April 8, 2012

What's up, "You Guys"?


I’ve used the term “you guys” to address groups of people my entire life, regardless of the gender-makeup of these groups. This is just something I’ve grown up doing, so what’s the big deal, right? Well, imagine how you would feel if you’re a man in a group with only other womyn and someone says, “Hey gals, what’s up?” You’d probably be pretty confused, and understandably offended. Imagine, then, how a female would feel in a similar situation being referred to as “you guys”? She may feel marginalized or left out. I admit, most people, womyn included, probably don’t think twice about using “you guys” to address groups of people, but I’ve heard individuals who care about this matter very deeply. See this article for a great explanation of what I’m talking about.

After hearing many womyn tell this story, I realized that I’ve unknowingly been part of the problem for years. I would certainly not identify as a bad person, but that doesn’t mean that I never make mistakes. It bothers me that my casual use of this phrase may have made other people feel left out.

I participated in a “My Truth Panel” a few weeks ago, and cringed each time a member of the audience addressed the panel as “you guys”, especially considering that, out of the 6 members of the panel, only 2 of us were male. What was worse, everybody in the audience was female. Even after I brought this matter up at the event, I heard audience members address us as “you guys” at least another three times.

Clearly, changing something that is so widely accepted is an uphill battle, but I think it’s still worth fighting for. Obviously, I would never tell someone to alter their speech for my own sake—or worse, censor themselves—but I would ask each of you who reads this to step back and think about how your choice of language makes other people feel when they hear it. I challenge you to use a phrase like “you all” or “y’all” to address a group of people in which there is at least one female (or in which there is someone who might not conform to traditional gender norms!). I know it’s hard to change something so seemingly innocuous, but sometimes it’s the small changes that can really add up to something meaningful.

13 comments:

  1. Kory,

    Thanks for posting the Bitch magazine link. That's my favorite one to reference for this topic. You go, dude!

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  2. I suppose we should change the way Spanish grammar works as well.

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  3. @12:30 - therein lies the problem, though. English grammar does not set forth "guys" as the gender-neutral term for a bunch of people; mis-use of "guys" does. Spanish grammar does set forth using padres for parents if one parent is male and one is female and the like. Is it male-dominant language use worthy of study? Absolutely - see http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/deisenbe/JHPcolumn/jhp093.pdf for an example from almost 30 years ago. But the linguistic constructions of one language should not present a barrier to recognizing - and hopefully correcting - the errors in use of another.

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  4. Thanks, Dr. G! I couldn't have said it better myself.

    @12:30, shoot me an email; I'd love to chat about this issue! I'm a big grammar-wonk, I have to admit, so I really enjoy studying these controversies.

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  5. I honestly think this is just a nit-picky subject that will never really be assimilated into everyday grammar. This is an unfortunate truth.

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  6. @dr g, Language evolves. Contextual "misuse" of language is one of the main ways language has changed throughout the centuries. Colloquially, and informally, guys within the context of this post is definitively gender-neutral, regardless of its roots. I think we can all agree on that statement, 'misuse' of archaic language standards or not.

    In fact, you might even say that the gender-neutral use of guys has already become formal:
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/guy?s=t.

    Though a massive overhaul of Spanish grammar may not have been the absurd example I was looking for (and there is truth in the power of language in its ability to facilitate oppression), it does provide a powerful analogy to English grammar and vocabulary. Our insistence on using male-centered words as gender neutral has actually picked up since the feminist movement began. Actor, waiter, sculptor, and steward are perhaps some of the best examples of words which are equivalent in gender-rules to words in Spanish like padres, chicos, ellos, and nosotros. Early in the feminist movement, the use of female equivalents to these words--actress, waitress, sculptress, and stewardess--ironically were the words viewed as sexist and not the other way around. Now most female actors are exactly that--actors. Once an actor was specifically male, now an actor is gender neutral. Language has evolved, just as it is evolving with the word 'guys.'

    Though I agree in principle that one should try to avoid using a word that hurts someone else, and would be sensitive even with 'guys' around those who took offense, I largely think this issue is rather petty. Petty for me to demand to continue to use 'guys,' petty for anyone else to demand that I change. Regardless, I think this case is one of those more unfortunate ones where a problem does not really exist (or at the very least only exists in transition of the rules of language), and only once one over analyzes it does it become insulting. If anything, the resistance toward changing 'you guys' to 'you all' is largely and perhaps rightfully based on our own attachment to the word as a gentle, casual, and comforting way of addressing a large group of people. 'You all' does not yet have that connotation, nor may it ever.

    There exist plenty of cases of overt sexism in modern society. Many of them are egregious. Pick your battles.

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  7. @ 9:15 I agree that this issue is relatively small compared to other types of language that is just outright offensive, especially because nobody calls a group of girls "you guys" to be insulting/offensive. That being said, I think it's always a good thing for us to be aware of how other people perceive our words, even if we have completely innocent intentions.

    I wouldn't be surprised if "you guys" sticks like the masculine plurals of other languages, such as Spanish (even though, unlike Spanish, English does not have grammatical gender), but I always think it's a good thing to challenge ourselves to think about the issue no matter what we decide in the end.

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  8. @dr g, Language evolves. Contextual "misuse" of language is one of the main ways language has changed throughout the centuries. Colloquially, and informally, guys within the context of this post is definitively gender-neutral, regardless of its roots. I think we can all agree on that statement, 'misuse' of archaic language standards or not.

    In fact, you might even say that the gender-neutral use of guys has already become formal:
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/guy?s=t.

    Though a massive overhaul of Spanish grammar may not have been the absurd example I was looking for (and there is truth in the power of language in its ability to facilitate oppression), it does provide a powerful analogy to English grammar and vocabulary. Our insistence on using male-centered words as gender neutral has actually picked up since the feminist movement began. Actor, waiter, sculptor, and steward are perhaps some of the best examples of words which are equivalent in gender-rules to words in Spanish like padres, chicos, ellos, and nosotros. Early in the feminist movement, the use of female equivalents to these words--actress, waitress, sculptress, and stewardess--ironically were the words viewed as sexist and not the other way around. Now most female actors are exactly that--actors. Once an actor was specifically male, now an actor is gender neutral. Language has evolved, just as it is evolving with the word 'guys.'

    Though I agree in principle that one should try to avoid using a word that hurts someone else, and would be sensitive even with 'guys' around those who took offense, I largely think this issue is rather petty. Petty for me to demand to continue to use 'guys,' petty for anyone else to demand that I change. Regardless, I think this case is one of those more unfortunate ones where a problem does not really exist (or at the very least only exists in transition of the rules of language), and only once one over analyzes it does it become insulting. If anything, the resistance toward changing 'you guys' to 'you all' is largely and perhaps rightfully based on our own attachment to the word as a gentle, casual, and comforting way of addressing a large group of people. 'You all' does not yet have that connotation, nor may it ever.

    There exist plenty of cases of overt sexism in modern society. Many of them are egregious. Pick your battles.

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  9. I am not enough of a linguist to really contribute much beyond what I've said, I suppose. For me, there is something inherently "male" about the words guy and guys - but then, I'm old :) For the other examples - actor, steward, etc - those are *roles* or *jobs* that people have that didn't *need* to be differentiated for gender, but then were. I know German does the same thing with word endings for occupations as well.

    Meanwhile, I'll stick with y'all, gang, and folks.

    In terms of picking battles, though - I will say that while I agree with you, I think there's enough bandwidth in the world to talk about various scales of issues. Trying to reduce the suffering of those feeling assaulted by thousands of paper cuts as well as those dealing with the wielding of blunt instruments, or working to build bridges of understanding with beams both great and small, can all exist in community.

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  10. @dr g, I was tempted to delve into that argument for jobs, as it is a good one. However, it does presuppose that all jobs can be equally filled by members of either sex. For actors, without some stretch of the imagination and major revamping of script and target audience, romances will always have roles specific to females and roles specific to males. The job of 'actor' then is indeed differentiated by gender. Off the top of my head, other jobs which would be reasonably differentiated by gender (in a modern context) include models, athletes, and singers. That being said, I do agree with you that for most jobs gender should not be a considered factor, and so the movement to de-genderize job titles makes some sense.

    I admit that I cannot think off hand of many other movements in language that have taken a male-only word and made it gender neutral outside of titles. 'Buddy' is a possible example, as some etymologists proscribe it to a shoot off from 'brother' in the 1850s (although this remains unclear). Should we refrain from calling female friends 'buddy' now? Is 'buddy' hurtful on its own or could it possibly become hurtful if and only if we focus on its original etymology? Would we be creating a problem instead of solving one?

    Sometimes feminism threatens to do exactly this even when the etymology does not support its claims. For example, the movement to combat 'history' with 'herstory' fails to recognize that the 'his' in 'history' has absolutely no etymological root in the male pronoun.

    Ultimately, whether or not the discussions surrounding these issues are serious, a benefit from them is to increase awareness about feminism and to prime others to confront other more subtle ways society oppresses women. However, in targeting examples which most people would roll their eyes at, feminism runs the risk of marking itself as the ridiculous hypersensitive ramblings of angry people. I think that's the last image feminists want to represent their struggles, and perhaps the focus on 'hey guys' may have this effect on people not so embedded in the feminist movement.

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  11. @ 7:49

    I just wanted to say thank you for sticking around to explain your opinion so thoughtfully! I enjoyed reading your "debate" with Dr. G. Both of you brought some really good points to the table!

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  12. i know i'm late, but thanks for this. that made me uncomfy too.

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