Watching My Language (or, On the Quest to Gender-Neutralize My Speech)

Eowyn - I'm no man 2

It’s a tiny, seemingly throwaway phrase I hear uttered every day – from my own lips included – and it drives me just this side of batty.

As a writer, I’m very concerned and interested in the language I use, both on paper and verbally.

Part of the reason I’m such a slow writer is because, for me, every sentence is a search not just a word, but the exact word – the word that conveys the precise sentiment of what I’m trying to express.

I have a good friend who’s also a writer and has English as a second language.  She is fond remarking how, for her, writing is often its own unique form of torture since, in English, every last thing, no matter how insignificant, has its own individual word.

(To this, I’m fond of replying that because English is the product of several diverse linguistic influences and is the ultimate vocabular packrat to boot, there’s probably more like four words for everything.)

But all these synonyms mean slightly different things, which, in most situations, means that only one will really do.  Much of my writing time is spent digging deep to try to get those right words out the first time around.

I do this because, ultimately, there’s no net savings of time if I don’t: whether now or not, I’m eventually going to ditch any placeholders word and figure out the exact ones.  I prefer to say what I mean upfront instead of later.

I’m generally no less careful about the words I use when speaking.  Being an introvert according to the Myers-Briggs typology, I’m inherently the sort of person who thinks before speaking, unlike extroverts, who often do their thinking out loud through speech.

As a result of all this, I find myself particularly rankled by my frequent, careless usage of a most vexing phrase.

Namely, “you guys.”

By any other name

“You guys” is an expression we’ve probably all used, and often.  It’s a pronoun phrase used to address a group of people rather calling each person by name, which, in theory, is quite convenient, especially for a very large group.

Eowyn - I'm no manThe problem with it, of course, is that it’s used to address groups of others than just biological guys.  “You guys” is used with all-male groups, with mixed-gender groups, even with groups of all girls.

For my job in the non-profit sector, I often help facilitate workshops for diverse groups of people of all genders – cis males and females, trans* males and females, and everything in between along the gender spectrum.

Intellectually, the expression “you guys” seems woefully inadequate amidst such diversity.  Mildly insulting as well, in my opinion, because of what it alludes to: that someone who’s not a guy should nonetheless be okay with being called one; that a male figure is the default – the umbrella under which all other humans are clumped – that automatically comes to mind more often than not when no gender is specified.

That the gender differences of others don’t matter, not even enough to differentiate in speech.

And yet try doing the opposite: try addressing an all-male group – or even a mixed-gender group of mostly females – as “you girls” and see what sort of reaction you receive.

Giggles.  Frowns.  Clarifications.  Protests.

#NotAllMen

#NotAllMen

In some cases, violence.

What does that say about how society views non-males?

Language helps shape thought.

“You guys” comes with some serious cultural and linguistic conditioning; I know this from how frustratingly difficult it’s proving to eradicate the expression from my vocabulary, now more than two years into the process.

I’ve been getting better in formal settings – such as while facilitating – because my general preparation to do this work makes me especially mindful of every word I plan to say.  Also, because “you guys” is already rather nonchalant.

However in casual or unforeseen situations – for example, when I unexpectedly come upon a group of friends while out in the world – “you guys” often makes its traitorous reappearance.

Habits aren’t broken; they’re replaced, and even then, as my own experience has proven, it can take considerable time.  In order to banish “you guys” forever – in order to quit using lazy, placeholder words and say what I actually mean the first time – I’ve had to put more conscious thought into figuring out what words I can use instead.

These include:

Everyone

This is a great, inclusive, almost inspiring word that sounds very natural and works in a variety of situations, both formal and informal: “I want to ask everyone a question.” “Hey, everyone, how’s it going?”

You

In English, we’re fortunate to not have to use two separate words for singular “you” and plural “you” the way certain other languages do (e.g. French has “tu” for singular and “vous” for plural”).  As a result, many of the things one would say to address an individual person can be copied wholesale for use with groups: “What do you think?” “Did you find that activity difficult?”

Yous

In English, it’s unfortunate that we only have a single word for both the singular and plural “you”, because our usage tends to favour the singular, which can sometimes make its use for groups ambiguous without some sort of sweeping hand gesture to clarify that you’re addressing more than one person.

Taking my cue from a French-Canadian friend of mine who’s unwilling to surrender his plural “you” upon the throne of the Queen’s English, “you’s” is a much less formal/much more colloquial option, grammatical incorrectness be damned (just look at how many words Shakespeare invented*): “See yous later!”  “I need yous to come help me.”

Y’all

Say what you want about the American South but “y’all” – a contraction of “you all” – is a great, gender-neutral pronoun that rolls quite easily off the tongue and that I now use often without either irony or disdain in both my personal and professional lives: “How are y’all doing?” “Y’all can take a break in five minutes.”

You people

Another option, albeit one I tend to reserve for either very specific types of statements (“All you people go sit over at that table, you people at this table here…”) or for close friends to be intentionally cheeky given the often discriminatory connotations of the expression.

Folks

A rather old-timey word that in my opinion is due for a renaissance either on the job or at home: “Some folks felt the activity was confusing, so let’s work through it together.” “What are folks doing this weekend?”

Are there any words or phrases you’ve either eliminated or want to eliminate from your speech?  Let me know in the comments.

(*To my French-Canadian friend who I’m fairly certain is reading, I’m in no way saying you’re in the same category as Shakespeare.  Sorry, didn’t mean to get your hopes up there.)

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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28 thoughts on “Watching My Language (or, On the Quest to Gender-Neutralize My Speech)

  1. Love this, Janna. I’m working on this, too. And being a native of a U.S. state that is considered Midwest but borders the South, I can easily get away with “y’all.” 🙂
    In less casual situations, “you all” works perfectly.

    You forgot one that might be going out of style but I wish was used more often: “Ladies and Gentlemen.” We need a comeback for this, and “boys and girls” for children (which might still be used in schools).

    And I have to also point out that “you girls” is often used in the U.S. to address an all-male group as a snarky jab or an insult. Sad but true.

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    • It’s true about “you girls”; I’ve observed this in Canada as well.

      I’ve used “ladies and gentlemen” on occasion, but this is still gendered, plus it’s often associated with certain dated standards of behaviour and used negatively, particularly towards women (“a lady doesn’t X”). I’d say “everyone” or “everybody” is probably my #1 go-to.

      I have a friend who is a preschool teacher, and interestingly, they don’t use “boys and girls” but rather “friends”.

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  2. Great post.

    I admit that I never really thought of the term “you guys” as being gendered, even knowing it is. This post is going to make me alter the way I use that term now.

    “Part of the reason I’m such a slow writer is because, for me, every sentence is a search not just a word, but the exact word ” – ACK! I feel like you stole this sentence from my brain. So true. When writing I am mindful of which character is talking, the vocabulary they use, how long or short their sentences are. Etc.

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    • When the underlying meaning of “you guys” was first brought to my attention, it totally blew my mind. I’m glad I now know better, but it’s taken a long time (is still is) for me to learn to stop using it ’cause that expression is in there deep.

      I feel like you stole this sentence from my brain. Yes, I’m not the only one! When I’m writing, I feel like I’m composing a song, so if I don’t select the proper words up front, I’ll end up with a completely different melody, and not the one I actually want or believe in.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I encounter ‘man’ at Mass as a substitute for all the people, I just quietly replace it with ‘woman’. I’m tired of hearing language and having people say: men means everyone.

    It doesn’t. Male privilege is what it means. It includes women occasionally for a patronizing bit, doesn’t include us when it suits them. Whoever.

    It gets very wearisome, doesn’t it?

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      • The thing that’s difficult and frustrating to accept about the concept of privilege is that even though some – or even a lot – of young men die due to things like war or suicide or accidents on the job, when you zoom out and examine the world as a whole – because privilege is a measure of the average, not the individual – society is still structured such that men encounter fewer challenges and hardships than women. To say nothing for the fact that women who try to pursue some of these same dangers that kill men young (e.g. active combat, dangerous jobs in the trades), they’re often refused the opportunity to participate, or else dealt horrible harassment if they are permitted to be there.

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      • I think worldwide male privilege is a problem. I just feel the western world has done a fairly good job changing that. It’s another question of “privilege” to be an American or European woman where there is leisure time enough to spend time debating insensitive language vs. female genital mutilation and honor killings (or even sex trafficking).

        I just feel like western people (especially women) need to do exactly what you suggest: look at the big picture and stop being so incredibly sensitive to pronouns and the like.

        I read recently that in America there is such a thing as the “queen bee” syndrome. This is when women who make it to the top do everything in their power to prevent other women from doing the same thing. They surround themselves with “drones” (men) and kill through back stabbing etc any other woman’s dreams. I wonder if that’s evolutionary or just bad manners. The wage gap in America is also a myth once you factor in what fields of study men and women go into and how much of their lifetimes are spent in the workforce.

        Women and even CIS people enjoy a high standard of living in the west and a relative freedom of expression if you really look at the big picture of the world.

        I do appreciate your sensitivity toward others but I think we all need to stop being so sensitive.

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      • I am fully capable of caring about more than one issue at a time. Pronouns matter to me; so does FGM; so does the fact that a girl in the global south can get shot in the face for trying to get an education. I also care about my diet and whether or not I’m spending too much on heating my home.

        Yes, we in the west have made great strides, but I think we need to be very careful about complacently declaring that we’ve made it, for we’re not all riding the same train here. In Canada, where I’m from, for decades there have been epidemic numbers of Aboriginal women that have gone missing or been murdered without any sort of redress. In Vancouver, where I currently live, I’m a 10-minute bus ride away from the poorest area code in the country, where people with addictions and mental illness have been warehoused in scummy single-room hotels infested with bugs and vermin and lacking basic sanitation – in some cases, even lacking running water – or else have been left on the streets to rot. Perfection is a verb, not an adjective.

        But yes, for people like you and me, life is substantially better than for people in many other parts of the world. However, guiltily allowing that to halt us in our own pursuit of an equal society for all helps no one. We mustn’t underestimate our ability to inspire and influence the rest of the world with our continued efforts. I recently read an article in which Malala Yosafzai is quoted as saying the speeches and humanitarian work of Emma Watson have inspired her. That is an amazing occurrence that two women from two vastly different societies have been able to have an intercourse of ideas that’s likely altered the way they both perceive the world around them.

        As for queen bees, there are definitely shitty people out there, both women and men. The fact that some women use their power for ill doesn’t make all women bad, just like the fact that some men are like living saints doesn’t make all men good, and vice versa for both. Looking at the dearth of women who have actually made it to the top, though, those who are queen bees doesn’t quite seem like the most pressing issue.

        The first rule of doing a comparison study is to study comparable things. I have heard of studies looking and male and females having earned the same degree and at the same stage in their careers that supports the wage gap. But hey, if it really is a myth, eventually the truth, as is said, will set us free, for no great truth can remain suppressed forever.

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      • I didn’t mean to insinuate you couldn’t be concerned with 2 things at once or that the West is some form of heaven on earth.

        I just think that people who constantly want to be addressed in this way or that need to get over themselves a little. My name is hard for some people to pronounce. I don’t feel hurt when people say the wrong name etc. I’m a woman. Some people have made comments about my womanhood, my ethnic background etc, etc. I don’t come from privilege. My mother was raised in a shack down by the Hudson River and then put up for adoption only to live with an alcoholic foster father and finally a step-father who was way too touchy.

        What I learned from both my parents is that while language matters they never let labels define them. They also never let circumstances define them. They didn’t sit around and complain about names people called them.

        Instead they quietly served their fellow man (woman) with little fanfare. They wasted no time feeling sorry for the way the world treated them and they overcame the world.

        As a college student I was just as focused on the petty injustices of every day life in the West (in comparison to say world hunger). I noticed the people who stayed in those movements for too long (the professors etc) grew bitter and mean spirited. They seemed to be intolerant of everyone who wasn’t just like them which I found amusing since the battles were always about unfair treatment.

        I just think we humans have to be careful of where our hearts actually are. I sense yours is in the right place, yet I still fear language bullying as much as I did at the beginning of this chat. 🙂

        At some point in life I found that forgiveness and giving up my victim status were way more empowering then holding on to what people have called me or done to me. Forgiveness and compassion trump all other actions.

        When the founders of the US wrote the 1st Amendment they stated that the experiment of our constitution could only work within a moral framework. This does not guarantee safety or perfect people, but it holds some hope that people could rise to the occasion without force or censorship.

        In the end I don’t trust people enough to assume that a law making body or a body of students complaining on campus are always going to make fair decisions about what I’m allowed to say. I consider my voice a gift from God that I don’t want anyone silencing. (and obviously I would never want to silence yours!) 🙂

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    • Back in the day when women and certain other groups and classes of men weren’t considered people under the law, “man” did mean everyone. That day, thankfully, is over, and in due course, the antiquities in our language will change as well – of that, I have no doubt. Writers have a significant role to play in this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I fear our over sensitivity will lead to silencing people who don’t say the “right” things. You guys probably comes from the old rule that addressed everyone as man–as in mankind, etc. I very rarely spend time being critical of other people’s language because I realize that in general most people mean no harm. In most totalitarian societies language is the first thing attacked. I think we need to be careful.

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    • I’m not in favour of silencing people, however I believe there’s a line that stops well in advance of totalitarianism that allows for deeper examination of what the words we use actually mean, and for our language to evolve. In this case, I’m not insisting people stop using “you guys”, but merely bringing awareness based on my own experiences with the expression. This (bringing awareness) coupled with a desire to be more inclusive seems rather counter to the ethos of totalitarianism to me.

      It’s true, people may use “you guys” benignly, however it does have it’s historical roots in a time when women and certain groups and classes of men were not considered people under the law, and were denied basic rights because of this. I have no desire for my language to hearken back to this. I want my language to be alive and to evolve as our humanity continues to evolve. Plus, I maintain that if there isn’t an underlying disdain for women in “you guys”, why is saying “you girls” to any but an all-female group considered unacceptable and/or offensive?

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      • But all language developed back in the old bad days so I suppose we shouldn’t speak at all.

        When I see people losing their jobs, losing their freedom of expression or being publicly shamed for not following the group think consensus about language I see our first amendment right of speech– no matter how annoying or insensitive — being eroded.

        Of course I know that’s not quite what you were getting at but healthy debate and inclusion of all manners of speech leads to free society and strong people who don’t whine about what others say all the time.

        I believe I read that in parts of Europe “hate speech” is now a criminal offense. My problem with that is who gets to decide what that means?

        In America college professors and presidents are hounded on witch hunts until they resign for not using strong enough language against racist remarks made by people off campus and in different parts of the country! The word racism has become a code word for anything that offends anyone’s sensitivity to the point of insanity.

        I think we may actually be devolving. History shows that self-obsessed societies usually crumble.

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      • I don’t have a problem with all language from the old days, just that which recalls systematic exclusion and denial of the rights of others. However if those with a penchant for making offensive or hateful comments see not speaking as their only recourse, one can’t really deny the appeal of that strategy.

        I’m being cheeky, as were you with the original remark, and as is both our right to so be. I believe in free speech within reason*, even that expressing dissenting opinions. However with any sort of freedom comes responsibility. Free speech doesn’t means that others have to just dumbly take what anyone has to say. Rather, they too are free to speak back, and if applicable, to criticize. Never has this been more possible than in our modern age of rapid and decentralized communication. For the first time ever, marginalized people have been given a voice to have their own crack at free speech, the results of which may indeed seem alarming to those used to having their views and voices dominate the conversation for so long. I do find it ironic, though, that back in the days when language was routinely used to infringe upon the rights and dignity of others, the widespread outcry against following the group think consensus about language was strangely silent.

        I don’t believe that any person has the right to tell anyone else how they should or shouldn’t feel about something, whether we personally agree with those feelings are not. Everyone’s emotions are their own to experience and express as they see fit, and the fact is, if someone tells you that something you said is hurtful, why would want to continue saying it? I wish to live, not just in a free society, but also a decent one.

        *Within reason: hate speech is illegal in Canada as well, where I’m from, and has been in some form or another since the 80s. Who decides what that means? The same bodies that decide what everything else under the law means: the person who feels they’ve been the victim of a crime, and the courts. Personally, I’ve never worried about accidentally uttering hate speech because I seek to respect the dignity and humanity of all people in every word that I say, particularly when expressing a dissenting opinion.

        The thing about racism is that it’s not just one thing; it has many intersecting elements (e.g. class, gender, orientation, age) that makes the experience of it different for different people. Ultimately, though, it’s probably best to leave the definition of what it is or isn’t to the people who are actually subjected to it rather than to those who aren’t.

        I’ll never agree with the notion that a society working its way to becoming more inclusive and accepting is devolving. A truly equal society will look different than anything anyone has ever seen before because it’s never existed in the history of our species. For it to work, those who have historically enjoyed privileges at the expense of others (and in this I include myself, for I have many advantage in life) will be forced to give over part of their share of a finite amount of resources and opportunities. The true test of our character will be whether we’re able to do this with grace and compassion or not. Thanks for the comments.

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      • I respectfully disagree with some of your points. Group think is dangerous no matter the issue. Hate speech claims can be used as weapons to marginalize groups of people we disagree with as well. As an American who’s family fought in the war of independence I take very seriously the right to 100% free speech. I stand by my comment that anything less can eventually lead to a police-state, tattle on your friends and neighbors witch hunt society where the best and brightest are afraid to express an unconventional or uncomfortable thought or fact because it might hurt someone’s feelings or make them feel unsafe. the sad truth about life on this planet is that all the hand wringing over language will never make being human safe–that is a pipe dream. History illustrates this time and again.
        I happen to adore people in all their flawed craziness. I don’t harbor ill will toward any gender, race or creed, but I do think we all need to notice that constantly being over sensitive to language seems to take the place of finding truly constructive ways to live together in peace however illusive.

        I do appreciate your heart about this subject. I wish we could all remember that each of us is flawed, foolish and lovable.

        Peace.
        A

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  5. I can’t stand ‘yous’ – argh, it really grates on me for some reason (although i have used it in my writing to single out a character trait in dialogue). I often use the word ‘peeps’ for a group of people, but not in a formal setting. Saying ‘Hi Guys’ is a bit of a joke in my neck of the woods because the men don’t like being called ‘guys’ and neither do the women 😉

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    • “Yous” is definitely inelegant; for me, that’s almost part of its charm. 😉 “Peeps” is another good option, for sure. I had to laugh about “you guys” where you are, with men and women united in their dislike for being called “guys”. Equality!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like ‘everyone’ although that sounds a bit formal for every ocassion. I do use ‘guys’ more than I should but it’s preferable to a gender specfic word, even for single gender groups. I could never use ‘y’all’ or ‘yous’!

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    • There’s definitely a time and place for “y’all” and “yous”, although eventually, certain words just become part of your style and what people are used to hearing from you and come to fit anywhere. I’ve totally embraced my inner southerner and made “y’all” my thing. I think my lack of southern drawl allows me to slide it in there with hardly anyone noticing!

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  7. Nicely written and argued, though I think you’re a bit out on the fringes with this one Janna. Certainly I admire your determination to pick the best word option in your writing. But with dialogue and everyday speech, stuff will evolve. If enough people are uncomfortable with an expression it will die out of its own accord. Too much other stuff out there to get right 😉

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  8. Although the word seems to bug a lot of people, I’m a fan of “y’all.” There’s something disarming about southern charm. As for “yous”… I live a half hour from Staten Island, dare I say the redheaded stepchild of NYC and the mecca of all things Yous. “Redheaded stepchild” is probably an offensive term. I don’t know what it means, but I know it is an insult and should probably eliminate it from my vocabulary.

    Where do I start with identifying things I shouldn’t say but still do? I’ve had a good run of pissing off and upsetting people recently, so I’ve taken to not talking at all.

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    • Where I am, I hear way more “y’all” than “yous”. “Yous”, I fully admit, is kinda clunky, whereas “y’all” has almost two centuries of usage behind it. When I use “yous”, it comes out sounding more like “yuzz” the way I rush through it, but when I say “y’all”, I slow it right down to savour the smoothness of it against my tongue.

      I know that I still say things that have rather offensive origins and connotations. No one is perfect. I’m usually not that bothered by it if a groups I’m in is referred to as “you guys”. However, I have in the past been asked by specific people if I’d mind not saying certain things in their presence that hurts or offends them. And of course I don’t mind, for why would I want to keep saying something I know is hurting someone else? Why wouldn’t anyone?

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  9. English used to have “thou” as a second person pronoun, which was used in intimate terms, alongside “you”, which was more formal. Akin to the “tu/vous” usage in French, though I’m not sure if “you” was ever used as a plural. “You” is derived from Indo-European “ye”, which was second person plural formal, but could be used to address a single person.

    Some dialects of South and Central American Spanish use “voseo” as a singular second person, and “vos” as a plural second person. In official Spanish, there’s “usted” and “ustedes.”

    In parts of Pennsylvania, some people use “yinz” as a second person singular and plural, apparently derived from Scots-Irish “you ones”.

    “Y’all”, to my mind, is the most euphonic and easily understood solution to this problem of English, though I’ll admit to using “you guys” with mixed groups.

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    • That’s very interesting and educational, Peter – thanks! 🙂 I don’t think I actually knew “ye” was properly second personal plural, but it makes sense considering the way it’s used in the Bible. In Mandarin, which I’m currently learning, there are different forms for singular and plural you as well: nĭ and nĭmen (or nín and nímen for formal use) as written in the Pinyin phonetic alphabet. With all the linguistic influences English has swallowed up along the way, it seems weird that we only have one “you” when there’s so many different ways of saying everything else.

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