“Hey guys” and other gender-bending language

gender bending robot
Image Credit: Pablo Gutiérrez

When I was a high school teacher, I tried very hard to avoid the ubiquitous “guys”.

“Alright guys, listen up.”
“I need all you guys to put your lab equipment back up at the front once you’re finished.”
“Attention up here guys.”
“What did you guys think about….”

“Guys” are male. Half of my classes weren’t. So instead I tried to use gender-neutral alternatives.

“Alright everyone, listen up.”
“I need each of you to put your lab equipment back up at the front once you’re finished.”
“Attention up here folks.”
“What did you all think about….”

Gendered language like this is so commonplace it’s easy not to give it a second thought. Other non-gender-neutral language is more thoughtfully shifting, as roles that historical may have been filled by one gender are much less homogeneous today.

Stewardess–>Flight Attendant

Policeman–>Police Officer

Chairman–>Chairperson

And then there are the phrases like “men at work” and” manpower”. Somehow “personpower” doesn’t have the same ring to it though. (And spell check doesn’t like it either).

I don’t think it’s being oversensitive to want to change the way we genderify language. (I totally just made that word up.) Rather than be an outspoken activist about it, I just infuse language into my conversations. Repeating a gendered phrase back with ungendered words, for example.

“That waitress was such a wench.”

“Yeah, the server was totally rude to us.”

Is speaking with ungendered words important to you? (For me yes). Or does it even matter? (For me yes).

Can gendered language create barriers? (I think so). Or am I just being overly PC? (I say no).

6 comments:

  1. Trina,

    It’s an interesting debate. I’m a bit of a flip-flopper on this issue. I use flight-attendant, but don’t mind waiter or waitress. I think it depends on the context, the situation and ultimately, the audience.

    What are your thoughts on being a self-stylized “Jack of All Trades” as seen in your short bio at the top of the blog? Would being a “Jill-of-All-Trades” have you leaning too far on the other end of the gender spectrum?

    Thanks for this post!

    Lee.

    1. Ha! Jack of all trades. You caught me Lee. I would use the excuse that because I’m talking about myself it’s OK, but that would be just that, an excuse.

      Perhaps I’ll be Jill of All Trades, Mistress of Business Administration!

  2. I like your point about being aware but not preachy, as there’s nothing more annoying than someone editing a casual conversation!

    We also need to realize that vocabulary does evolve over time – when is it actually hurting or setting us back, and when has the term taken on a (neutral) life of its own?

    In fact, I would argue that “you guys” might be a case where it’s evolved into the English third person plural…? Personally I don’t mind it so much, and don’t see “you guys” as “you men.”

    My husband pointed out that CBC (normally a paragon of PC language) used the term “paddy-wagon” in a recent news story. It’s a pretty offensive term if you think of the origin, but hardly anyone makes the association. Not only that, but the stereotype in question is something most people take pretty lightly (see St. Patrick’s Day). In a case like that, do we work to phase it out? Or just accept that whatever it’s origins, it’s a working term?

    P.S. Alternate suggestions for “you guys” would be “y’all” or “homies”. :P

    1. Y’all. I freely admit that I use that one too.

      I think beyond gendered language, there are just so many words that have negative historical contexts for which the negative context has been forgotten. I actually had no idea about paddy-wagon until just now. I learned the contexts of “gypped” and “doing Dutch” much later than some more obvious ones.

      However, sometimes editing a casual conversation I think is warranted once in a while (if for the statement along even if it doesn’t change anything). I’ve worked with someone who uses “retard” and “gay” WAY too much (as if it is ever OK) and whether I directly or indirectly address the word choice, they believe there is absolutely nothing wrong.

      *sigh*

  3. Ha! Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen a surge in the use of “y’all” in our vernacular lately here North of the border….

    This is something I struggle with on a daily basis… getting it ‘right’! Perhaps it’s because I work in communication and need to be careful to mind my p’s and q’s, but for some reason I find myself being quite hypersensitive to it all, too. And frankly, with a few minor changes, I think we could find some pretty easy solutions (at least in terms of signage…)

    For example, the other day I was walking home and this massive orange side impeded my normal route that said: “Caution Men Working”. Did they mean that men are prone to accidents and therefore we should be cautious upon approach? Or perhaps they were doing a public service for all those women who hate men and advised them to take an alternate route?? ;0)

    I agree that in some cases the genderifying (ha!) terms we have come to get used to just sound better (Caution: People at work) wouldn’t work, but if we change it around a bit we could find some solutions: “Caution Workers Ahead” or something of the sort…

    1. Ergo, the reason there are no “caution women working signs” is that there is no reason to watch out when they work – they are just that good!

      I agree it’s really easy to choose other words. It just takes people to start being thoughtful about it, and eventually the old word choices will become less and less the norm.

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