Language Matters: Stop Using “Guys” to Address Mix-Gender Groups

Hi guys. Hey guys. You guys.

Several times a day, in the course of normal workplace communication, I receive messages addressed in the manner indicated above. And I’d like it to stop. I’m not a guy, and don’t want to be referred to as such. Furthermore, every time I read “you guys” I am reminded of my minority status in an industry that is predominantly male.

I would have the same reaction if I were addressed in group email or conversation as boys, or dudes or men. These descriptions aren’t any more accurate than using gals, women, ladies, or girls would be.

I realize that to many it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to a mixed-gender group of people as “guys.” I’m asserting that it’s a terrible habit and requesting that those of you who are accustomed to using it begin using alternative, truly gender-neutral words.

For example:

  • If you’re addressing something to one or two people, try just using their names!
  • If you’re addressing a group of people, use any of the following: team, y’all, folks, everyone.

(Please comment if you have other alternatives, and I’ll update my post accordingly.)

I understand how ingrained the “guys” habit might be for some of you. It was for me. After several months of concerted, conscious effort, I still slip and say it on occasion. But the best way to get rid of old habits, is to practice new ones. Start with email, where you have time to re-read and edit. Then move on to speech. If you say it out loud, correct yourself.

I’m not sure when I started paying attention to this particular construct. It was sometime over the last year, if not longer ago. And it was a result of my gaining more knowledge and experience with issues around gender minorities in tech. It might sound trivial to you, but language matters. We should focus on promoting language of inclusion, and eliminating that of exclusion.

48 comments

  1. Amy

    In email, I’ll often use “All” as a salutation. Some alternatives identify a common thread in the group addressed and/or the subject of the email: “Colleagues,” “Fellow Coffee Drinkers,” “Users of the 5th-floor copier,” …

    In speech, I’m more likely to use “People!” to get attention.

    I don’t mind “guys,” really. I prefer it to “Gentlemen and Amy.”

  2. Tim Chevalier

    Also, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest maybe it’s not such a hot idea to address all-male groups as “guys” either, for the simple reason that it establishes a certain habit or reflex that’s hard to break. If you’re looking at the group to check whether there are any women there before you decide how to address it… well, that’s a little weird. People’s gender isn’t really relevant to most work contexts (unless you’re establishing an internal affinity group or a support group for working on feminist issues, but then it wouldn’t be the majority gender you’re using as a shorthand for the whole), so why one needs to call out gender deserves interrogation, I think.

  3. Ari

    I am a female programmer and staunch feminist. I hear “guys” all the time. I’ve heard it from men addressing mixed groups, women addressing mixed groups, and women addressing women. Does it hurt me? Maybe a little bit, if at all. But reprimanding colleagues for “reminding me of my minority status” hurts more. Policing people’s words comes off as hostile and pedantic, and paradoxically, can worsen gender enmity.

    People who say “guys” generally mean no harm by it and are likely just using the word because it’s informal without sounding dorky or affected. Demanding they change breeds resentment. There are much bigger battles in gender relations than word choice.

      • S

        Wow, way to shut down constructive conversation. Ari didn’t do anything wrong here. She pointed out some possible negative consequences and you jump down her throat. It sounds like you’ve decided that everyone should militantly ban and correct the use of “guys,” no matter what the consequences. Disagreement is not “derailment.”

        • Christie Koehler

          Ari’s comment was in no way constructive. She engaged in a tone argument, made excuses for this particular microaggression and asserted that it doesn’t matter.

          You don’t have to agree with me on my blog, but you don’t get to debate the validity of my experiences and you don’t get to engage in derailment.

          Those who don’t want to follow those guidelines are free to take their conversation elsewhere. And, I believe that’s what Ari did.

          • Lovelace

            I didn’t read it as her criticizing your tone, I thought she was saying that these kind of discussions, whether they happen in public like this or in work settings with her colleagues, tend to be (in her experience) more harmful than helpful. I think she was also saying that if you have to pick your battles (which is often the case, sad but true), it’s more important to go after bigger instances of intentional sexism, especially when you risk alienating otherwise sympathetic colleagues by critiquing subtle language points.

    • Janet

      You don’t have to police other peoples’ words, just be mindful of your own words, if you choose to.

      I too find “y’all” useful, and I prefer it to the Northern “youse”, which seems awkward as a term of address. Or I’ll skip the term of address, and just start with “Hi!” or “Happy Monday!” or whatever.

      • Emmanuel

        You don’t have to police other peoples’ words, just be mindful of your own words, if you choose to.

        I agree with Janet. Everyone is free to change their own words if they choose to but, policing everyone at an organization to change a very basic communication pattern is asking alot and most people will just ignore it unless it becomes an organizational policy not to do so.

        • ConFigures

          But who dragged in “policing everyone at an organization”? Not the original poster, who simply suggested people review their own words and choose more inclusive terms.

    • Jayn

      While I can respect that you may feel it is more damaging to bring up the subject than to let it go in some situations, don’t say that it doesn’t matter, because it sure as hell does. It reinforces our subconscious biases, and for many women is enough of a reminder of our status as ‘others’ to be off-putting. And it’s just one example among thousands of ways that ‘male’ is defined as the norm. Sure, it may be small, but the small things add up.

  4. Katie Cunningham

    I’m a big fan of using “All:” as an opener.

    It’s slightly more formal, and in a work environment, even if you come to work in shorts and a tee, you should TRY to be a bit more formal in your communication style. Formality helps set up emotional distance, which is incredibly important when working in groups of people who would not help you move a couch.

    If I’m speaking, I’ll use ‘Everyone’… or just skip it. Body language makes it clear I’m talking to everyone in the room, not just one person.

    I have to admit, this is the one thing I miss from losing my Southern affect: y’all. Such a useful phrase. :(

  5. Sid

    Suggesting that the word “guys” always refers to or implies an all-male group is language prescriptivism (which, as I’m sure you’re aware, isn’t taken seriously by professional linguists). If in a certain person’s idiolect or region’s dialect it also means “mixed-gender groups” then that’s what it means.

    The Merriam-Webster dictionary at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guys?show=2&t=1341337133 (sense 3b) says that “guys” can be used regardless of sex, so clearly it’s used by enough people that way.

    • Christie Koehler

      Words have connations beyond the literal definitions given by dictionaries. It doesn’t matter that lots of people use “guys” to refer to mixed-gender groups or that such a usage is considered valid linguistically. The word choice is exclusionary and there are many better, inclusive options to select from. There’s no reason not to change other than habit and to maintain the status quo.

    • Tim Chevalier

      Sid, descriptivism is supposed to be a way to question authoritarianism about language, not reinforce it. When you condescend to a woman and lecture her about abstractions in response to her describing something that’s painful to her, you are being a prescriptivist, because you’re telling that she has to react to microaggressions in the same way that a (privileged) man would.

      • Nathan

        Words mean different things to different people. I think Sid’s point was that to some, “you guys” is completely gender-neutral. But as not everyone interprets it that way, probably the safest policy is to try to avoid it.

        • Tim Chevalier

          I think he was trying to make the point that what words mean to him is the objective and correct meaning, whereas what words mean to me and Christie is subjective, emotional, and therefore wrong. It’s a point I’ve seen made quite often by people who believe they have the social upper hand.

          • Sid

            I did not mean that, nor do I see how it is possible to interpret what I’m saying as that in anything resembling good faith. Nor did I say, mean or imply “I’ll put you in your place” as you speculated on your Twitter account. Nor did I have an issue with moral “prescriptivism” (which I guess means normative statements?) as the person whose tweet you retweeted implied. Nor was I committing an is-ought fallacy. Nor did I say those were the standards I applied to myself. Nor did I say I don’t make a conscious effort to not use the word “guys” (though I guess it’s easier for me as a speaker whose native language does have the most commonly used colloquial term for a group of people be gender-neutral).

            You have jumped to a number of conclusions here, none of which are warranted.

            • Tim Chevalier

              It’s great that you didn’t mean any of those things. Next time, communicate so as to express your intent clearly. Since you’re a linguistics expert, you probably know that meaning is determined by the listener, not the speaker.

  6. Addie

    I’ve started noticing that “guys” takes me out of the moment when I’m in a professional context, for reasons beyond gender: it’s a colloquialism I use with friends that I trust and feel safe around, and when it’s used by people in a professional context, it implies a level of trust and safety that they have not necessarily earned from me, and that puts me on my guard. Not all developers have the privilege to be able to trust and feel safe around their peers without consequences; I feel like a lot of the folks carelessly wielding “guys” in a work context have never had to deal with the consequences of their own professional boundaries not being respected.

    • Tim Chevalier

      +1, and the very same goes for innuendo and sexually explicit jokes (even mild ones), IMO. While I have been guilty of using the latter in a work context, I’m much less likely to do so now that I’ve thought more about how making those jokes can reflect troubling assumptions about trust, boundaries, and whose trust I’m entitled to.

  7. Michelle

    I actually am known for address large group emails at work as
    ” Hey Party People”. ( Generally with a group of people that I interact with on a daily basis.)
    But then, I also advocate that conflict be solved by dance-offs.

    I’m also fond of Hey All!

    • Stephan Sokolow

      I’d probably prefer “Hey everyone”. For some reason (probably related to my strong intuitive understanding of grammar), “Hey all” puts me on edge, no matter how well I know a person.

      Of course, even before reading this, that intuitive understanding already made me uncomfortable with certain uses of “guys” (Primarily all-female groups or mixed groups without a strong male majority) despite my peers of both genders feeling differently.

      I suppose that and my deep dislike of engendered nouns makes it a bit ironic that I’m currently learning French, but what can you do. I’m Canadian, so it’s a useful language to know. (French enshrines that “mixed-gender groups are masculine” quirk in the core grammar of the language upon which all pronoun uses and verb conjugations build)

  8. Joe Stagner

    It seems to me that MY intent in the use of a word is more important than all the negative connotations that others might attribute to that word. But then again, I’m a “guy”.

    I once had a black room mate who objected when someone refered to him as a “big old boy” (both he, and the person that made the statement were from the south and my room mate was over 7 feet tall). While no offense was intended, Jimmy (my room mate) was bothered by it becuase of the racist connotations – so his friends did not use the word to refer to him.

    When I say “guys” (and I’ve done it as Christie described above), I mean “team”, “friends”, etc.

    Very few people would describe me as sexist. The person in my life I respect the most is my wife. My boss is a female. Most of the teammates I interact with daily are women. Etc.

    In truth, I don’t really care how people choose to skew what I mean when I use the word guys. I’m an old country boy, there is much about people I don’t understand – and I mean no harm.

    But, what I DO care about is the feelings of the people I work with (one of whom is Christie). So really I don’t have to understand why “guys” bothers some people, and I don’t have to agree with the fact that they have the feelings they do. I simply choose to respect the fact that is DOES bother at least one of my coworkers (and so probably bothers others).

    I choose to care about and respect their feelings enough to avoid hurting them if it’s not necessary. It takes little effort to modify a practice that hurts others feelings.

    I like Chiristie. We started at Mozilla on the same day. So because she asked….

    From now of it will be something like….
    “Dear Open Web Crusaders,”

  9. Mark

    I thought this was a bit overblown until I started thinking about the opposite–addressing a group of men or a mixed group of men and women by a female-gendered term. You certainly don’t hear men calling each other “gals” or “ladies” or anything like it, unless it’s done in a derogatory manner, which is in itself very troublesome. Very interesting; thanks for getting me thinking.

  10. Mark

    Something I always try to keep in mind:

    “The hearer, not the speaker determines the meaning of an utterance.”

    – Heinz von Foerster, one of the founders of cybernetics

  11. edgy1004

    If it is a group that I know really well I use “kids” as in “hey kids” or “come on kids”, the older the people the better. When I am teaching lab, I used “people” as in “listen up, people!” or “everyone” as in “Everyone, this is what we are doing today.” No one has grammer policed me yet.

  12. robinite

    One of my coworkers uses “Team” to address us all in email. It’s a really classy choice.

  13. Rebecca

    YES! I have written about this before. When people balk at the idea that I don’t like “guys” because I am not a guy, I ask them the following: Suppose we were at a big party, and someone asked you, “Can you point me to someone who is an expert in computational science and ulnar nerve entrapment?” Would you point towards me and say, “That guy over there, in the turquoise blouse”? I don’t think so. Therefore I am not a guy and I don’t like to be referred to as such.

    Personally, I address my work emails with “Treasured Colleagues.”

  14. Cathy B

    In Texas, we say “y’all”. It’s both gender-neutral and relaxed. Might not work for northerners, though. Bless your hearts. :D

  15. John

    Agree. When this first started happening in the UK, I hated it for your reasons and for the parochial one that it wasn’t English. For about a year, if this happened in meetings, I would say “and Dolls”, hoping to make the point gently. This failed, I gave up and simply think less of anyone who does it. So far this has not changed the world.

  16. Loup

    My test is – if you wouldn’t use the singular to refer to any single member of the group, don’t use the plural. AKA if you don’t introduce your female colleagues as “the guy who handles X” then you are excluding her when you use ‘guys’ to refer to a group including her. Even if you don’t mean to.

  17. Lavender_Pepper

    Oi! Goodness, yes! I was never so aware of masculine being all inclusive until I worked with school children at a museum. Not only did EVERYONE use “you guys” to refer to the groups, but the KIDS used male for everything including the genderless TRex skull and even for our Lucy skeleton. Discussing “why are you using ‘him’ ” and addressing them as “y’all” was a big, unintended focus of my work there.

  18. L. Thurston

    The English language is dynamic…with common use words being made totally acceptable just by their overwhelmingly popular use. There are new words added to the dictionary every year for these same reasons. I believe “you guys” or”guys” may be one of them. It’s certainly better that “you-uns” that sounds like fingernails on a black board to my ears.

  19. Sandy

    This is interesting. I think I’ve gone the opposite way. I don’t feel excluded or minority-ified – if anything, I feel more included cos no one’s had to take notice of my gender. Language does matter, but I think understanding intent first will naturally shape the right change. :)

  20. Chippy

    For greetings and salutations at a team level, I use things like, Howdy project-name-fans or -aficionados or -cognoscenti or similar. Not a “guy” among them. More formally, I’ll simply say, “Hi” alone. And I try to avoid “guys” and correct closer colleagues about the term (“Guys, grab your purses and let’s go to lunch!”).

    For terms like man months or manning the booth or whatever, I usually come back a sentence or two later using person months or staffing the booth or whatever. Not in a pointed way, but as normal conversation; “Let’s see, on Tuesday, we’ve got Don and Sue staffing the booth from 8-10, Tom and Mai from 10-noon”, and “Hmmm, Tracy’s estimate for that deliverable is 12 person days, but that doesn’t include Pat’s QA effort”. I’ve mostly gotten people to switch over, without being seen as strident.

    I’m also fighting the “resource” battle. Gender neutral, but totally dehumanizing; like we’re all trees in a forest to be managed and harvested as needed. As in, saying light things like, “My momma didn’t raise no ‘resources’.” She did raise several people though,” as well as replacing “resources” with “people” in my response where appropriate. I’m seeing progress on that one as well, finally. First started to hear people saying stuff like “I’ll need 2 resources, er, I mean people, for the xyz project” and I’m now getting more natural acceptance, things like “We’re having problems getting people and resources, especially the special hardware, for that project.”

    Yes, words matter.

  21. Julia

    I had a recruiter sending me anonymously (my name unknown) an email that they were looking for a couple more “guys” to join the company. Sounds inappropriate in this context, as it doesn’t fit the “group” grammar (if it was “Java guys” then it would’ve been members of a group).

  22. Lovelace

    I just searched my inbox, because I vaguely remembered a professor addressing the members of our class list as “guys” when he’d send out homework assignments. Apparently this happened fairly often, and there were a couple professors who did it. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to read the term as gendered in those contexts, even when it was a math professor. Our math major population was majority female, but the professors were mostly male, and there was one class I took where there was only one other girl left by the end of the class (a couple people dropped the class, because it was harder than any of us had expected).

    I dunno, I mean, it is technically a gendered term, and I can see why it might bother you–it’s legit to be offended by it, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be. But I don’t think it is inherently exclusionary. I think it’s less that the speaker assumes the group is majority male and more that it’s one of the most common words used to address groups, mixed gender or otherwise. It’s kind of inconvenient that English doesn’t have a standard second-person plural like some other languages do.

    • Christie Koehler

      English does have a second person plural, it’s you.

      Americans (particularly West Coasters) just aren’t used to using it and have adopted more informal alternative like “you guys.” As a listener, and the object of such usage, I don’t care a lot about the speaker’s intent or their assumptions. I don’t usually think they are selecting their words intentionally. And that’s the problem. Combating systems of oppression means critically examining our in-grained, unconscious behaviors, including language and speech patterns, for those that maintain such power structures and then working to change them. And that’s why I’m asking those around me to start using greater intention and insight when selecting their words.

      Would there be more minority math professors at your university if the existing ones stopped saying “you guys”? No, that alone, probably wouldn’t fix the dearth of minorities at your university or in the STEM fields in general because that is a multi-faceted issue. However, paying attention to language and applying mindfulness to its use in everyday situations is one vector for working on the problem.

  23. Melissa Chavez

    Since I’ve been learning more Spanish this past year, I’ve been reminded how much of a role gender plays in my everyday language. In Spanish, groups of mixed company (with at least one male) take a male pronoun, whether it be an informal “you”, “us” or “them”. Only a formal version of “you” is neutral. It definitely reinforces a male-dominant culture. I really wish this wasn’t the case, as I end up sounding more formal than everyone else when speaking to people at work.

    I try to say “everyone” when addressing a crowd (or in OSB email correspondence), and to not specifically refer to gender at all.

  24. Anita

    Since recently, I try to reduce the ”guys” usage. Instead I’m going with ‘folks’ ”y’all” or ”peeps”. They work fine for me.

  25. Pingback: Open Source, Closed Minds? A reflection on Joseph Reagle’s “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap” | Geek Feminism Blog
  26. Michelle

    I really love this article. I do not support “you guys” and “guys” for objects or humans in about 13 years. I think since the age of reason (after high school hehe) and in college I started thinking about it. The funny thing is that mostly men pointed out to me that “you guys” is weird and most females lay down to accept it and over use it. I had one teacher in college that was female that made a point not to use it especially in processional settings and I love her for it. I now tell people I don’t like it and not to use it but sadly no one hears me and my supervisor (female) uses it so much it makes me want to ignore her and have as little contact as possible with her verbally..what to do?

  27. Jennie

    I have just found this website, and I think I’m about to cry.
    This post in particular touched close to home. I am a female programmer and everyone at my current company seems to prefer the term “guys” when discussing the engineers or programmers.
    I brought it up to the HR lady, and she listened to the complaint, but then didn’t know what to do about it. I tried to bring it up on facebook on a WISE page, (Women in Science and Engineering) and the ladies on there all said it was a small thing and I should just ignore it.
    I must not be good at ignoring things, because it bothers me EVERYTIME it gets used.
    I don’t have anything relevant to add, but I did want to drop a line and say a heart felt thank you. Thank you for this website, and thank you for this post.