“Hey, You Guys!”

Last year Jackson Katz came to speak to our school. Afterwards, during our next morning meeting, our Dean of Faculty said that from then on she would be more thoughtful about beginning her announcements using gender-neutral language, specifically avoiding the phrase “you guys” and she invited the rest of the community to do the same.

It was awkward for a while, hearing people say “Hey — School!” or “Hello all” with obvious self-consciousness when they began their announcements. Occasionally someone would say “Hey guys” when they made an announcement and the audience would respond in some audible way, often prompting the speaker to start again “I mean, ‘hey everyone’.” It was strange and people made mistakes and it was weird. Change feels uncomfortable. Things felt a little uncomfortable for a bit.

Over time, though, the practice has seeped into our collective mindset. Saying “Hey guys” has become something we just don’t do very often. There are a couple of people who do say this, but the vast majority of our students now say something gender neutral each and every time they make an announcement. Without self-consciousness, without much thought. Just business as normal.

Using gender-neutral language is something I’ve done for a long time as a teacher. I’m not really sure when I made the conscious shift, but at some point it just sounded funny to my ear to address a room full of boys and girls with the term “guys.” I usually say something like “ladies and gentlemen” or “Hey folks!” which sounds funny at first, until it just starts to roll off of the tongue. I can’t remember the last time I addressed a class with “Hey guys, listen up!” or the equivalent. However, I’ve noticed that I continue to use “you guys” with small groups. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the less formal nature of addressing a group of two to four than speaking to the entire class. But for whatever reason, I haven’t–yet–eliminated this from my vocabulary in this context.

Something to keep working on…

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11 thoughts on ““Hey, You Guys!”

  1. I have tried, and failed, to remove ‘you guys’ from my vocabulary. I like ‘you all’ but I’m not Southern, so I feel self-conscious when I say it. Perhaps this post will help me to try again. (How can I remind myself in August? Maybe I should re-read Alice Walker’s essay on this…)

  2. That sounds great. If you’re free on Sunday, August 3, that would be a great time for me. At some SF cafe over brunch?

  3. My current class has 17 men and one woman (last term, there were six women and fifteen men). I always address them as “Ladies and gentlemen” regardless, even if the woman is not in the room. I’ve done that with groups of varying ages (this school is for adults, but I’ve done it in elementary classrooms). I have on occasion said “Guys,” but it’s not a go-to phrase for me. What’s funnier and slightly more personally annoying to me is my tendency to refer to the students as “kids” when talking to people outside of class about my teaching and students. As in, “So I gave the definition but I could tell that the kids weren’t seeing the importance.” This might be forgivable were it not for the fact that some of the students at this school have been in their late 60s (not many, but still. . . ) and that none are younger than 18. It’s just that outside of class, students = kids in my mind, starting as a student teacher at 22 and to this day, as I near 64.

    In all honesty, I don’t lose enormous amounts of sleep over any of this. Most changes in ingrained linguistic habits take time, and things can feel awkward regardless of the context. Learning in high school to pronounce “grimace” to rhyme with “dim ace” with the accent on the second syllable (that was what my English teacher and the head of the drama club (hence my “boss” when I directed THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST as senior) insisted upon; you’d love how she insisted that “narrator” should be pronounced) was a definite challenge. I still vary on both words between typical American and Constance Carlough English.

    Gender neutral language is fine where possible, but I don’t advise making a religion of it. Eventually, the language will adjust to reflect shifts in culture. It will be interesting to see how some of the difficulties get resolved (e.g., s/he is an easy written solution, but what about third person singular possessive pronouns where humans are involved and “its” seems pretty insulting?) Well, it’s late here; I suspect I’m babbling.

    • I don’t lose sleep over this issue either. If I slip up and say “guys” to a group of girls, I don’t beat myself up about it. However, I do think it is important to change this habit, so I notice it when I slip up and then remind myself to say something different next time.

      I find your comment regarding the eventual linguistic shift interesting–change won’t happen out of nothing; it happens out of conversations like this one, and with people making the conscious decision to change their practices.

  4. Enjoyed this post. Happy to know we are doing something right in TX. We say “ya’ll”. Which translated from purest Texan into English means “you all”. Your post was a reminder to speak professionally in the classroom–being aware of those we are addressing and adapting with respect.

  5. When I was teaching, I once had a class that was 100% girls. Because “guys” implies maturity, while “girls” suggests, well, girls, I made a pact with them that I would say “you guys” meaning “you tween-aged girls for whom no appropriate collective noun has developed.” By the end of the year, I evolved to “Hey, y’all,” emphasizing the “y” as a consonant to get attention.

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