When I posted the “Guys” article from The Atlantic on my social media feed, I received some comments lauding the idea that “guys” very well could be the next gender-neutral term of the future. For me, that was not the point of the article. This article interested me because we default to male nouns in order to encompass women and also because male nouns by definition cannot acknowledge women outright. Not just in English, but also in Hindi, Spanish and Italian (languages I speak or have studied) and many other languages and their cultures.
I am fascinated with how the nouns, conjugations and verb endings become male if there is only one man standing in a group of ten women, for example. It also interests me to think about masculine things being the default in other ways. For example, at popular chain restaurants, the waitstaff may have to wear a certain uniform of black slacks, white button-down shirt, and a tie. Both male and female waitstaff wear this uniform. I wonder why it’s that masculine centered shirt & tie and not a dress or skirt that everyone is required to wear.
I don’t know if in ten years anything will be more gender neutral, because for centuries or longer our dress, language, behavior and attitudes haven’t been and the movement has existed for a while, although feels like it is peaking recently. My interest in posting the article was to help people question why the default is male *even* if the term somehow becomes gender neutral. Why is it that a male noun gets to become gender neutral? What examples do we have of the reverse? Why not? Since my daughter’s birth, I only call my newborn, beti — meaning daughter in Hindi. I do this because I want her to know she has a word dedicated for her. I was always called beta — meaning son — and always wondered as a young girl why. I think it is important for girls to be seen and not subsumed by male dominated language regardless of our good intent. My parents, of course, had pure intent in calling me beta but does it matter that much when there is a negative impact? Because our cultures are so male-centered these seemingly small words do make a difference.
I, of course, like most people, still say “hey guys” even when I’m talking to a group of women. It’s hard to change our habits but, for me, I try because I think it’s a good thing to challenge our status quo and it can help us change other behaviors we haven’t thought about.
As I say in all my workshops, our language affects our attitudes, behaviors and ultimately, our decision-making. If we want to be more fair, more equal, and less biased decision-makers we have to start with our words. So, as many of my followers suggested, I try replacing “guys” with “you all”, “people”, “folks”, and “everyone.” Inclusion begins when we mean what we say and say what we mean. We can only do that by examining the language we use.