Maybe means Yes, No, and . . . Maybe!
As above, “maybe” can take the place of “yes” and “no”, depending on the situation. When asking someone if they speak English, often the response of “maybe” or “just a little” belies the fact that they are college-educated English majors. Again, modesty trumps a more confident response such as, “Sure, what do you need help with?” Likewise, when inviting someone on a date or to some other kind of social function, the dreaded “maybe” response is almost certainly a refusal, although not 100% of the time. And, just to make things confusing, sometimes “maybe” just means maybe, because life is just as uncertain here in China as it is in the West.
The key pointers to keep in mind are: to not take a yes/no answer at face value, to politely probe for more information if you are desperate to know “the truth”, and to understand that the possible confusion is not usually deliberate deception, but a difference between Chinese and Occidental cultures. The last one is especially important, as face-saving responses or statements are often misperceived as deliberate obfuscation. The desire to present a modest front towards the inquirer is usually just that, and not an attempt at manipulation. And, of course, it’s important to remember the role that statements such as, “Oh yeah, I’ll definitely be there”, and ,”I don’t know how it works, but I guess I could give it a shot” play in English-speaking cultures. China isn’t the only place to offer responses that differ from their traditional meanings, and can actually mean their opposites.