In 2004 I received a Linguistics degree. There is vanishingly little use to that. But when I find a cultural debate about language I can weigh in on it like an anvil on a jeweler’s scale:
There is no defensible reason to permit your community to use ‘guys’ as if it were gender-neutral.
Let me explain.
In 1606 a shabbily-dressed Guy Fawkes failed to ruin England. They punished him by making his name a synonym for a slob. And they hanged him.
In 1868 Louisa May Alcott wrote a book about four sisters growing up in Massachusetts where one tries on an ugly straw hat and the youngest exclaims “Oh, Jo, you are not going to wear that awful hat? It’s too absurd! You shall not make a guy of yourself.”
Then, in the ensuing hundred and fifty years, we allowed this word that means slovenly man or maybe slovenly person (context never seems to quite clarify which) to become a casual word for man or, as male is the default gender here in English, a casual word for people.
Before we go any further let’s review the facts. ‘Guys’ definitely sometimes just refers to men. “Evening, guys and gals!”, “you’re dating guys now?”, etc. It also sometimes doesn’t appear to refer to men, like any time a woman walks into a room full of other women and says “Oh, do you guys want to see this?” and everybody responds enthusiastically and only later do they realize that the patriarchy has burrowed so deep in their bones they didn’t notice at the time. And at other times it’s awkwardly vague as in “I had the database guys take a look” when the database people may be mostly but not all male. Is it malicious? Who knows! The speaker may have been aware the group was not all one gender or may not have been. The sentence is simultaneously gendered and non-gendered. It might be a non-native speaker with the best of intentions. But it could be a dudebro cleverly exiling women from the conversation with his Brodinger’s cat-call.
Lest this piece sound like the balcony-screeches of a self-proclaimed Social Justice Warrior: I’m a Social Justice Intern-and-coffee-getter at best. My high horse is just a broom between my legs that I’m riding around. I’ve only come around on this in the last few months and before that I believed and proclaimed that ‘guys’ should be welcomed speech because it’s mostly gender-neutral. What I didn’t realize at the time is that there is no context in which ‘guys’ is unambigously non-gendered.
It’s the thought that counts
If you were to tell me “Jack, when I say ‘guys’ I mean ‘people’.” Sure, I believe you. I also believe that my middle school teacher was earnest when she taught me about ‘the universal “he”’ — a male pronoun used for anybody because, well, nobody ever really explained it but it’s definitely allowed by the rules of human speech. I mean English. I mean Modern White Male Academic American English.
You know, what people speak.
We communicate via a language taught to us by people who believed male is default and female is extraordinary. Embedded in the words they gave us are their beliefs about the world. So when you say “no, I meant everybody when I said ‘guys’” it’s entirely possible that you did. Also possible is that when people of mixed genders form a group the group is treated as male. The misogyny of the culture we inherited as babies lives on in our words and we don’t even know how to see it except by its effects.
And the effects are that some people will sometimes feel a jarring sense of exclusion when someone refers to a group they’re in with ‘guys’.
It’s not the thought that counts
If I were to start congratulating my colleagues by telling them “Your work today was better than tits” I would get an appropriate (and likely bewildered) talking to. If I were to support my position because ‘tits’ are my favorite type of bird that behavior still wouldn’t fly.
So when I address a group of my colleagues as ‘guys’ and they hear it as ‘males’ it doesn’t matter how I intended it. If they feel excluded then it’s my word choice that’s to blame. Luckily, since my words are powerful then I can find better ones to make them feel included, understood, and supported.
Historically, it was used in a gender-neu —
I’m gonna stop you before you finish that subheading. Historically “Christian” was used to mean a good person. Not by everybody, just by folks like the tiny sects of puritans in New England. If we make a historical argument for “guys” being gender-neutral we’ll see that the situations in which it was used that way are damagingly heteronormative and sexist. We might as well describe our product launches and best work output as “the most Christian of work”. But we don’t, because we’re not totally clueless.
But Webster’s dictionary says th- [strangling noise]
You may be tempted to look up ‘guy’ in the dictionary. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Because I’m a piece of text and cannot note the passing of time. You back? Okay, Noah Webster is a jerk and a half. Sure, he secularized the American education system (before him folks only used the Bible) but he also assumed the role of He-Who-Defines-Words and therefore the arbiter of values.
“Why are you so hard on Webster?”, I pretend you ask. Because words don’t have any meanings except those we give them. Language is an evolving system within culture and no single node in this giant cyclic graph of human connection has more right to define words than another. We converge on meanings over time, together.
Oh, also this:
“Slavery is a great sin & a great calamity — but it is not our sin, though it may prove to be a terrible calamity even to us in the north. But we cannot legally interfere with the south on this subject — & every step which the abolitionists take is tending to defeat their own object. To come to the north to preach & then disturb our peace, when we can legally do nothing to affect their object, is, in my view, highly criminal, & the preachers of abolitionism deserve the penitentiary.” — Noah Webster being a jerk
Noah Webster was against slavery. Except anybody who tried to actually fix it deserved ‘the penitentiary.’ I can’t actually cast stones here because he was ahead of his day and I’m probably lagging behind mine. But his logic appears in every company initiative about ‘guys’ I’ve yet heard:
Bright Woman doing Extra Emotional Labor both at Work and Home: “When you say ‘guys’ I feel excluded.”
Man: “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Bright Woman doing Extra Emotional Labor both at Work and Home: “I’d like to spend extra time and energy installing a bot to help people not use this word that makes every non-male at the company produce less value.”
Man: “I don’t think that’s worth your energy.”
Bright Woman doing Extra Emotional Labor both at Work and Home: “… wha… what?”
Man: “Also, our online conversations get spammy already”
Bright Woman doing Extra Emotional Labor both at Work and Home: “Yeah, from gifs.”
Man: “I think you shouldn’t do this.”
Bright Woman doing Extra Emotional Labor both at Work and Home: “It’s important to you that I keep summoning the energy to correct people one at a time?”
Man: “Yeah, don’t do that either.”
Webster could see a harmful system and yet put the effort of his words toward preventing a fix. We, somehow, can hear people tell us they feel excluded and yet we summon energy to maintain the status quo.
Folks already use a good alternative
If we use ‘guys’ to refer to a group that isn’t explicitly all male we may or may not hurt somebody. If we use ‘folks’ we definitely* will not hurt anybody. Folks is a lossless, controversy-free drop in replacement in all circumstances.
Therefore, enabling the continued use of ‘guys’ suggests we care more about our own verbal inertia than the felt experiences of other people. Let’s not.
* “Folk” goes back many centuries as a gender-neutral noun. The only trace usage that could be considered gendered is the way it meant ‘army’ in Old Norse. Though anyone, particularly a woman, attempting to have this conversation on the internet has more steel in them than most generals of old. So it’s a great fit.