Breaking the Chain of “Maybe”

It's an epidemic. It's coming for your social life. But there is a vaccine.

9 min. read

There’s a modern scourge upon us, and every get-together, plan, and social event is vulnerable.

I don’t know when it started, who’s to blame, or if it can be defeated, but I’ve begun vaccinating myself against it. And if you or your social circle have caught a case of the Maybes, or you want to prevent an outbreak, here’s what you can do.

The first step with any epidemic is understanding the problem: What is the Maybes, how does it spread, and why is it harmful?

Catching & Diagnosing Maybes

Maybes is a virus that spreads through a host social group member by member, creating a chain of infection. This is its primary strength: coopting the network effect.

Maybes is similar to rabies, in that it rhymes with rabies. The similarity ends there. This is one of its weaknesses: only rhyming with rabies.

Here’s what Maybes looks like:

It’s Tuesday. Thinking ahead to the weekend, you ask a friend if they want to grab drinks and music on Saturday.

They reply back, “Sounds great. I may be free. Can I letcha know?”

You say, “Sure!” and go back to your Tuesday, blissfully unaware that you, Dear Reader, have just caught Maybes.

Later that day, a different friend texts you to ask if you want to go to a movie on Saturday. It’s a film you’ve both been wanting to see, and there are still good seats available.

You text back, “Maybe! There’s something that I might be doing that night. Can I get back to you?”

To which your friend says, “Of course!”

Unwittingly, you my Dear, Infected Reader, have just spread the Maybes. And your friend group is in on the verge of a full-blown outbreak.

All that’s missing, at this point, is for the Potential Movie Friend you Maybe’d to ask your Potential Music Friend who Maybe’d you, to go to the movie, and receive… a maybe.

Saturday is compromised on three fronts. Without an intervention, there’s a good chance Saturday comes and goes, no movie, no music, full-on Maybe‘d.

Sometimes the maybes work out. And often times they don’t. You scramble last minute to redeem the night, or end up doing something else altogether (e.g., some plan that was offered the morning of).

The Chain Reaction of Maybes

Considering the example above, or any other scenario popping into your mind, it’s obvious that one person “maybe”-ing someone else, can lead to a long chain of maybes.

But it’s not obvious, generally. When we receive a maybe, or give one, we’re not cognizant of the chain.

We’re usually only aware of our maybe — the one we received or gave, or both. And that, alone, is nbd, right? I’m flexible. I’m not demanding. I go with the flow. Don’t wanna be that person.

In this way, the maybes reflect a good will, charitable way to make plans.

We maybe to be nice. We’re worried that giving someone a “no,” or requesting a dichotomous no/yes from someone, would be mean, somehow. Demanding. Stubborn. Discompassionate.

But as soon as we take a step back, and see how our maybe is part of the chain, and how it’s contributing to the fallibility of so many plans, a different characterization feels more apt:

  • To maybe is to be demanding: requiring someone else to wait on you.
  • To maybe is to be stubborn: unwilling to budge right now, or accommodate.
  • And to maybe is to be discompassionate: unconcerned with the other person’s time, or happiness on a given plan — focused only on making the most out of your own.

This view accepts an uncomfortable truth: any reply of “maybe” often comes from a selfish place of trying to guarantee oneself the best possible experience.

It’s the equivalent of saying “I don’t want to say ‘yes’ to this in case something better comes along, but I don’t want to say ‘no’ in case nothing does.”

But maybes are also inherently unselfish, at least in the sense that they rarely result in the most happiness for the “maybe”-er, or anyone. Because the chain of maybes suspends everyone’s plans in a fragile social web — one that so easily falls apart.

So, what do we do instead?

How do we inoculate ourselves against the negative effects of maybes, or at least stop spreading maybes within our social networks?

Vaccinating Against the Maybes

The greatest strength of the Maybes happens to be its greatest weakness: because Maybes requires a host network to thrive, any defecting member in the network can spell its doom.

Our goal is to be that defect.

Oh, and in that way Maybes is kinda like babies, because babies primary strength is how they are soft and adorable and that makes you want to care for them, but they also have that soft spot on their head you’re not supposed to smush or they die. Also, similar in how babies rhymes with Maybes. This concludes my knowledge of babies.

Thank you for listening to my TED talk on babies. Now let’s get back to ending the scourge of Maybes.

Our protocol has three steps, each of which increases the effectiveness.

1. Defecting

This is the simplest, and requires nobody else to accomplish: stop saying “maybe” to requests for plans.

Yep, that’s it.

Whenever someone asks you if you want to do something, get together, whatever, you reply with a maybes-killing “yes” or “no”.

As soon as you adopt this protocol, you’ve broken the Chain of Maybes, becoming the Alexander Fleming of your social circle. Good on you, hero.

You’ve vaccinated yourself, and those around you, against Maybes outbreaks with an 87.34% likelihood of success. Not enough? Nice. Fleming would be proud. Read on.

2. Rejecting

Once you’ve stopped spreading Maybes by infecting others, the next step in the protocol is rejecting infection yourself. How? Stop accepting “maybe” as a response when you invite others to plans.

Yes, I know, this one isn’t quite as easy as #1. It starts to rub against a lot of our sensibilities.

But remember, above, we realized that while Maybes can feel like kindnesses, they’re anything but.

Here are a few pointers that I’ve found helpful in rejecting a “Maybe”:

  • Ask when they’ll know “yes” or “no.” If it’s just an hour later, or when they check their calendar, or after some other discrete hurdle, it’s no big deal. The negative side effects of “maybe” are thwarted.
  • Explain why you need a “yes” or “no.” Say you don’t want to keep someone else up in the air, or that you need to buy tickets or otherwise commit, because you’ll be putting other things into works (e.g., re-arranging your work schedule, or puppy/child care).
  • Reassure that you won’t take a “no” personally. While you want to hang, you will actually appreciate a “no” now as a kindness, instead of cancelation later. You understand! No hard feelings.

Also, as a more general note, know this can be something you tell particular friends about before it comes up. This makes it much easier to reject a “maybe” later.

For example, you can proactively tell your friend you’re trying to be more reliable and compassionate to everyone, explaining how your plan to do so involves a battle against Maybes. It might even help to briefly describe the chain effect to them.

If you need some bolstering on this front, I’d suggest reading Brené Brown’s distinction between “nice” and “kind.”

Assuming that all made sense, and you’re rejecting Maybes, congratulations! You’ve achieved a 98.6% chance of preventing an outbreak.

Is that not enough? You want to wipe the scourge from the face of the Earth? Wow. I admire your maybes-hating moxie. Let’s get to it.

3. Directing

Directing is moving from defecting and rejecting Maybes yourself, to advocating for other people in your social circle to do the same.

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Where the first two steps are really “I” focused — they are things you can do that don’t implicate others too much (i.e., you might say “I’m not giving people ‘maybe’ anymore” or “I’m not accepting ‘maybe’ anymore”) — this final step requires some “you” language. 

Because of this, I’ve been reticent to go this far in my own life. It’s not really necessary, and feels uncomfortably proselytize-y, or “holier than thou”-y. It’s why, even after about two years of disrupting the Chain of Maybes in my personal life, I haven’t written about it until now.

For the most part (made up percentages aside), your life will be almost entirely free from the negative effects of Maybes by just defecting and rejecting yourself.

But here’s the sticky reality: as long as other people in your social circle are infected with the Maybes, you’re susceptible.

As long as other people in your friend group are “maybe”-ing other people, or getting “maybe”-ed, any plans you try to establish with them can be held hostage to Maybes. If you push someone for a yes/no when they’re suspended in a “maybe” with someone else, odds are you’re going to get a “no.”

And don’t take this personally. The intention is probably one of being nice, even if the outcome isn’t.

It’s like how those parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids are actually putting everyone’s kids at risk: we either benefit from herd immunity, or we are vulnerable to exposure.

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Writing this post is my entrée into the protocol of directing, so I’m treading lightly. I know anti-Maybes-ism rubs up against a lot of people’s edges, and results in some projection and defensive angst. Some people are gonna get mad.

So, with that all said, I’ll leave it up to you to navigate what Directing might look like in your life.

But I’ll say one more thing: make sure you fully implement the Defecting and Rejecting protocols first. Hypocrisy is a prime source of Maybes flare-ups.

A World Free of Maybes

I believe we can create a world where people actually make plans, instead of cultivating options.

Where people say “no” when they don’t want to do something, and “yes” when they do.

And while I’m not against ambiguity, unknowing, or wondering in general — indeed, when we opt into it, I think that the best parts of life are hidden in that grey — I believe we’ll all be happier liberated from the chain of Maybes.

But maybe I’m wrong. Can I get back to you on this?