You finally arrive and open the door, popcorn in hand. All your friends are lounging throughout the room. What’s your opening line: “Greetings, people”? No, I’ll bet it’s “Hey, guys.”
Maybe you’ve stumbled upon the age-old debate over that phrase. “Hey, guys” itself is widely considered to be gender-neutral. It’s casual, it’s cozy. “Guys” radiates friendliness, even when the rest of your sentence doesn’t — “Keep it down, you guys!” — and gives off a sense of camaraderie. And it’s still problematic.
“When our language puts one group over another, society has a problem,” says Hugo Vallecilla-Orozco. He’s manager of Centennial College’s global citizenship, equity and inclusion program.
Terms with an attached maleness tag — think fireman, policeman, salesman — have been more readily perceived as universal than those signifying femaleness. But we’ve actually been phasing that out for neutral terms; trading fireman for firefighter, policeman for police officer, salesman for salesperson, and so on.
Perhaps no malicious intent was involved in making the word fireman. Regardless, the fact — that it’s a gendered word — is true whether or not we’re trying to reinforce damaging stereotypes.
We just need a word that doesn’t ascribe anyone a gender they aren’t. A neutral. That’s respectable.
“‘Folks’ is my personal favourite,” says Vallecilla-Orozco. Other options are “everyone” or “people”, or go more informal with something like “peeps.” He works with the college, which has a campus in East York, to run workshops about social innovation, positive space, and challenging microaggressions.
Language reflects reality; “guys” and associated connotations is just a representation of our social climate. Words really do help shape our thinking, which can help move along (or hold back) the social changes we’d like to see.
Language reflects who we are. We can see the world in black and white, or we can open our eyes to everything in between. Are we inclusive if it’s not even as deep as “Hey, guys,” when the only thing we have to sacrifice is a little effort to kick the habit?
“Maybe people don’t know there’s a negative impact from how they speak,” Vallecilla-Orozco says. “It’s small things but we just don’t think about it. We always have to learn to adapt and make people feel welcome.”
We can all make the effort to replace “guys” from our vocabulary. Whichever alternative you prefer, use it around friends, and online. Just like all slang, the best options will catch on and become everyday usage among an increasing number of people.
With enough awareness and support from y’all, we can shift society’s vocabulary for the better.