IF I HAVE TIME
A benign maybe
“Maybe” is a benign and useful word in many contexts.
Let’s look at those first before explaining its toxic use.
To soften a suggestion
Maybe can be used as a polite way of making a suggestion: “Maybe we could go sailing together tomorrow?”
To indicate uncertain knowledge
Maybe can be used to indicate uncertain knowledge: “Maybe it will rain tomorrow.”
To specify conditionality
Maybe can be used to indicate conditionality because the decision is dependent upon a condition: “Maybe I will exercise tomorrow, but it depends upon whether or not I’m invited out to dinner.”
To be polite (with dangers)
Maybe can be intended as a polite way of saying “no,” although this use may cause problems if the hearer is unsure of your meaning and consequently creates an unfounded expectation based upon your “maybe,” as in, “Maybe I’ll be able to come to the party.” Consequently, this use of maybe could end up being toxic to your relationship.
The toxic use of the word maybe is exposed in the following example: “Maybe I will start my diet tomorrow." This maybe is toxic because it implies (to yourself and to others) that you don’t have the power to say (and to follow through on) either, “I will start my diet tomorrow” or “I will not start my diet tomorrow.” When you say “maybe,” you are lying (by implication) to yourself and/or to another, consequently giving away your power.
Polite in the short-term, but rude in the long-term
Another example of a toxic maybe is “Maybe I will attend your class on Sunday.” This could be an attempt at politeness (as mentioned above), with no intention to attend the class. It can be toxic in two ways, not just one. First, it denies the power that the speaker has to say clearly, “Yes, I will attend” or “Thank you, but I will not attend.” Secondly, it will likely give the hearer some unfounded hope that the speaker will attend.
Choosing courage to not use a toxic maybe
Yes, it will probably be a choice to courage to say clearly what you will do or will not do...and to put whatever structures may be needed in place (if you say you will start your diet tomorrow) to ensure that it happens.
Speakers, listeners, and thinkers, beware of the word “maybe”!