but there are ways to make sure it is. If possible, let the person who issued the invitation or made the demand of you know roughly how long you’re going to think things over for, so they know what to expect.
That might look like: “I’ve got a lot going on that week, can I let you know in a couple of days?” Or it might be: “There’s a chance I won’t be able to make it, and I don’t want to leave you in a situation where you’re not prepared for that.”
Forgive yourself for not always having an answer. Uncertainty doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It’s often framed as a negative thing – characterised by confusion and instability. But when we say “maybe”, we open up a world of potentials, a positive uncertain space. We grasp the freedom to decide what’s best for us in the future, and make explicit the right to change our minds.
“Yes” and “no” will always have their merits, allowing us to assert “I want this” or “I want something else.” But we shouldn’t write off that uncanny valley of possibility – the huge, reaffirming question mark of maybe.