Words are incredibly powerful. We can choose our words carefully, yet the impact of our terms can cause harm. We might choose our words ignorantly and inadvertently say something offensive. Language is ever-evolving. Year by year, pronunciations evolve, new words are borrowed or reused, and the meaning of “old” words shift. As a child of the 90s, I can’t even imagine saying, “All That And a Bag of Chips,” “As If!” or even, “Da Bomb” anymore. Although these words were at some point very chic, they have gone out of style (hopefully not to return). However, as I have been doing my inner work with the social justice movement and examining my identity and biases, I am noticing my impact more than usual. In the past few months, something that has come up quite a bit in me, and my immediate environment has caused outrage. Simply put, it’s the use of “guys” to address a group of people.
Many years ago, I stopped using the term, “boyfriend.” I’m not too fond of that term. As part of identifying with a heteronormative privileged group myself, I noticed that I started to hate the word and how it felt non-inclusive. At the time, I worked with many LGBTQIA teens, and I saw the impact it had on them. One day I decided to switch my vocabulary to be more gender-inclusive, and I saw a definite shift in my therapeutic relationships. My switch to partner confused a lot of people in the beginning. Some people wondered if my romantic male partner was my business partner. Was he a life partner? Was I gay, and they didn’t know? However, after some practice, the term stuck. To this day, I have probably only referred to my life partner as my boyfriend a handful of times. I notice when I say it, I slightly cringe, and it is a reminder of my privilege and my choice to use more inclusive language.
So, back to the use of “guys.” Something happened about two weeks ago that got my attention. I was speaking with one of my HR friends, and she stopped herself, making an effort to use more gender-neutral language, and then carried on talking. This slight self-correction and a flash at the conflicted feelings was that reminder I needed. “Hey, guys” is not gender inclusive. She told me that her company’s human resources department had encouraged the use of more-inclusive terms when addressing employees and clients. They are encouraging the use of gentle feedback and reminders to shift to more inclusive language. It was immediately like “the new car phenomenon.” If you’re shopping for a new car, you start seeing that car everywhere. I started noticing all the usage of “hey, guys” and other non-inclusive language. I especially noticed my personal habit of saying, “Okay, guys.”
Linguistically, we have been using “guys” as a casual way to address a group. But, to many, it’s a symbol of separation—a word with a formerly male meaning that is used quite often to refer to people who don’t consider themselves “guys.” It is, frankly, not inclusive, and it bugs me!
Moving forward, I commit to coming up with a new way of addressing groups. I am going to experiment with a few alternatives. My partner is from South Carolina and often says, “Hey, y’all.” However, that feels inauthentic to me since I do not identify as a southerner. On a side note, do you have to be southern to say “y’all?” Probably not. I have heard others say “folks” and some who opted for “humans” or “peeps.” I have been playing around with “you all.”
I challenge you to notice your language and observe how inclusive it is. I challenge you to upgrade your language. The first step is to notice. The second step is to find an alternative. It takes practice, commitment, and repetition. If I can do it, you can, too!