Being inside a womb by myself, I was never included in group address. Also, I don’t think my parents were the kind of people who talked to the belly or played music to increase fetal development. It was the 70s. While pregnant with me, my mom smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish (her words).
“Be a good girl.”
“You’re such a pretty girl.”
As a very little kid, the only mixed-gender group I was part of was the group with my two older brothers. We mostly were referred to as a group as kids, not guys, so while I was frequently referred to as a girl (and frequently a little girl) when addressed directly, the group address usually ignored gender.
“Boys and girls, stand for the pledge [of allegiance].”
“Attention, boys and girls!”
“Okay, kids, line up in pairs.”
“Everyone, blah blah blah.”
As kids in school, we were frequently referred to as boys and girls* by adults. Individually, we were just referred to by name. Kids referring to each other used names individually, and I want to say the plural you for groups without an extra noun. /me thinks backs to elementary school and asking a group of kids to do something. Yeah, mostly the plural you. Very occasionally there would be a, “Hey, you gu-uys,” exclamation, but that was mostly imitation of tv, not a form of address that we used with each other in conversation.
All Boys: “Those boys are jerks.”
All Girls: “Those girls are mean.”
Boys and Girls: “What are those guys doing over there?”
As we grew into adolescence, you guys started making more of an appearance, and adoption rates were skyscraper-high. We referred to boys and girls all the time, but in direct address had started adding guys to the lexicon, including when a group included both genders. This was the turning point for the language in my personal history of you guys as plural noun of direct address. Here’s how it seemed to break down.
|Singular Male||Plural Male||Singular Female||Plural Female||Plural Mixed-gender|
|Indirect||He, him, that boy, [name]||Them, those boys||She, her, that girl, [name]||Them, those girls||Those guys|
|Direct||[name],”Hey, you”||You, boys, guys||[name],”Hey, you”||You, girls, guys||You guys|
In some cases we’d still use the specific-gendered plural noun, like to ask, “Hey, boys, do you want to play kickball with us?” But, most often, guys was becoming the norm for male plural direct address and for plural mixed-gender references of any sort.
The Electric Company-style, “Hey, you gu-uys!” got a little resurgence in this period when The Goonies came out, too.
Teens — 40
You guys had come to mean any group of people, regardless of gender. It was used on me all the time, and I used it on others. That said, you guys still also served as a plural of specifically male people. In a mixed group, context would determine the intent.
“Are you guys going to Carolyn’s party after the football game?”
Here, you guys meant all members of the group, any gender. (Because everyone was supposed to go to Carolyn’s party.)
“You guys have it so much easier when you have to pee while we’re snowshoeing.”
Even though the group was mixed-gender, the comment was directed only at the men in the group, based on anatomy and its relation to heavy snow gear. Yes, guys = penises in this case.
Occasionally people used gendered plural terms on me like girls, ladies, or gals. I disliked them all.
- Girls sounded like a group of little kids, and by the time I was 16 I didn’t like being called by this label, even though I sometimes still referred to myself (pretty often) or groups of women (rarely) this way.
- Ladies had all kinds of specific connotations about class, abilities, and weaknesses. I always hated it, and tried never to use it. Primary exception was a brief stint in 1998 when a group of co-workers (including me) would break into Ladies’ Night on a regular basis.
- Don’t even get me started on what an unappealing word gals is. My first boyfriend’s mom used to say gals all the time, and I flinched every single time.
During this period of time, ongoing socialization around the term you guys and experience parsing its intent based on context caused me to take this as a fluid language thing, and I was never bothered by being included in this form address. I certainly used it constantly on others, including all-female groups. Oddly, while I didn’t mind being included in you guys in direct address at all, I really disliked it when default singular male pronouns like him/his were used in a situation that could apply to me. Despite being a hardcore feminist, I couldn’t quite get on the hir bandwagon, because I thought it was kind of dumb — it looked like a typo for hair or his when written, and since no one around me had ever said it out loud, my reader’s vocabulary assumed it was a homonym for either her or here, which was just confusing.
Aside: during the teens and twenties portion of this period (when I was pretty flat-chested), in the handful of times when my hair was cut very short, I was frequently misgendered and called a boy or a man.
Holy moly, gender diversity explosion and feminist apocalypse and mass confusion.
More awareness seeped into the general population (or at least my portion of it) about transgender issues, non-binary gender identity, etc. People (in some circles, anyway) started paying more attention to pronouns and how they fit with gender identity. At AdaCamp, a conference for women in open tech (woman was later defined as, “someone who identifies as a woman in a way that is significant to them,” to be more inclusive) attendees were asked to put their preferred pronouns on their name badges to prevent misgendering in conversation.
The “singular they” became a hot topic, with heads butted between modern grammarians and people referencing Shakespeare’s use as evidence of correctness. I started seeing ze and zir and other gender-neutral pronouns I had no idea how to pronounce. I decided the singular they was a good path when in doubt.
Backlash against you guys started in earnest (again, in my corner of demography). At first, I thought it was kind of silly. For 40 years, you guys had meant any group of people! Common usage, changing definitions, etc. In that same time I’d definitely seen other words change meaning or connotation, so why was you guys being accused of erasing women from the narrative, when it was so harmless and widely understood? That’s what I thought to myself.
Then, at the end of a dev cycle that had included several women developers, a male developer said, “Congrats, bros,” when the release went live and I really didn’t like it. Would “Congrats, guys” have been better? I thought so. Guys had clearly acquired an ungendered usage over time (in my opinion), whereas bros was definitely gendered, and in tech was gendered in such a way as to be pretty problematic (read: sexist dude who thinks women’s role in tech = booth babes or video game rape victims), right? So guys was still okay? Guys vs. bros aside, even though though I had been one of the people pushing for more diversity (including welcoming language) in the project, I was too intimidated by the guy (yes, an actual guy) who had congratulated the dev bros, because I just didn’t have the energy that day to defend against the backlash I expected if I were to bring up that bros wasn’t inclusive language. Why was it all so exhausting and complicated? Argh!
Then, at the Community Leadership Summit before OSCON, a woman gave a lightning talk about you guys, and how it made her feel left out/invisible when it was used as a form of address or reference when she was in a group of male developers. That made me think, “Hm. I don’t want to use language that makes people feel bad if I can avoid it.” I tried to stop saying you guys. Holy crap, so hard. Talking with Leslie at the event, she said she likes to use the word humans, but I think that sounds weird when I say it, plus I think of the Community Human Being mascot, which has always totally creeped me out.
(The “epically neutral mascot” is still referred to as he twice in this clip. Yes, sure, they could be referring to the person inside the costume, but grammatically that’s not what they said, so it comes across as default gendering.)
I tried substituting folks, y’all, people, plural you, generic heya, and other variations into my daily expressions. I probably used one of these replacements about 95% of the time. There was about 5% of the time when I forgot, or when I actually was referring to specific people who were male and used the word guys intentionally.
What happened in the 5% times? There have been a few scenarios.
Scenario 1: I caught myself and then fumbled a replacement phrase.
“Hey, you guy — er, you all, sorry, I’m trying to stop saying you guys to mean groups of people that include women — are you ready to leave for dinner?”
Result 1: A little awkward, but good-intentioned. Responses ranged from casual disinterest to nodding approval to weird looks, depending on the group.
Scenario 2: I missed it and no one noticed, including me.
“Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”
Result 2: No one noticed, or at least no one brought it up, and since I didn’t notice either, it went uncorrected. In these cases it’s usually people who don’t care, so while I wasn’t setting the best example, I also probably wasn’t offending anyone. Unless there were people in the group who were offended but afraid to say something. Bah.
Scenario 3: I missed it, and someone other than me noticed.
Me: “Hey, you guys, blah blah blah.”
Someone Else: “Hey, you said you guys, and it made me uncomfortable.”
Result 3a: Caught! I apologized, saying something like, “Ack! I try not to do that, thanks for catching it and letting me know, it helps me remember.”
Result 3b: What? I was actually referring to a specific set of people who were male, so you guys was totally appropriate! Wasn’t it? Example: I meant Barry and Alek, and referred to them as “the systems guys,” meaning “the 2 [male] guys that handle systems on this project.” I explained this, but the idea that the group to which I was referring would always be male-only was at issue as an undercurrent around expectations of gendered jobs and hiring. My brain could follow this, but at the same time, rebelled at the thought that we have to actually remove guys from the vocabulary altogether to prevent misinterpretation. This was the situation most likely to trigger defensiveness for me.
So where does that leave the well-intentioned liberal intersectional feminist? Definitely avoiding using guys to mean a group that is mixed gender or could be mixed gender. Only using guys to refer to specific guys, and not when using any other descriptors that might be non-specific, thus tainting the specificity? I understand not wanting it used both ways (despite common usage patterns), but what’s the ruling on gender-specific usage?
[I really want to embed “I’ve Heard It Both Ways” from the Psych musical episode, but wow is USA clamped down tight on copyright and video.]
Can you have it both ways? If we say don’t use guys to mean groups including women because it assigns everyone in the group with male gender shouldn’t that mean that using guys to mean men is okay? I find it confusing and exhausting when even the specific use is seen as offensive. The fact that I want to be sensitive to how language affects others just makes it more annoying, because I care about the answer.
What’s even worse — I have typically used dudes interchangeably with guys as both a non-gendered and a gendered pronoun, so I have been trying to stop using that one, too. Even though it is super fun to say! And has a lot of really specific cultural reference points for my generation!
Oddly, when referring to multiple animals of the same sex, I totally say girls or boys instead of guys, but then that brings up a whole different set of confusing language issues around anthropomorphization and infantilization that are far too obnoxious to think about when I should be having brunch.
Have a great Sunday! :)
*Does anyone else think it’s weird that we do that? Boys and girls, I mean. Would we pick any other difference and use it to segment a group of kids (or adults, for that matter, as with ladies and gentlemen)? No wonder we grow up so obsessed with that difference. What if classes were started with, “Attention, short kids and tall kids!” Or fat/skinny, rich/poor, white/black, outgoing/shy, funny/boring, or any other binary that’s really a spectrum? Sorry, tangent.