clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why I’m finally convinced it's time to stop saying "you guys"

NPM's "Guys" jar.
NPM's "Guys" jar.
npm / Tumblr

The tech startup npm recently blogged about the unusual challenge some of its employees have agreed to participate in: they put a dollar in a glass jar every time they say "you guys."

"We didn’t invent the idea, though I’m not sure where we first heard about it," reads the company's explanation on Tumblr. "But the idea is: if you believe that using the word 'guys' to describe a mixed-gender group of individuals is creeping sexism, and are trying to eliminate that word from your casual use, you put a dollar in the jar every time you do it accidentally."

Yes, "creeping sexism."

That sounds pretty intense. I'm a big user of "guys," and when it was first brought to my attention that the phrase was frowned upon among leading feminist thinkers and people concerned with equality — especially in male-dominated workplaces — my reaction was, "Oh, come on. It's inaccurate, but it's not actually hurting anyone."

But I've changed my mind. As I read up on the issue, I realized that my knee-jerk response ("It doesn't seem like that big a deal to me, personally, and changing would require effort on my part and that's hard and tiring") is nothing more than a very typical lazy excuse for avoiding the tiny tweaks to our lives that can, as a whole, make society more equal.

Now I'm convinced that "guys" — unless we are actually addressing a group of guys — has got to go.

What's wrong with "guys"?



Jeane Anastas, a professor of social work at the NYU Silver School of Social Work whose research focuses in part on women's issues, said in an email to Vox, "Whatever Webster's dictionary says about the plural 'guys' ['used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex'] and despite the fact that I sometimes catch myself saying 'you guys' to people of all genders, 'guy' is a gendered word. "

That very fact — that it's gendered —is true whether or not we're thinking about reinforcing male privilege or alienating women or promoting sexism when we say it.

Sherryl Kleinman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, articulated this in an article published in Qualitative Sociology way back in 2002:

"Because male-based generics are another indicator — and more importantly, a reinforcer — of a system in which "man" in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women. Some say that language merely reflects reality and so we should ignore our words and work on changing the unequal gender arrangements that are reflected in our language. Well, yes, in part.

But, she wrote, words really do shape our thinking and can help move along (or hold back) whatever social changes we'd like to see:

It's no accident that "man" is the anchor in our language and "woman" is not. And of course we should make social change all over the place. But the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways -- which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I think of myself as a "girl" or a "woman."it makes a difference if we talk about "Negroes" or "African-Americans." Do we want a truly inclusive language or one that just pretends?

I'm convinced that choosing not to use "guys" is not just about creating a "new reality," but also has more immediate, personal consequences. A friend who works on a male-dominated team in field in which woman are scarce told me, "It used to not really bother me — because I say it a ton, and really don't mind when addressed as such because it's basically ingrained in society. But I've found that now that I'm on a team with only men, when they use it, it bothers me more."

In an interview filmed in 2012, author and activist Alice Walker argues it's especially troubling when women refer to themselves as "guys," because it represents a "fear of being feminine."

She says even when it's brought to women's attention that there's no reason to refer to themselves and other women with a term that suggests they're male, the habit is tough to change because "the programming of erasing what is feminine is really strong."

Yes, there are other options



"Perhaps the time has come for a consensus on an acceptable general alternative," said Anastas, who added that she uses "colleagues" and similar words when they make sense.  The dilemma for people trying to change, she said, is "What one- or two-syllable word could be substituted after "hi, ----" without becoming too formal?"

It's a good question. The English language doesn't offer a simple, standard, general-neutral alternative — which is probably part of the reason "guys" has survived so long.

I asked around on Twitter and found that while plenty of people (men and women) said they used "guys" and their mixed-gender groups of friends were fine with it, plenty more said they were trying to eliminate it.  They offered up their alternatives, and there were more options than had originally occurred to me.

  • Friends
  • Folks
  • Everyone
  • Colleagues
  • Gang
  • Team
  • Y'all
  • Guys and girls

They're not all going to fit every personality, or be appropriate in every situation, but it seems there are enough alternatives that we can pick and choose without too much trouble.

Change can be tough, but we'll live



Kleinman wrote about this issue nearly 15 years ago, and "guys" is still generally accepted as a way to address any group. That's no surprise. "There has been and always will be objections to this and other changes in how words are or are not used," Anastas told me.

She's right, of course — but it's also true that once the changes take (especially when it comes to issues related to gender and race), it's hard to imagine why they were so hard to make in the first place.

For example, Anastas reminded me that at one time men and women were often both referred to as "he," and we managed to cut that out, and even style guides changed accordingly.

When I was being educated in the 1950s and 1960s, students were taught that the proper way to refer to a human being was to write "he," which we also saw in everything we read. Then came consciousness raising and the Second Wave of feminism with all of the revelations about gendered words (to "master" a subject or skill) and sayings ("rule of thumb") that followed. I still can hardly believe how profound a change occurred in perceptions and assumptions when the usage he/she was adopted, no longer erasing half of humanity. If he/she sounded awkward, style guides showed us how minor changes in how one wrote a sentence could solve the problem by going to the plural or collective (e.g. "people").

You can think of the push to drop "guys" as political correctness run amok, or you can think of it as making a tiny change that doesn't cost you anything and will keep you from being a jerk to half the population — and help you make the world just a tiny bit more fair.

That doesn't mean it will be quick or easy: I've probably typed and deleted "you guys" (it turns out I loved to begin tweets and Facebook posts this way) about 15 times since I decided to write this piece a couple of weeks ago. But I'm going to keep working on it.

If you get a jump on changing now, you can avoid being like your grandfather who is still saying "negro" because he doesn't mean anything by it and that's what they used to say in his day and he doesn't see the point of evolving. Don't get left behind, y'all/friends/everyone/folks.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized npm as a male-dominated workplace.

Vox Featured Video