“Hey, guys!” It’s the greeting that launched a thousand meetings and Zoom calls.
Etymologists trace the term “guys” to the historical figure Guy Fawkes. It’s evolved from the name of one man who attempted to assassinate King James I in 1605 to an informal address for a group of people in contemporary American English.
But when used to address your colleagues, it’s a gendered greeting that could be sending signals about who is – and isn’t – included in your workplace.
The case against using “Hey, Guys”
The problem with “guys” is that it is a “masculine word,” according to Amy Jeffers, an organisational development specialist in diversity, equity and inclusion. There are better alternatives, such as “Hey, everyone” or “Hey, folks” that are not gender-assuming, Jeffers added.
Sociologist Sherryl Kleinman wrote an essay in the journal Qualitative Sociology against terms such as “you guys” in 2002, pointing out that they reinforce a language that already privileges men. Kleinman cited words such as chairman, postman and freshman as other examples.
“‘Get over it,’ some people say,” she wrote. “Those words are generic. They apply to everyone. But then how come so-called generics are always male?”
GLSEN, an education organisation that advocates for policies designed to protect LGBTQ students and students of marginalised identities, advised defaulting to gender-neutral language such as “friends,” “folks,” “all” or “y’all” rather than “brothers and sisters” or “guys,” “ladies,” “ma’am” or “sir.”
Gendered language creeps into work communication in other insidious ways. Think about how you describe colleagues you don’t know. Do you default to “that guy” or “that woman?” GLSEN’s guide suggested that when you have not been introduced to people and don’t know their pronouns or gender identity, use descriptive language such as, “Can you give this paper to the person across the room with the white T-shirt and short brown hair?”
Using gender-neutral language is not about using “he” or “she” equally but asking yourself, “Why are we using he or she at all? Couldn’t we just be using ‘they’?” Jeffers said.
How to correct yourself without making it all about you
Mistakes are a part of learning. But it’s important not to make your moment of learning someone else’s hurtful experience.
Lily Zheng, a researcher on gender ambiguity in the workplace who is transgender, recounted this kind of experience in a 2019 podcast for the Harvard Business Review. Zheng recalled a time a colleague misgendered them, then spent the next 10 minutes apologising about it.
“What ended up happening was I had to be their therapist. I had to say, ‘No, it’s OK. It’s all right,'” Zheng said. “That experience was awful, and I had to tell this person, ‘Next time, look, if you keep responding like this when I correct you, I won’t correct you. Me correcting misgendering is a courtesy to you. I’m letting you know that I trust you enough to get better.'”
Being better means apologising when you are called out without centering yourself in the apology.
“I hear a lot of people complain, ‘It’s just so hard. I’m used to [other language],'” Jeffers said. People need to avoid defending their intentions in their apology, Jeffers added. Instead, they should focus on acknowledging that they are wrong and will be better.
One way to get proactively better? Practice so that gender-neutral language at work becomes a habit. “The more we lean into gender-neutral language, the less mistakes we make, the less room for assumption, the less awkward moments,” Jeffers said. “Get good at practicing this, regardless of who is in the room, regardless if you know if someone is sensitive to this or not.”