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“Hey Guys” And Why It’s Harmful: reducing the use of gender coded language

Who among us hasn’t, at some point, referred to a diverse group of people as “guys”? Maybe you know them all well, maybe you don’t. You could be referring to three people, or a hundred—but there is a good chance that at some point in your life, one of those people felt gender dysphoria, or uneasy, when you referred to them as a “guy”, or any other strongly gendered term. If you do your best to be kind to others, and you want to be inclusive and welcoming to those around you, this Q&A article is for you.

What is Dysphoria?

Generally, dysphoria is a feeling of dissatisfaction, anxiety, or discomfort. Gender dysphoria relates to a conflict someone feels between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. Our gender identity is what we feel on the inside, or how we “see” ourselves, for example as a man, woman, non-binary, or trans person. Gender dysphoria can be an intense sensation and can cause disruption in one’s life, potentially causing panic attacks, overwhelming depression, or disassociation. Think about how it would feel if you felt you strongly identified as being a woman, but everyone expected you to act like a man, wear men’s clothing, be in intimate relationships with women, etc. There is a lot of privilege being heterosexual and cisgender (identifying with the sex you were assigned at birth) and it’s important to recognize that not everyone has that privilege.

But I don’t mean it in a harmful way —why are they getting so upset?

Sometimes we say things not intending for them to cause harm, but they do. Impact always matters more than intent. If someone expresses hurt by something you said, it’s important to consider the impact your words had on that person. A good response could be, “thank you for telling me, I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.”

But “Guys” is gender-neutral!

Nope. Not even a little bit. People have been arguing this since this topic surfaced, but the truth is, “guy”, “buddy”, “dude”, and so on are male-coded words. This is true whether we’re in California, Australia, or Burnaby. Still don’t believe me? Say, “he’s going on a date with some guy.” As a patriarchal society, these male-coded terms are generally more socially accepted as gender-neutral than the alternatives. To be clear, though, “ladies,” “girls,” “women,” and other female coded group terms have the same problems, such as referring to a group of adult women as “girls” or referring to a group as “ladies” when there may be some non-binary folks present who don’t identify with being a woman. The goal here is to avoid gendered language unless you’re sure the person involved is okay with it.

But they are all guys.

Are you sure? Remember that gender is an identity, something we feel on the inside, not a physical characteristic you see on the outside—that’s gender expression! You can’t tell gender just by looking at someone, although it’s common to categorize people as male or female based on how they present. One way to know how someone identifies is to ask them what pronouns they use. You could say, “Hi I’m John and I identify as he, him, his. What are your pronouns?” Remember to respect the pronouns that someone uses and not intentionally misgender them.

They aren’t all guys, but they said it was okay.

Great job for checking with the group to ensure it was okay with them! If you have asked each person and received permission, you can use that term freely with this specific group of people. For some people, they don’t mind being referred to as a “guy” or “dude”, but it’s important not to assume that everyone feels this way.

Well, what should I use instead?

Folks, Friends, Colleagues, Everybody, Team, Y’all… it really depends on the situation, but there are many alternatives available.

But I’ve always said guys!

It will sound strange to you for a while, but you’ll get used to it. Throughout your life, you’ve probably had to modify your use of language many times. How do you speak with your close friends? What about at work? Think about the way you spoke as a teenager, compared to the way you speak now. Has it changed? Probably. There are many words we’ve all learned together are harmful to other people, and we’re working to remove them from our common vocabulary. This isn’t even a word you need to remove, it’s just one that needs to be used carefully.

I’m going to mess up…

That’s okay, just remember that when you mess up, it might impact someone. If it happens, acknowledge the mistake, calmly correct yourself, and do your best not to repeat it in the future. You don’t need to make a giant deal about it, but you also shouldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen. If you acknowledge that the language you used to use is harmful, and you’re consciously working to change, that’s the important thing.

Thanks, Folks!