Let’s say there’s only one person in a given audience who is bothered by “guys,” is that person’s opinion worth me selecting another word? You bet it is. It costs me nothing and I made the space incrementally safer for one person.
Yesterday at work, I did 30 push-ups while wearing a dress. Yes, I am in eternal-but-probably-unachievable pursuit of Michelle Obama arms, but I don’t normally hit the deck anywhere other than the gym. Until recently. I’m on a quest to change my speech patterns, and like any good quest, the stakes are high. Five push-ups per flub.
So what verbal tic am I trying to drop?
“Hey guys!” “OK, guys, let’s get started!” “Guys! Can I get your attention?” “What do you guys think?” “Guys, are you with me?” “Do you guys want to move on?”
Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys.
I can feel you rolling your eyes and chalking up another victory for the PC-police. When does it end? What phrase are “they” going to ban next? Is this like that time when they wanted us to spell “women” “womyn” and change “semester” to “ovester?” No, this is about recognizing that my personal comfort with a word—and for the record, “guys” doesn’t bother me—isn’t the point. I don’t get to be the arbiter of what offends people; my role is to decide how I want to change my behavior, or not, based on their expressed feelings. It’s about how making a small change to my habits might make some people incrementally more comfortable, so why not try?
Let’s back up: I work in the tech industry. My office environment is 75% male. An explicit part of my job is to encourage more people—specifically people underrepresented in the field, like women—to consider joining us in that field. To that end, I give a lot of talks. I make welcome addresses. I lead tours. I kick-off events, moderate panels, make introductions, and facilitate workshops all day every day. I am an expert spiel-giver, and like any expert spiel-giver, autopilot is always just an oft-repeated phrase away.
And as someone who makes spiels so frequently, it seems wise to consider what phrases make frequent spiel appearances. More specifically, what phrases do I repeat 20 times a day that might, even unintentionally, be alienating to exactly the people I don’t want to alienate? “Guys” is one of those phrases.
How do I know? Because people have told me that they feel excluded by it; it’s really that simple. When I am in a mixed group of people that is referred to as “guys,” I am not offended. Like many people, I feel that “guys” has evolved enough to mean “you ungendered mass of people” even though, obviously, it also means “men.” Hmmm. Regardless of what I think, it’s not about me; it’s about listening to my constituents—in this case the audiences I speak to about joining the tech industry—and modifying my behavior based on the feedback they give me.
In the scheme of sexist bullshit that pervades the tech scene, “guys” might not be at the top of the fix-it list. But, if you are a member of a group that is already made to feel invisible, if you’re already worried that you don’t belong, if you’re already spending your professional life explaining that you’re not the “PR girl” but a programmer like everyone else, verbally exclusive phrases that you might normally ignore start to add up like tiny, annoying paper cuts. They start to sting. They are not crushing weights like, say, pay inequity or online harassment, but they hurt nonetheless.
It is my job to make people feel welcome when they are beginners in a room full of experts. It is my job to show people who didn’t think they could work in technology—largely because no one who looks like them works in technology—that it is for them. Why would I not modify my language if some segment of those people, any segment really, finds my most common phrase alienating and exclusionary?
Let’s say there’s only one person in a given audience who is bothered by “guys,” is that person’s opinion worth me selecting another word? You bet it is. It costs me nothing and I made the space incrementally safer for one person. And that person, in all likelihood, is going to face enough obstacles along the way. Why pile on if I can help it?
Friends. Everyone. Folks. Y’all. Colleagues. Everybody. All. Party people. Youse or yinz, if you’re in Pennsylvania. Although English is not overflowing with alternatives to “You guys,” they do exist. The point is not perfection; my push-up parade indicates that I have a long way to go. The point is not even banishment of the phrase. The point is to be intentional about the words I use to describe other people. Are they the words I mean to use? Or are they habits? If they’re habits, are they good ones? If they’re not, what can I do about it?
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.