This article is written as food for thought for men. I’ve witnessed much debate in the last few years about whether “you guys” is gender-neutral. It’s no surprise that many men think it is, the dictionary agrees, and more women say it’s not. All this is natural given our culture, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t this way. But my observation is that it’s needlessly hurtful. We can do better, we should, and many of us do.
After spending a few years working very intentionally to listen to women, this doesn’t strike me as even a close debate to the extent that men are involved. The objective facts, as I see them, are not to be found in the dictionary or in appeal to authority. Anyone who takes a little time to listen and observe will find the following to be true in their own experience and that of others:
- Guys is often used in a gendered way, no matter what the dictionary says.
- Addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys” is not inclusive when a man does it, because of the inter-group power dynamics.
- Because of those same dynamics, women can call each other “guys” without giving men license to use the term in the same way, or to object.
- As men, we don’t get to tell women how they should feel. We should listen to how they do feel and respect it.
- There are obvious and easy alternatives in common usage that are gender-neutral and inclusive, and men should use them.
- Men who stop using this term aren’t impoverished in the least; to the contrary, they enrich themselves and empower others.
You can stop there if you want, but I encourage you to read the whole article. There’s lots more important food for thought about these points below. Please note that there is lots of nuance about women’s usage of “guys” but when men say it, it’s much more polarizing.
Is Guys Gender-Neutral?
Short answer: No. It simply is not gender-neutral, especially when men say it to a mixed group. The dictionary is wrong. Real people don’t use it neutrally in the real world.
Do you have sex with “guys” or “gals”? If women are “guys,” are men “gals”? Do you address mixed-gender groups as “gals”?
Pro tip: “Guys” is gendered. Think it’s not? Swap it out for “gals” for a day and see what happens.
Imagine addressing folks as “you gals” next time you’re speaking/writing to a group. If the setting is formal, imagine using “ladies” instead. (This should only be a thought experiment. Don’t actually do this.)
Guys isn’t the only word that people dispute, and it can be instructive to examine other similar words. For example, “craftsman” isn’t gender-neutral. A satirical example makes it clear:
“The word craftswomanship is obviously gender-neutral and covers both women and men. The world has way too many problems to be offended by language.” John, male craftswoman
Or, try this one:
A fond memory from my university days: I was seeking to understand why we can’t use “mankind” or “men” for all cases. A wise woman asked me to name 10 famous men. I named 10 famous males, and no females. Her point exactly. That’s the problem with using craftsmen for all cases.
I cannot say it better than that. When we do some easy experiments that assume the default male gender is “neutral,” the ostensible neutrality is obviously false—a proof by contradiction that it’s not neutral. We live in a sexist culture and we have to be anti-sexist, not neutral, or we’re reinforcing structural/cultural biases.
Guys Isn’t Inclusive, Especially When Men Say It
Guys simply isn’t inclusive. Put aside technicalities; don’t get sucked into debating definitions.1 Just listen to what people say about how they feel when called “guys,” and you’ll hear that not all people feel included, for good reasons. That’s all the evidence you should need. But, don’t just take my word for it, let’s listen a bit.
Good morning Twitter, your periodic reminder that “Hey guys” is not inclusive language, This is even more glaring when its used to address a specific set of people which is all men and one woman.
Signed Caitie & The Guys.
I once saw a tweet saying, “I don’t like being called “guys” because multiple coworkers have separately told me that I could never be one of the guys and that shit hurts.” I saved the tweet but not the author or the URL.
Consider Silvia’s reaction when AWS CEO Andy Jassy called DBAs “guys” during a keynote address:
You guys… cus all DBAs are guys 😒#reInvent
It bothered Silvia. Don’t argue whether that’s wrong or right. It bothered her so much that she mentioned it again on another occasion, when she was a guest on a podcast:
Silvia: It’s funny you mentioned that because in a recent keynote by Andy Jassy who’s the CEO of AWS, that’s the thing he definitely beat on. Where he basically called DBA’s the old guard and that “those guys”, and I quote those guys, are basically sitting in the way of engineers building things.
Or consider this,
Everytime this vendor says “guys” on a call with several technical women, I just want to scream.
Or this one, in response to a man who thinks there are more important things to worry about,
Mary Dickson Diaz
Right, it’s describing you and the dominant tech culture so you’ve probably never even thought about it. Whereas it grates on me every single time I hear it.
I’m not Googling for these tweets. These are tweets that I’ve seen in my timeline, from women I follow. All I’ve done is collect them for a few months. They’re often retweeted by several other women, which means a lot more people are feeling this way than tweeting about it. Here’s another:
It is not gender neutral and it stings every time. When I accidentally say “you guys”, I try to remember to add “and gals” to it.
And that brings up my next point: is it inclusive when women say it?
Objection: But Women Say It Too
“But I literally just saw a woman address a group of her five girlfriends as ‘you guys’ and nobody objected.”
So what? There are lots of ethnic, racial, gender, and other groups where it’s okay for members of that group to say things and not okay for outsiders to do it. As men, we should shut up about this. We don’t get to tell women how to behave or how to feel. Women can work out their own agreements amongst themselves, without any help from men. They don’t need to be mansplained about being women, of all things.
It’s similar to the rule in comedy about punching up vs punching down. When a man says “you guys” to a group with women in it, it can make the women feel they don’t belong, they aren’t truly part of the group. Even if the man doesn’t appear to mean anything by it, it’ll be clear that he lacks empathy for his audience. This makes an under-represented person feel like that man is less likely to be the ally they might need. This is especially true if there’s context (such as the industry) that already subtly or not-so-subtly implies women don’t belong. When a woman says “you guys” to such a group, women are far less likely to feel like they’re being told they don’t belong. There’s no power differential between women and women, but there is between men and women.
And there are lots of reasons women might say “you guys” that actually point back to the same problematic dynamics from a different angle. Echoing Caitie from above, for example, is Nicole’s sentiment:
I always said “guys” to take attention off the fact that I was not, myself, a “guy”. And to bring other women “in” to what was not a positive construct. Changed to “everyone” and immediately started to feel better about being me.
On the other hand, lots of women feel that they too can be more inclusive:
As a mid-westerner, it was difficult for me to stop saying “you guys” when women are in the group. After I read this from Business Insider, I understood I need to change. I use ‘y’all’ now. It works.
The link leads to an article featuring maps of American phrase usage. Here’s the map in question:
Source: Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide: Josh Katz
That map shows why “you guys” is such a hard habit to kick: it’s the cultural norm through a lot of America.2 But hard or no, people who care enough can make the effort and make the change. And as men, when we see women working to do this, we should work twice as hard.
Mary Dickson Diaz
I, like Caitie, used to say “guys” all the time but have made an effort to change my language. Know better, do better.
Some women also report that they don’t object to being addressed as “you guys.” Fine, but some women do, so men should not seize on this as a point of debate. Inclusivity is about finding something that’s welcoming for all.
Objection: But Everyone Else Is Doing It Too
By “everyone,” do you mean everyone in a male-dominated industry like technology?
Everyone isn’t doing it, and it’s not just women who object and are trying to change. Tons of guys are making the effort to do better, too. Here’s one,
Ugh. Stop calling a room full of people “guys.” #devopsdays
Or this one,
If there’s a room full of men, women and non-binary folks, don’t call them “guys” plz.
Or this one,
Ben M. Schorr
I always used that term generically, but I totally get how it’s not always received that way, so I try to catch myself and use more gender-neutral terms.
Which is practically a copy-paste (a good thing!) of this advice from Better Allies:
I try not to use “guys” to refer to a group of people. Women and non-binary people don’t need another reminder they’re working in a male-dominated culture. If it slips out, I simply add, “Excuse me, I meant to say you all.”
There are lots of empathetic, thoughtful guys out there trying to make things better for all of us.
I still struggle with this. I’m teaching CS 2102 this semester, which thankfully has a significant number of women in it, and I still catch myself saying “you guys”. It’s a hard habit to break, but I am trying.
Again, those are tweets I collected as they scrolled through my own timeline. I didn’t go searching for those examples.
Objection: It’s Too Hard To Break The Habit
This really isn’t true. If you aren’t willing to work to change, ask yourself how much you really value women and empathize with their experiences? Corey Quinn again:
“It’s too hard to remove ‘guys’ from my vocabulary.”
@estherschindler taught me I was putting two spaces after a period and to stop doing it years ago. It took me a solid year to break the habit. You’re not saying it’s too hard; you’re just saying it’s not important.
The argument against difficulty is weakened further by the fact that giving up “guys” isn’t giving up anything a man should want to fight for. I have more to say about this later, but here’s a quote:
I learned this lesson as a waiter. My greeting was always “How you guys doing?” until one day a table of 3 women WENT OFF on me for it.At first I rolled my eyes, but then realized other people see things differently, and it literally costs me NOTHING to say, “folks” instead.
You don’t have to be perfect. Women notice when you try:
So many times people fail before they start with this, not realising that they don’t have to be perfect, just better than they currently are.
Women are looking for us men to show that we care. There’s nothing more powerful than trying:
yes it is a hard habit to break… but also yes, us who are not guys notice when we can see you are making an effort vs not giving a damn.
I like this idea from Sean:
Suggestion: Find a person you trust, be accountable to each other, and call each other out when you use guys. It’s just one way to help yourself change, and it’s worked the best for me.
Another thought about the difficulty of breaking a habit versus how much you care:
Minor epiphany: “you guys” bothers me a lot more in writing than in conversation. In writing I feel like you have no excuse not to review your word choice before hitting send.
A few years back I made a concerted effort to remove “guys” from my vocabulary when referring to mix gendered groups. It wasn’t easy and required thought and effort, but that’s the cool thing! As people we can evolve, so can language & cultures.
Objection: There Are No Good Alternatives
This objection has always surprised me. There are phrases that don’t sound forced or conspicuous, and are easy to substitute. Try these excellent alternatives that you already use many times a day, comfortably, for other things:
- You all
One of my good friends at work got me using “friends”, which I love. Starting training sessions with “Hello friends, here’s what we’re going to learn today” #devops #hugops
Another good alternative is simply removing the group label and replacing it with nothing at all. Instead of “okay guys, let’s go to the next slide,” how about just “let’s go to the next slide.”
Objection: I Can’t Control Who’s Offended
I’ve seen a lot of objections along the lines of “It doesn’t matter how you address groups as long as you’re not trying to offend them.” The idea is that the speaker used the term with no intention to slight, but the listener decided to take offense. There’s a couple of reasons this is problematic.
First, this was never about people being offended. If you listen carefully, people aren’t saying “I feel offended when I’m in a mixed-gender group and someone calls us guys.” They’re saying something totally different: “I don’t feel like I belong.” It’s about feeling included, recognized, belonging; feeling like you matter. This is what inclusiveness is.
If people really were looking for excuses to be offended, I’d agree they were the problem. Fortunately, that’s just not the case. The people I know who are trying to raise awareness about “you guys” are not offended, they’re not manufacturing grievances. They’re just pointing out that it’s not inclusive and it doesn’t feel good.
The second reason this objection is problematic—and this is a bit tangential—is that as a speaker, your communication does not consist of what you say or intend. It consists of what listeners hear.
Objection: Nobody’s Complained To Me
This objection is best addressed with a specific example. A lot of men have responded to this article in long tweet threads, stating that:
- They’ve said “you guys” to groups hundreds of times and nobody ever complained.
- They’re frustrated that their communities lack women and they don’t know why.
The lack of complaints is a symptom of an uninclusive community, not a validation that uninclusive behavior is okay. If people don’t feel welcomed and supported community, they leave. They don’t make themselves targets by complaining about something happening in the community.
It takes someone with good empathy skills to notice what’s happening before all of the people that aren’t included are silenced or gone. People without those empathy skills rapidly drive away the voices they need to hear. To illustrate, I’m going to paraphrase a few tweets in rapid succession from one man who responded to this article:
I am an extraordinarily inclusive person even if you don’t think so. “You guys” is gender neutral. It’s a colloquialism, nothing else. Just be a good person and you will be fine. I’ve stopped looking at the statistics for gender on my videos because it drives me crazy that 1% are women when there is absolutely nothing gender-specific about 3D printing.
I didn’t manipulate this man’s words, I quoted excerpts directly. There were many more people expressing identical ideas and sentiments in the tweets. It’s impossible that the dearth of women in this community is unrelated to that train of thought.
Objection: I’m Tired of Politically Correct Culture
This is not political correctness, for the same reasons it’s not about offending/being offended. If you think not saying “hey guys” is political correctness run amok, and you’re frustrated with everyone being so damn PC all the time, I’m not sure what I can say that won’t add more fuel to the fire.
In case some lighthearted humor can help, though:
“nerds” is also gender-neutral, I’m just saying
Eh, if guys is gender neutral so is mansplain.
VM (Vicky) Brasseur
ISO: a gender-neutral term for “mansplaining” What ya got for me, internets?
Why Fight So Hard To Keep It?
As a parting note, I understand if you don’t yet realize why “you guys” isn’t inclusive. If you’re an American, you grew up unconsciously using it, formed a habit, and didn’t think much about it. If you’re a non-native English speaker, you’re getting mixed signals—and I’ve seen a lot of people struggling with this when they are not fluent in English.
All very understandable. But after reading this blog post, you should be clear that “you guys” isn’t inclusive and is undesirable. You don’t have to be perfect. It takes time and effort to change habits. You will be forgiven for mistakes, especially if you’re able to catch yourself, apologize as Better Allies demonstrated above, and move on.
What’s not acceptable is men who fight to assert and retain the right to say “you guys” to mixed groups. They’re fighting to maintain a toxic power dynamic—to maintain psychological dominance over women by signaling to them that they aren’t equal, they don’t belong. This is a huge red flag in my personal experience. I have several times seen a man argue passionately that the dictionary should prevail, and in every single case that man had other problematic behaviors too. It is unacceptable to say that the dictionary is more important than the feelings of a real live person who is physically right in front of you.
References and Notes
- 22 Maps Show Deepest Linguistic Conflicts In America - Business Insider
- Is It Okay to Say “Hey Guys”? - The Atlantic
- Why We Should Stop Calling Women ‘Guys’ | HuffPost
- “But I’m not offending anyone!” — Tips for those tough conversations
- What Women Tell Me
- MEN, a podcast examining masculinity
- Guys and dudes | language: a feminist guide
- When is “guys” gender neutral? I did a survey! - Julia Evans
- Plural You
- NPM’s Guys Jar
- Words matter-choose inclusive language for an inclusive Tech – Rabeb Othmani
- “The key is not to get sucked into a debate about whether something is “technically” offensive or not. There is rarely an objectively “correct” answer. Instead, anchor your discussion on the fact that a team gets to decide what it values as a community, and what behaviors are aligned with that.” – via Inclusion at Work [return]
- So is sexism. It’s no excuse not to do better. [return]