Hey (We’re Not All) Guys! Why I Don’t Use “You Guys”

Let me put my English degree and years of copy-editing experience to work and start with a handy little grammar lesson: In most instances when you would say, “You guys” you can say “You” and the sentence works just fine.
  • Wait staff to diners: What would you guys like for dinner tonight? Would you guys like to see a dessert menu?
  • Social butterfly to a bunch of friends: Where do you guys want to go tonight?
  • Emcee to an audience: Are you guys ready to give it up for Famous Guest Name Here?
  • Anyone, to any group anywhere: Are you guys [verb]-ing?
This has been grating on me for a while now between hearing it live, on the radio, and from podcast hosts. (Side note to podcasters and announcers: Run a transcript of your last show and highlight every occurrence, then come back. I'll be here.)
I’ve been working to purge my own use, I hope with a fair amount of success. I’ve read a number of articles about the inherent sexism in having a male-gendered term--because oh yes it is--used as a collective. Each one reinforces my feeling that we need to address this default setting.

The capper came just last week. I will let the highly male-dominated conference I was attending remain nameless, along with the male emcee.
I had just finished discussing this very topic with the people at my table--four women, five men, although two of the men were having their own sidebar conversation and probably didn’t hear my little lecture.
We had talked about how someone bothered by this in the workplace brought it up only to be told that they were “too sensitive”. I think we were in general agreement that this created an unwelcoming climate at the same time we’re trying to recruit a lot of people and are actively seeking to diversify the workplace.
I work in an agency whose headquarters and regional offices are essentially big concrete boxes full of engineers--most of them men, many of them approaching retirement age. Some of them participate in STEM outreach and mentoring and we have interns and recent graduates in the workforce.
Do you suppose the young women being mentored want to be referred to as “guys” or think they have an equal chance of advancement if the agency’s default setting is one of guy-ness? I mean, it already is full of guy-ness by virtue of who’s there now so we need to try extra hard to be inclusive and welcoming.
All I know is that when the emcee congratulated two (senior executive) women receiving an award by saying, as they exited the stage, “Congratulations, you guys,” the other women at the table and I all made eye contact and nodded. There it was again.
We’ve worked through similar changes before. We’ve come to recognize that using words that only include some of the people in the room reflects the implication that some people belong there and some don’t.
Many of us are working to overcome that history--to move away from default settings that privilege some people as the norm and mark others as the exception. You wouldn’t look at a room full of people who embody a variety of races, ethnicities and cultures and say, “Hey white people, where should we go for dinner tonight?”
I’m not suggesting it’s easy. Like any habit, changes in your word choice will require effort. This is a lot of historical baggage we’re packing around. (And if you’re a man you have pockets in which to carry this stuff. Women mostly don’t.)
Seriously, folks, if women had been in power throughout the ages would we be addressing groups of all genders by saying, “You gals”? And if we were and you were a man in this system how do you think you’d feel about that?
Let me give you one more reason to purge “guys” as a collective term. Some people are born in a body that means their family and friends refer to them as a guy. They go through difficult work to represent themselves as who they really are, and their true self isn’t a guy at all. How do you suppose it feels to have people still calling you a guy at that point?*
Here’s a list for you. Practice a few times so these become a reflex. Some are better suited to following “you”, some work better after “hey” or “okay” or “so” or some other little throwaway word you use to signal that you’re about to say something. Or you could, y’know, just say what you need to say.

One more thing to know: It doesn't require that many of us making the change to get society to shift. Just one in four, according to this study at University of Pennsylvania.
Useful Collective Terms***
  • Folks
  • People
  • All
  • Y’all
  • All y’all (for a bigger group)
  • Team
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Colleagues
  • Group
  • Everyone
  • VERB-ers, VERB-iers, VERB-ists:** If you’re engaging in a specific activity this can be useful--partiers, gardeners, balloonists, card players.
  • NOUN lovers/aficionados/VERB-ers or NOUN participants/attendees: Food lovers, birdwatchers, stamp collectors, workshop participants, conference attendees
Age-specific as appropriate (and it often isn’t):
  • Kiddos (only for kids)
  • Young people (only to young people--no need to jokingly referring to old people as young people as if there’s something wrong with being old)
  • Elders
Now, if you’re in a meeting of all guys, or a bunch of people named “Guy”, by all means use “guys”. (At which point you might also want to bear in mind that you’re now in a meeting that doesn’t represent the perspectives of the majority of people in the world. So there’s that.)
We are all learning, every day, how to treat each other with kindness, dignity and respect. Our words matter and can move us toward or away from a more inclusive world.
If acknowledging that you've unintentionally included some and excluded others with your words feels too hard, maybe check your values orientation a little more closely. No, wait--scratch that “maybe”. Just do it.

Several Footnotes
* Obviously some people making this transition are delighted to be referred to as a guy. Somehow I don’t think when it’s used in this careless collective that it’s meant to include you specifically on the basis of your gender. They aren’t thinking about gender or inclusion at all--that’s the underlying problem.
** You will find me giving the exact opposite advice about VERB-ers if I’m talking about usage in transportation. I tell people not to use the terms “bicyclist” and “pedestrian” to refer to people biking or walking. This is because I strive for people-first language to remind everyone that we’re all people no matter which modes of transportation we use.
If I were starting off on a walking or biking tour I’m most likely to say “OK, group/folks/everyone, let’s get going”. It wouldn’t be the end of the world in that context if I said “OK, walkers/riders, let’s get going”. But if I’m editing a policy document I’m in people-language mode.
*** My extra-cranky final note where I lose a bunch of you because you think I’m being too picky: I don’t include terms for groups of people on the list above that you might expect to see, such as “tribe”. I am not a member of any tribe and don’t think it’s okay for me to appropriate that word, whereas if you are a tribal member referring to others it's completely fine. I don’t use “posse”--they used to hang people, remember? And so on down a list of collective nouns that either don't apply or carry a burden of history I don't want to bring into the room.
Basically I try not to use any collective referring to a specific group defined by its religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or some other characteristic or practice I don’t share. If I do it’s because I don’t actually know that word’s derivation, at which point I hope you’ll share that historical information with me so I can update my practice. I will be genuinely, sincerely appreciative.
Related Reading
Any Terms to Add or Avoid?
  • What collective words do you use in place of “guys”?
  • Any you avoid because they represent a group definition that doesn’t apply to you or the people you’re addressing?