“Hey guys!”

January 31, 2009 § 36 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of gender-neutral language. I, like most people I know, am guilty of using the word “guys” as a substitute for “people” – not realizing that, oh wait, more than half the “people” population actually isn’t a guy. It may seem like a nit-picky thing to harp on, but the reality is that language plays a big role in maintaining patriarchy. Those little “hey guys!” really add up, and they translate to much bigger linguistic problems.

For example, the US House only switched to gender neutral language earlier this month, opting for “chair” instead of “chairman” and other words of that sort. And while this is a significant step, we’re fooling ourselves if we think our government is now 100% neutral when it comes to sex and gender. After all, this is the land where all men are created equal.

The problem with this kind of language is that it implicitly makes maleness the norm. I saw ripples of this effect in my English class earlier this year. We’d been reading texts by some phenomenal writers – Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Peggy McIntosh, Toni Morrison. During a class discussion a male student raised his hand and told our teacher that he’d enjoyed Alexie’s short story, really, he did, but when were we going to read some other male authors? “It just seems like all these other stories are from a really female perspective.”

Whoa. Here I thought that a female perspective, just like a male perspective or a genderqueer perspective or an Asian perspective or a thin perspective, was actually a human perspective. Forgive me. I didn’t realize that a man was the regular, a woman was the other.

But I should cut my classmate a little slack, since he’s only verbalizing what we’ve all been shown by society since childhood. When we use words that make women something different than the norm, when elected officials commend the work of policemen instead of police officers, when we say “hey guys” to a group that consists of men and women, we’re telling girls that their experience is something outside of the ordinary – that what they have to say isn’t from their perspective as an individual, but their perspective as a female. A little wack, no?

Like I said, I’m no saint when it comes to male-instead-of-human language. And it’s hard work repairing speech that’s become second nature to us – but that doesn’t mean we can let ourselves off the hook. Personally, I’m partial to “folks” as a replacement for the infamous “guys.” But choose whatever works for you, and stick to it.


§ 36 Responses to “Hey guys!”

  • Shira says:

    I LOVE this post…and this blog!! Thank you so much for calling me (and the majority of the population) out on sexist colloquialisms. “Guys” is a very generational term. I have yet to witness my grandmother, who refers to her friends as “gals” — the female complement to “guys” — use a misplaced gendered (pro)noun. In so many ways, our generation is so much more progressive than those preceding it, but colloquially? For some reason, “gal” sounds like an elderly Florida woman making plans to get together with knitting friends: NOT cool. This is immensely unfortunate because it inadvertently makes “guys” the go-to cool label for EVERYONE, as you so perfectly pointed out. Anyways, thank you for making me more conscious. I love being called out by awesome feminists! 🙂

  • bigassalice says:

    This is awesome! This post is wonderful. I have found myself thinking about my use of non-gender-neutral language before. Like you said, it’s so hard to change something that is almost second nature for us. However, I think we are all up for the challenge. I think Shira makes a great point about “guys” being a generational term. I think it has less to do with the more progressive thinking of our generation and more to do with the laziness and apathy that our generation is so often accused of. Grouping everyone up with just one word, “guys,” is easier than actually having to be conscientious. As you say, we are all guilty of using gendered words and terms, but we should be taking it upon ourselves to be more aware of using gender neutral language. This post was an awesome wake-up call for all of us!

  • ruthelizabeth says:

    this is sweet. i have a username! ruth was taken and i couldnt think of any good aliases. ah well. I will have a GREAT time thinking of good neutral terms. i’m thinking cats? we’ll see how it goes.

  • Bach-us says:

    There was an essay in Bitch about this years ago. Since then, I’ve used “you all” which works for me because I have a vestigial Southern accent.

  • ulrn2twtr says:

    I remember being in a production meeting at the TV station where I worked and having the production supervisor refer to the cameraMEN on the shift. Problem? Not only were all of the camera operators female, but most of the rest of the crew was too. Referring to cameramen puts a picture in the listener’s head that people who operate cameras are men. I’m not saying that using the term “camera operator” will change that but at least it gives us a chance.

    This is an important topic and we have to keep repeating it for as long as women are invisible as a significant portion of the workforce. Thank you.

  • a lawyer says:

    Sounds right to me, and I agree 100% about “guys.”

    I do have one quibble though, about “chairman.” The problems with terms like “Man,” and “fireman,” “policeman,” etc., was that women were inherently excluded from those categories: the language made the concept of a woman “fireman” a self-contradiction.

    But in the business world, “chairman” has become a truly neutral title: women who head boards of directors are simply given the “chairman” title, and it doesn’t sound odd anymore. Of course, sexism is still rampant in the upper echelons of the business world: the vast majority of public-company executives and board members are men, and when women are put in charge they tend to get stuck on a glass cliff. But given I don’t think that changing “chairman” to “chair” would be a reduction in sexism.

    Things may be different in D.C., though: if they’re calling women committee heads “chairwomen,” so that the person’s sex has to be built into the title, then changing it to “chair” would be better.

  • QoT says:

    Great post! I’m still trying to break myself of the “you guys” thing; my usual substitution is “hey, people”.

  • Emily says:

    You raise interesting points, but I can’t see the problem with “reclaiming” or redefining “you guys” as a gender-neutral term. It’s never struck me as a word with particularly masculine connotations–though perhaps this is a regionalism; I’m from southern California, where “guy,” “dude,” etc. are very common words used in just about every circumstance.

  • AL says:

    I’m a linguistics major, and shit like this bothers me so much.

    like last night, when my sister saw a stray cat and said “aww, look how cute he is.” male=norm, and I hate it. we must stop this.

  • Samuel says:

    QoT, exactly – Acknowledging that there is always some level of othering. To still keep it edgy I like to throw in some level of exclusion, “Hey, you people.” Then we can all banter about social dichotomies and dualism.


  • zrmbilisim katkıları ile 2009 seo yarışması says:

    I will have a GREAT time thinking of good neutral terms. i’m thinking cats? we’ll see how it goes.

  • Artemis says:

    I never saw a problem with gender terms like “guys”. Of course, that stems from the fact that I come from a culture that’s even more sexist than this one. For example, if you’re babysitting a group of male and female children in my culture, you call them “los niños”, which is a masculine plural. As I said, however, I don’t find this particular quirk of language offensive or annoying. When our Founding Fathers write “all men are created equal”, I take that as a promise to me, as well, despite the fact that it took centuries for women to get the vote.

    As to your classmate, I don’t know what readings your professor had assigned, but perhaps your classmate had found some sort of consistently feminist slant on them? This is not to say that female and male authors don’t have equally valid things to say, but perhaps your classmate wanted both perspectives on a particular topic.

  • I agree with most of what you say. I prefer people say, chair, and that they staff a table or booth or such, not man it. You raise some good examples of this kind of antiquated verbiage. However, “you guys” is new, and has been used as a gender-neutral term for at least 35 years or more that I know of. It can mean whatever we want it to mean, so yeah, you pretty much are nit picking. No offense meant.

  • mirandanyc says:

    But “guy” originally meant “man,” and however much the word has evolved, it still bothers me that it’s become a replacement for “person.” For example, you’d never say, “I met this guy…” when talking about a woman. “Guys” is only used for men, or a group of men and women. In the former case, it of course doesn’t bother me. But in the latter, the use of this word shows that the prescence of even a single man takes on greater importance, greater linguistic power, than every other woman in the group.

  • Hey. Quick posts are cheap. The reason why most professionals and student give up on gender-neutral or omit it is because writing an essay, an article on history or society, a dissertation, proposal, legal letter, product manual, or project summary is a) it’s only sexist in your mind. Come on. Truckdriveresses? Male nurses? A profession is a profession. A truck driver is a driver of a truck regardless of gender. A nurse nurses patients. It’s simpler and more accurate this way. If you have male nurses, you must have female judges. … and b) try to write a lengthy text like one mentioned above and go gender neutral. You’ll make the reader and yourself confused by all the interruptions you make to the flow of thought in the text by making excuses and “I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to offend you in this sentence either.”

  • Dolly says:

    I took a brit lit class last semester, and ALL we read were male authors. In fact, most of the English classes I’ve taken only feature men from the literary canon, and it is very frustrating. It seems, though, that was the first time that boy had to really go outside that traditional male canon box.

    Guys like that get frustrated when there’s so much emphasis on women writers in the classroom, but what they don’t relize is that is how women students feel *all* the time. In a perfect world, we’d naturally have an equal selection of male and female (and transgender!) writers, but since we don’t we often do have to put more emphasis on getting women writers in the classroom.

    I am in complete agreement with you too about how “you guys” further reinforces maleness as the norm. When I was a fourth grader, I actually wrote a story about a character named “Smile Guy,” who was in fact a girl. People were always confused when I tried to explain her gender to them because they assumed “guy” was the same as “boy,” “man,” “male,” etc. I figure if elementary school kids assume guy=boy, then it’s ingrained in our society as the norm. On the other hand, I do admit to using “hey guys” when addressing female friends, so no role model either.

  • mirandanyc says:

    Your comment confuses me, Henrik. I actually agree with you about the professions you mentioned…there can be male and female truck drivers and male and female nurses – I never implied that I’d like to call female truck drivers “truckdriveresses.” They don’t have a built-in gender. What I take issue with is job titles that do: chairman, fireman, handyman.

    And to your second point, I think gender-neutral language is a lot less confusing then male-centric language. “Chairman” used to refer to a woman provokes more cognitive dissonance to me than simply saying “chair.”

  • hkyson says:

    Al, a linguistics major, commented that he felt bad when his sister saw a stray cat and noted how cute he was.

    Unfortunately, English has three pronouns for the third person singular, and one of them must be used as the default pronoun. Perhaps it would have been better for his sister to say “How cute it is,” referring to the cat.

    Of course, Hungarian, from what I understand, has only one pronoun referring to the third person singular, so there is only one choice to be used in referring to a man, a woman, or a cat.

    Ossie Davis once remarked about how racism is built into English. Black is the symbol of all that is evil, he noted, and white is the symbol of all that is good.

    Of course, this symbolic use of these colors extends to other languages throughout the world–especially in cultures where Christianity is a strong presence.

    Languages embody distinctions that are considered important or even second nature to the cultures that use them for communication. Unfortunately, all our cultures have their problems in dividing people into different categories, some of them complimentary, and others derogatory.

    While it may be possible to reduce these invidious distinctions in English by using vocabulary such as “fire fighter” instead of “fireman,” for example, unfortunately it is impossible to eliminate all of them. Languages are stubborn

    And Al, as a linguistics major, knows that languages are automatically used by their speakers in accordance with the norms of their speech communities and cannot be changed very significantly by simple fiat. And while they are closed systems, they are only imperfectly closed. That is why they change over time to produce new languages, as Latin did in the case of the Romance languages.

    An interesting case in point is the attempt by the Fascist government in Mussolini’s Italy when it/they tried to get people to use “voi” for “you,” instead of “Lei.” It even interrupted people’s telephone conversations to tell them to use “voi” instead of “Lei.” This program didn’t have much effect. In parts of Italy, people still use “Lei” instead of “voi,” and English speakers, at least right now, will continue to use “guys” to refer to people in general and not only to people of the male sex.

    (I would like to conclude these remarks by inviting you to visit my blog, “Interlingua multilingue.” Even if you know no language other than English, there is a lot of English text in my blog. One of the things I am exploring in it right now is the ways English text can be edited to produce effective electronic translations into other languages.)

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  • Axiomatic says:

    Personally, I’ve taught myself to use “Hey, folks!” instead of “Hey, guys!” which I feel encompasses any group, no matter what mixture of genders or ages it might hold.

    Plus, it has the added bonus of not being an ugly word I made up to serve the purpose, but an old English veteran of a word with scars on its face and callused fingers.

  • shinobi42 says:

    I”ve taken to using “Kids” where I would use guys. It makes me giggle.

  • Nicole says:

    >>it may seem like a nit-picky thing to harp on, but … language plays a big role in maintaining patriarchy.<<

    The funny thing is, I feel that your post is both nit-picky and essential at the same time.

    We’ve all got to choose our battles and establish our own priorities in life. I, personally, am not going to self-flagellate every time I let out a “you guys” when addressing a group that includes women.

    At the same time, practicing mindfulness of the consequences of my choices is one of my priorities!

    Until I have mindfulness mastered, though, and while my life is as it is right now (stressful, chaotic, etc), I choose to err on the side of forgiveness rather than perfectionism.

  • sam says:

    About a year ago, I was at a meeting where feminists in my city were organizing an event. The meeting brought together a diverse group of community members, and not everyone in attendance identified as feminist. At the end of the meeting, one person told the group to watch their language because she heard a lot of people saying “you guys” throughout the meeting and this made her feel really unsafe. Rather than creating meaningful dialogue about the use of non-gender nuetral words, the comment came across as policing how people communicated throughout the meeting. In my opinion, it also emphasized this person’s academic and class privilege. Also, the vibe I got from the group was that everyone felt shut down and scolded.

    Let me also mention that I am all about gender nuetral language. I guess my issue with my experience is that I think encouraging gender nuetral language in non safe spaces requires a certain finesse. I’m wondering what other people think. Does anyone have a good way to encourage others to eliminate “you guys”?

  • Fitz says:

    My main problem with pc/gender neutral naming is the addition of syllables.
    Cameraman – > Camera operator is just not acceptable to me.

  • mirandanyc says:

    The effort of pronouncing an extra syllable isn’t “acceptable” in the name of linguistic equality?

  • Fitz says:

    No, for me the annoyance of lengthening words for the sake of not appearing somewhat sexist, especially knowing that there is no malicious intent behind the words…

    But as far as the original topic,

    “when we say “hey guys” to a group that consists of men and women, we’re telling girls that their experience is something outside of the ordinary”

    What would you say to people that use it in a purely gender neutral way and use “guys” to address a group of females?

  • mirandanyc says:

    I would (and, in fact, did in the post) say that a group of females shouldn’t be referred to as “guys” because they aren’t. The notion that “man” is an appropriate substitute for “human” is simply sexist, and I personally don’t mind the miniscule effort it takes me to say a few extra syllables in order to stop reinforcing patriarchy.

  • Fitz says:

    “a group of females shouldn’t be referred to as ‘guys’ because they aren’t”

    The main problem with that argument is that it is either correct or incorrect based on the definition you use; simply declaring it as fact won’t change the minds of people who view it as gender neutral.

  • Male-reader says:

    By not communicating explicitly, you are simply denying that which actually exists. In other words, using “guys” when referring to both males and females contributes to a violation of the latter’s right to be explicitly named. Hence, this common misuse of this term reinforces gender inequality in society. The same goes for the use of “los niños” when referring to both boys and girls. Unless one explicitly names that which they are referring to, it simply comes over as non-existent or non-relevant. This is yet another reason that will encourage many, I hope, to brake the silence surrounding those oppressed in our society, be they women, girls and any other member for that matter. Language is key to making explicit what is all too often seen as “normal” or “acceptable”.

  • screiley says:

    My first year teaching, an observer drew my attention to my use of the word “guys” in addressing the entire class and suggested that I be more aware of the gender implications on my language. (Incidentally, the observer was an elderly man.) I was so thankful for the insight, but, regretfully, years later I still cannot shake the term from my speech.

  • mirandanyc says:

    Ms. Reiley’s on the blog!!!

  • hkyson says:

    The fact that screiley cannot shake the use of the word “guys” in addressing groups of males and females indicates that the word may be starting to undergo a semantic shift toward gender neutrality, thus solving any possible problems of gender discrimination.

    Such semantic shifts are a fundamental part of the evolution of all the languages of the world.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

    • mirandanyc says:

      I disagree – I think that instead of “solving” the problem, such a shift simply makes the problem less obvious.

  • […] This post recently got me thinking about gender neutral language. I’ve made several shifts in gender neutral labels, but I’m willing to look for more. […]

  • […] in Language Matters: Part One: “Hey Guys!”; Part Two: Choice and […]

  • saliha Wazirzada says:

    I remember when i went to Pakistan last december, i wrote a thank you card for my granny, my uncle and aunty. I wrote ” thank you guys for a..” and my granny reads it later and goes..”GUYS??! we are not guys :P” and then my uncle says..she mean me as well 😛

  • larry says:

    In my experience the term “guys” is itself gender nuetral. I work in an all female office and quite regularly get called a “girls” when the boss says “hey girls listen up… etc”… All my other colleagues refer to themselves and others as “guys” and have no problems with its application and its now “non-gender specific meaning… Its only a matter of time before it will be acceptable amlost everywhere as such. There will be those that will hold on to the gender bias just to have something to argue about, a bit like the word “nigga” in the united states, in some circles it means “the best of friends” in some circles its still derogatory, but still commonly used and accepted as a term of endearment… Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed reading ur perspective 🙂

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