How we’re beating “hey guys” (and why it’s important).

It’s been a couple of weeks since The Atlantic ran their article entitled “The Problem With ‘Hey Guys‘” and I’m still thinking about it, so I thought maybe it was time to air it out a bit.

Specifically, at the time it was published, someone said to me (paraphrased) “We should just let ‘guys’ evolve into the gender-neutral term it is heading towards. And for the record, if the ladies would rather turn ‘gals’ into a gender-neutral term I’m fine with that too, but it would mean starting from evolutionary scratch.”

Some of you are immediately beating your head into your desk right now and others are going, “Yeah, I mean, right?!?”

I’ve worked really hard to take “hey guys” and “you guys” out of my speech, which considering I’m smack dab between Philly, Jersey, and New Yawk, is no easy feat. I’m surrounded by “you guys”, “yous guys”, and “dese guys” and far enough from “y’all”, “youse” and “yinz” for all of them to feel unnatural.

I fight against both my internal programming and the “general trend” The Atlantic suggest may be occurring for one simple reason: Guys isn’t gender neutral, and we shouldn’t allow it to evolve that way.

Saying we should let the word “guys” evolve into an acceptable gender neutral term is essentially saying we should allow the state of maleness be the default.

There’s no point in history in which the name “Guy” or the word “guy” meant “girl” or “nonbinary individual”. It’s always meant “man”, whether that man was Guy Fawkes or a man dressed weirdly, or a bunch of men.

And we’d never argue that “hello, gentlemen” or “yo dickheads” are gender-neutral.

In this society, being the default gender isn’t the building block upon which all others build, it’s the thing to which we are all to aspire. When we say male is the default, everything not-male is less than the default. So when someone says “women can make ‘gals’ gender neutral if they want to” they’re actually suggesting that women do the work necessary to not only overcome the political and cultural obstacles of becoming a more acceptable default than maleness, but also the cultural obstacles of meeting the default in the first place. After all, if women, non-binary, and transgender people were seen as the default, there would be no discussion. The “goal” to be seen as the default isn’t just stating from scratch, it’s starting from a deep hole someone else dug for us.

Besides, that’s not the direction language is going.

When I was in undergrad (studying linguistics in the late 1990s) the expected and understood default to use in academic and journalistic writing where you didn’t know the gender of the person was to write “he”. So, for example, if you wrote about programming you would say “If he has a development problem he should go to his tech lead and he will help him out.”

But if you were confident the unknown person was female you wrote in that gender, “She was a seamstress.”

The argument then was that “he” was gender-neutral, because “he” was the default. (Don’t even get me started on how this erased non-binary people.)

The actual impact was the erasure of women as developers, scientists, farmers, professors, welders (and erasure of men as nurses, teachers, etc.) in pretty much all documentation.  In one social experiment, studiers found young children are shocked to meet women firefighters, surgeons, and RAF pilots. Transgender and non-binary people have been virtually erased altogether.

When the rule that “he” is the literary, academic, and journalistic default rule finally, painfully, inexorably got thrown out, I suddenly discovered that I could read a technical article that either used the true gender-neutral singular “they” (which has been around since the 1400s) or that the article actually would switch genders so both male and female-identifying people were acknowledged to program computers or work as scientists or, y’know, exist.

The trend of rejecting “you guys” as gender neutral, I argue, stems not from “you guys” becoming more gender-neutral but rather from our growing awareness of the need for gender-inclusive language. It’s not that “you guys” has changed, it’s that in a world where calling everyone we can’t identify as “he” is unacceptable, calling a group of unknown gender “you guys” looks flat-out stupid.

True story: I once found myself part of an all-woman UX team. This was remarkable as I’d been in UX almost 10 years by that point and had only had one woman manager, much less an all-woman team. While we were in a meeting with a few tech leads (all men) one of them said, “And the guys on the UX team will provide us the guidance for [project].”

I looked around and said, “What guys? Who are these guys? Did we hire guys while I was at lunch?”

The tech lead turned pink with embarrassment, and I turned pink with embarrassment. (It takes practice to call out gender-erasing behavior and it’s embarrassing to have to. Also, I am a generally tactless individual and I know it.)

But, you know, that person hasn’t called the UX team “guys” since, even though it’s now a much more even balance of genders (and twice its original size).

Gender inclusive language matters. It matters to me that women are acknowledged as programmers, just like it matters to me that there are female characters in Elder Scrolls games and it matters to me that the doctors in my family (all women, by the way) aren’t mistaken as nurses by their peers.

Representation matters. It builds confidence in the underrepresented and sends a message that “hey, I think you belong here too.” It says “I don’t believe male is the default state for this job or this activity”. It says “I see you”. It says “I’m glad you’re here.”

And yes, I acknowledge that it is hard to change our internal grammar and semantics. I still screw up on so many things — using “hey guys” or “you guys” is just a drop in the bucket of cultural blunders I make. I still use “crazy” as a pejorative every day and as someone with mental illness that’s essentially attacking myself.

One thing I’ve done as the “owner” of a Slack board for, well, slackers, is approved of adding a Slackbot message keyed to “you guys” or “hey guys” to provide a hopefully-humorous reminder to use gender-neutral language when possible. I don’t deserve credit for the idea; our members built it and continue to add entries to it. I also wasn’t sure it would catch on (and it almost didn’t). Nobody likes to have their language corrected especially when they didn’t mean to offend and we had some pretty raucous conversations about the bot when it was first introduced.

I also recently had run-ins with a number of men (I wish I could say it was more than just men, but it hasn’t been) who were exposed to a similar (and honestly, much more professional) Slackbot, who have postulated that being called out in public for saying “you guys” is more offensive than saying ” you guys”.

Here’s how I hear that phrase: “Being called out in public for misgendering someone is more offensive to me than my act of misgendering someone is to them.”

Funny how as a woman who’s been “one of the guys”, “hey guys”, “you guys” “those guys” and “I don’t know which of the guys did this” for 40 years I’ve got a different take on it than the guys.

If you think that being called out for bad behavior (sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.) is worse than enacting that bad behavior in the first place, you are wrong. Seriously. It’s only worse to you because you don’t want to feel the consequences of your bad choices, or change. It’s not actually worse than the thing you did.

I would rather pull out my own teeth than reprogram something so automatic as my linguistic defaults.  But we’re humans. We can change. If words are “just” words then it doesn’t matter if we change them to not hurt someone else’s feelings or make someone else feel welcome, and if words are so much more than “just” words, then all the more reason to change.

And change, while difficult, isn’t always painful. Where at first I thought we were going to have a mutiny, or at least someone throwing all their toys out of the pram, I’ve found that our Slack members have accepted the ongoing Slackbot interruptions. It’s become a running joke on my Slack board to yell at the Slackbot for correcting us (in a very “Shut up, Westley!” kind of way), because we all slip up.

More importantly, despite our abusing the Slackbot for doing its job, we’ve cut way back on uses of “hey guys” or “you guys” as an organization. “Shut up, Slackbot!” is a regular occurrence… but not nearly as regular as it used to be, when all of us used “hey guys” constantly in our communications.

Our Slackbot’s responses to the key phrases include:

And what about the gals? Or the gender-queer?
How about y’all? (Or the formal all y’all.)
How about saying folks next time? Peeps? Gargoyles?
Pittsburgh it up next time with a little “yinz”?
Philly it up: try “you jawns”!
Break brains in both ends of the state and try “yinz jawn” next time. 😉
All the kids are saying “fam” these days. Don’t you want them to think you’re “hip” and “wit’ it”?
Pro tip: “Foolish mortals” is a gender-neutral form of address. (Hat tip: https://twitter.com/@Black_Isis)

As an eternal optimist, I’d much rather that everyone out of the goodness of their heart magically rewired their own internal programming to not only accept everyone but talk in ways that show their acceptance.

But we’re humans.

So we have to work at it.

And if that means throwing out garbage articles that want us to believe that gender-exclusive language is suddenly gender-neutral because we don’t want to give it up, well, that’s a small step to take.

In the meantime, Slackbot continue to remind yinz jawn that we can do better.


Also published on Medium.

Author: Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is Senior UX Designer and general troublemaker for a big/small technical company outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and has a few pieces of short fiction being published in anthologies in 2017.