Do you remember the feeling of being an eight-year-old and desperately needing a Razor scooter? No, not wanting. Needing. You needed it so much you were willing to build up the courage to ask your mom to buy it for you right in front of the checkout aisle.
Or maybe it wasn’t a Razor scooter—maybe for you, it was a simple bag of Doritos. A bottled Sprite. A case of those mini M&Ms that came in colored tubes that you could later use for, I dunno, storing stuff? You’re already standing in line at the register and you look at your mom and ask for those M&Ms; she looks down at you, curls her lip and says, “Maybe.”
At once, your mind races to understand what this five-letter word means. Does “maybe” mean “yes”? Does “maybe” mean “no”? You, only a child, think not unreasonably that “maybe” means there’s an equal chance of a yes or no in your future—which gives you hope. Your mom loves you. Right? She must be thinking about it. She said so. You believe this to be true, but after the millionth time asking for candy or a toy or a Destiny’s Child CD and hearing “Maybe,” you start to doubt your very grasp of the English language.
For decades, we’ve wondered: What does “maybe,” when wielded by our moms, even mean? So we asked them to explain the psychology behind it.
To embark on this investigation, I called my mom and posed the following question: “Remember when I was younger and I would go with you to the grocery store,” I began. “And we’d be waiting in the checkout line, and I would say, can I get this pack of Yu-Gi-Oh cards, or this Diet Coke-flavored Lip Smackers, or...” While I struggled to come up with more examples, my mom interjected. “Yeah, no, I get it—superfluous stuff.” I put down the phone. Superfluous? Unbelievable.
“Right, yeah. Superfluous stuff,” I said. Were they superfluous, though? OK, I’ll go along with it... for now. “And then you would say—”
Again, my mom’s intelligence and lightning-fast reflexes overtook the conversation, like a human version of AutoCorrect. “I would say, ‘We’ll think about it.’” Yes! So she did remember after all these years. My mom went on: “It was the only socially acceptable thing to say.”
“It’s not like I could say, ‘We already know that I am not going to buy that, so could you please stop being so annoying,’” she continued. I was annoying?
After some thought, I came around. It wasn’t unreasonable, what I was hearing. I recalled the many times my mom and I waited in checkout lines. If she had out-right said “no” every time I asked to buy something, it almost certainly would have opened a door to a fight about how I was not being annoying and how I really needed this gel pen set—fights I was ready to put myself on the line for, as an small person. That would have taken up a lot of time, which we all know is money in this economy, and so the “maybe” saved us both from a lot of headache. Interesting.
To further investigate this phenomenon, while Frida was talking to her mom I went straight to my own source. “I needed to know how much it was going to cost,” she said on a voicemail. “Then I needed to figure out if it was in my budget.” She stressed that she didn’t want to be needlessly pressured into making a decision. “I don’t like to just say yes or no,” she said. “I have to stop and think about it.”
Now circling back to the concept of “maybe,” my mom remained fairly pragmatic. “I didn’t wanna say yes then realize I didn’t really wanna say yes or even say no and maybe I didn’t really wanna say no, I shouldn’t have said no,” she said. “I like to weigh my options.” Certainly as a child this kind of deep reasoned logic from sugar filled and tv-obsessed interior didn’t quite make sense, but now it reads fairly reasonable.
Here today we learned that the word “maybe” can hide a myriad of calculations and considerations the speaker is making internally, while delivering a palatable response to a perhaps wanton child. Sometimes that child, a gooey mush of bones and unrefined thoughts, believes the “maybe,” imbuing it with their own meaning. But if it soothes, it does so misleadingly. It’s clear from our research that “maybe” never weighed yes or no equally. “Maybe” just meant “please be quiet, my child.” Which, again, after weighing the evidence, we find pretty fair.
Us children fixate on “maybe”, because kids, unlike moms, hold all of the free time in the world to ponder such questions. Did we have to go to work? Pay bills? Go to terrible children’s choir concerts where inevitably some kids walks off the stage and someone needs to go grabs them? No children don’t have any of those responsibilities. “Maybe” is the answer that says “I love you, but please give me five minutes to think this over.”
“Maybe” serves several functions: calming kids and buying some time for moms (at least until the next trip to Target or Walmart), who have to navigate millions of these could-be conflicts a day. “Maybe” keeps the peace—partly by keeping you, the child, in the dark. Our moms didn’t deploy “maybe” just for their own benefit—they were also shielding us, allowing us to live one more day in a fantasy land, where the things we wanted were totally reasonable and not at all insane. The real world, we all eventually find out, has no problem letting us in on that fact.
But your mom wouldn’t do that to you. And that’s why “maybe” is a gift—for the both of you.