I am really confused. In a world where words matter and where names and labels limit and disparage, I am unsure why there is little to no real critical conversation about identifying a mixed-gendered group of people as “guys.” I try to avoid saying “you guys,” but I hear this two-word colloquialism everywhere and so very frequently—in the media, in casual conversation, among strangers. What is it about this particular word pairing that does not warrant a critical conversation about gender-neutral language? Are we perpetuating gender bias if we use it? What should we say to our students about it? How are we and they using language casually?
My quick glance at various web sources revealed only one instance that challenges “guys” as a generic mixed-gender colloquialism—the sixth definition of “you guys” usage from UrbanDictionary.com: “Proof of America’s sexist bias. Although it’s obviously designed to address the male sex, this phrase is used just as often by girls between girls.”
I don’t see the gender neutrality in this word any more than in “mankind,” “freshmen,” “councilman” or “grandfathered in.” How and when did “you guys” become gender-neutral? And is it really neutral if the opposite scenario isn’t equivalent? I seriously doubt that a room full of males would be comfortable if they were addressed as “you gals.” A group I was sitting with recently was addressed as “ladies”—I’m assuming because I have longish locks and was at a table with females when the waitperson approached us from behind. It led to this conversation about “guys”; my two female colleagues had not thought much about it. Why is that?
Clearly, language is not static. There is a fluidity that adjusts language to our experiences as we evolve as thinkers and meaning-makers. Perhaps this is true of “you guys,” but I can’t find any evidence that it reflects—or doesn’t— a larger cultural shift in gender equity. The way my educator-colleagues and I talk and teach about language is specific, accurate and inclusive, but “you guys” hangs in the air almost without pause and critical interrogation. When I do hear objections voiced, they usually refer to the casual tone of the address rather than to its inherent gender bias.
No, this is not an empty exercise in “political correctness” because I have nothing better to do. I pay attention to and care deeply about understanding more clearly what I hear and see around me. How we talk and what we say often reflect how we think or do not think. How often is a word “just a word”? In my conversations about the Nword particularly with some high school and middle students, they contend that the n-word is “just a word,” that it doesn’t have meaning. How useful are words then when they cease to have real meaning?
Gendered words matter beyond “sticks and stones,” “Miss. vs. Ms.” and “bossy.” Yes, I know well that there are far more pressing issues about how societies across the planet treat, value and represent girls and women. I also know that these attitudes and thoughts about females and gender play into language and words when we use, normalize and gloss over without questioning their common usage. This is the everyday that has become so normalized that perhaps it really doesn’t matter. I suspect that for many, what we say mirrors what we think and how we behave in decidedly and even unconsciously gendered ways.
“You” is a perfectly clear second-person pronoun that can be either singular or plural. Does adding “guys” as a kind of modifier/identifier make this informal address more pseudo-personal? Perhaps this is just a personal pet peeve and nothing more. But I’m still confused, and I want to know more. Changing patterns of word usage requires conscious thought, like avoiding clichés and stereotypes or words that require no thinking. They just exist at our fingertips or on our tongues.
What do you think? Do you use the word “guys” when addressing a mixed group? Do you find the use of this word problematic? Take our survey!
Lester is Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.