In defence of “It Depends” (vs. “Maybe”)

“It depends” is one of those really important concepts that not many people use. Perhaps because it lives in the uncomfortable, ambiguous territory between “yes” and “no”.

Image of a die with "maybe" and "yes"
Maybe “maybe” isn’t actually as bad as I make it out to be. But it depends…. image by jepoirrier via flickr

Sure, “maybe”, too, lives in this ambiguous territory. But “maybe” doesn’t commit to saying that ultimately a proper answer exists. “It depends” does.

“It depends” is like the classic if/else statement in programming. If [Condition A] is satisfied, then [Outcome A], otherwise [Outcome B]. The outcome rests on the information available – if [Condition A] is unknown, there cannot be an outcome.

“Maybe” is a lazy way of thinking because as soon as it is uttered thinking stops (or can be stopped without much repercussion). “It depends” forces the user to think of the conditions and its subsequent outcomes. Once “it depends” is uttered, a “depends on what?” rebuttal is instantly assumed.

“It depends” is a phrase that says to the listener, my answer is ultimately “this”; ultimately “that” –but without additional information I cannot commit to an answer.

One of the reasons why “it depends” is so seldomed said is because it is not easy to say. Listeners want “yes” and “no” answers because it cuts out all ambiguity, and most speakers give in to their listener’s wants to establish rapport and build a following.

A person who doesn’t want to take a stand on anything isn’t interesting. And any leader who dares utter “it depends” in public would be seen as indecisive.

peng prata
Man making roti-prata. It’s like pizza, but a lot more slamming involved. “Peng” is a dialect (hokkien) term for “bake”.

Pity the great leader who, after receiving more information, decides to overturn a popular decision because it no longer made sense. A less stellar leader would ignore the new information, not wanting to risk being known as “flip flopper”, or in local parlance someone who “peng prata” (see image).

Government policies that work well for a developing nation do not necessarily work well for a developed one. Different circumstances and different times call for different measures. As new information comes into play, new courses of action have to be made.

You’d think this was common sense. Still, you’ll hear of citizens complaining about 40-year-old policies being overturned, wondering why the government can’t ever seem to ever make up its mind (too many babies then; too many babies now; what on Earth is going on?)

“It depends” is not a dirty phrase. It says to the listener, “hang on, I don’t have all the information, but here’s what will happen if I did.”

Embrace it, and use it.

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