We need to talk about the word “guys” and whether or not it means people. Well, to be accurate, whether or not it means people to all the people who hear it. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t. Not to all of them. Maybe it does to you. I used to think it did to me. But now I’m not so sure it ever did. And for sure, there exist some people to whom it doesn’t. Take a look at this really non-scientific poll in which only “hey guys” was actually considered gender neutral: . There’s a whole section of the #include<C++> resources about the word “guys”.
But let’s rewind for a minute. If you’re a man, you may not have noticed, but in North American and English-speaking European cultures, two things are true, to the vast majority of people:
- Men means people
- People means men
As a woman, this is something I have come to learn. Men are people. Women are a special case. People often doesn’t include women. If you think that’s ridiculous, please react to this sentence:
On average, people have slightly less than one ovary
This is an adaptation of a sentence I heard to explain why average is not always a useful measure of a data set. I first heard it as “slightly less than one testicle.” When I told it to someone else, I substituted a feminine anatomical feature, and to my surprise, the man I told it to reacted very angrily. Since then, I’ve tried both versions of the sentence on various people, men and women (I haven’t tried it on the few nonbinary people I’ve met.) When you say testicle, everyone laughs. When you say ovary, women pause for a moment and then laugh. Some men laugh but most get angry. Why? Because people in general don’t have ovaries. Only women have ovaries, and when most people say people, they really mean men, who generally speaking are ovary-free. So this sentence includes a reminder that “the word people includes women and there are as many of us as there are of you.” Which upsets many men. And while they can’t explain their anger, it’s real. It’s actually a little scary.
Yeah but, come on, I can’t possibly mean that, right? I mean it’s 2018. How can “people” possibly mean men? Take a look at these quotes from reputable medical sites:
The American Heart Association says “People at high risk of heart attack should take a daily low-dose of aspirin (if told to by their healthcare provider)” and that “heart attack survivors regularly take low-dose aspirin.”
The Mayo Clinic says, to a nongendered “you”, “If you've had a heart attack or stroke, your doctor will likely recommend you take a daily aspirin unless you have a serious allergy or history of bleeding. If you have a high risk of having a first heart attack, your doctor will likely recommend aspirin after weighing the risks and benefits.”
But it turns out, as WebMD says, “when it came to preventing a first heart attack, different trials got different results. Why? Studies that looked predominantly at men found that aspirin helped. Trials that looked predominantly at women found no effect.” Yet the general-purpose medical web sites are still advocating that “people” should do something that in fact is only helpful for men, rather than for people.
You can see the same thing in almost any store: razors and women’s razors, lego and girl’s lego, hammers and women’s hammers, even laxatives and women’s laxatives. The default person is a man. Women are a special case and are not always included in the general “people.”
Or take a look at these headline examples from a blog entry I recommend reading in its entirety:
- ...there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off
to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the
women and the children. [so women are not able bodied young adults?]
- A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife [doesn't she live next-door too?]
So, if people means men, then even if guys also means people, it still means men. So we can argue whether “guys” is or isn’t gender neutral, but for an awful lot of both men and women, “people” isn’t even gender neutral. I think it’s fair to say, though, that guys is even less gender neutral than people.
The key is this: you might mean to include women when you say guys. And most of the room might hear it as including women, too. But some of them will not. And you can’t tell who feels that way. So eliminating “guys” from your vocabulary will improve the experience of listening to you for some people.
How can you do it? What can you say instead? Well in a lot of cases, you can just drop it. For sentences like “What do you guys think?” “What I’m here to show you guys today is” and the like, you can just use “you.” Sometimes you might want “all of you”. “Some guys think” can become “some people think” or get more specific – “some developers think”, “some managers think”, “some customers think” – you’re not only eliminating an irritant from your talk, but you’re being more precise and conveying more information. And you’re avoiding “people” which, as I’ve shown above, isn’t actually gender neutral to most of those who hear it.
If you’re talking in the singular, this becomes even more important. “Some guy asked for this feature so it got added” or “you know somewhere the guy who wrote this is thinking” or “I need a guy from your group to take the lead on this” is just always wrong. Yet the more you say “guys” to mean “bunch of people of whatever gender, I don’t care about gender”, the more you will say “guy” to mean just one person, and those who hear you will hear gender. Instead, you can’t go wrong with “someone”, or again being more specific – the developer who wrote this, for example.
The hard part isn’t figuring out how to reword the sentence to avoid the word guy or guys. The hard part is breaking the habit. I’m working on it, because I think it’s worthwhile. I encourage you to work on it too. Chances are, no-one will ever notice. That’s the thing about politeness and taking the time to be sure you’re not bumping someone with your elbow. No-one ever got off a plane and tweeted how great it was that the person next to them kept their elbows to themselves, or smelled ok, or was quiet. But it’s still worth taking the effort to be the great seatmate, and in the same spirit it’s worth taking the time to change your speech patterns a tiny bit so that some of your listeners don’t feel excluded.