“Hey You Guys”: A Discussion on Gender-Neutral Terms and Language

A lot of things that I see in my life intrigue me. However, it all depends whether or not it struck my attention or left some sort of curiosity. As a teacher in the communication and creative arts department, I find myself becoming intrigued by a lot of what my students say or write. The content in the course I teach deals a lot with self-reflection and personal experiences. I am able to incorporate material dealing with technology, interpersonal relationships, media, marketing, and of course feminism. As a communication instructor, I know very well, that I want to create a learning environment, and allow students to speak their mind, and allow others to become engaged in what they say in class. Teaching an introductory college course can be frustrating at times, especially when I teach a required course (meaning all majors must take it). Therefore, students don’t want to be there because they were placed in there, or students don’t like the course because they hate communication in front of an audience. Sure, I can see the irony in that, however, I believe students realize different approaches to communication, and understand their self a lot more, compared to their outlook of the class during the first week of the semester. This discussion will focus on teaching; however, it will focus on my students and their outlook on gender-neutral terms used in today’s society. Just recently I lectured on verbal communication, and how language creates power or powerlessness. Since I teach three classes in the fall 2012 semester, it was interesting to hear the different perspectives from student regarding language. It is safe to say that not all courses I teach this semester are the same. Each class has a different and unique personality. Which works well, however, it can be frustrating when students are quiet, or are too shy to respond to a simple question such as how are you? First I want to discuss how students transition from high school to college, then I will briefly touch on verbal language, and finally I will discuss the use of the word “you guys” in our everyday language using the “you guys” article by Audry Bilger from Bitchfest. You Guys Article

Transition From High School To College

Students always have a sense of purpose when entering college. They want to be successful, and someday become an asset to a company in their choice of field, because that’s what they believe is necessary. Most of all students are put in many situations of different learning environments, and take courses that range from many departments such as the math and science department, or the liberal arts and social science department. Students that come straight from high school, are students who mostly leave some sort of reminder in my head that I was once them; sitting in a classroom and very scared of just being there, and most definitely unsure of why I am even there to begin with. Those students however, have a difficult time coping with the college atmosphere. They are so used to high school, yet left alone in college and ready to adapt to new situations. I tend to believe that most freshmen students are not quite ready to adapt to the college setting. Most are afraid of speaking up because they are very much used to raising their hands, or being called on. Some students ask to go to the washroom, or to get a drink of water. Their mind-set is still on the high school mode, and to still find the need to ask permission to do something. I find that okay, however, what I tend to cringe on is the fact that high schools do not very much prepare students when it comes to articulation and writing. I know I wasn’t, and I am very sure a lot of other people I went to high school with weren’t prepared for college as much as we liked. This then allows me to reflect on the many instances that occur in my classroom. Students are not sure what to do when asked to critically think, and some even have the greatest answers but still want to answer vaguely.  Surely those who do speak their mind always do, which is much appreciated in the classroom, but those who barely speak up or hate speaking up always find a reason to appear nonchalant during discussions. They are already afraid of being a college student, so I have now pressured them to speak up and possibly feel embarrassed. I sure did feel this way, and I always had anxiety when I was called on. I find that students need to find our place in the classroom, and definitely should speak up if they really have something to add to the discussion. I tend to get blank stares, or disinterest in the course, but that is because I believe they don’t believe communication courses are important.

Verbal Language

As the weeks move along during the semester, the material begins to become more intense, and thought-provoking. Unless, they still don’t care about communication. However, these students at this time begin to see the relevance of the material to their own personal lives. I do discuss verbal communication, and how it very much relates to our powerful messages, and relation to persuasion techniques. I also believe that verbal communication is a wonderful aspect in our lives. Language is constantly changing, people are changing, and overall society is changing. The connotations of many words are shifting to newer and newer connotations. Our society is making up words like “cray” (crazy), and passing it along, and soon enough it will end up in the dictionary. Language is so powerful it can make someone feel a certain way to push them to change their behaviors, or attitude about something. During my lecture I ask students to define the terms ghetto, feminism, home, love, and baby. These are words we constantly hear whether in our relationships, or in the media. Most students defined these words differently depending on how they view the word, or where they came from that allowed them to define those specific words. I really enjoyed the definitions of the word feminism, because the word feminism sounds like feminine. This automatically triggers them to believe that feminism means feminine or femininity. Their connotation of feminism was soft, weak, equality, women superiority, activism, pushy, man haters, etc. I expected these definitions because as a feminist I hear those definitions all the time. As we move on in our society, words made up become part of our everyday usage, and we begin to not really realize the etymology of the word. When we define words like “ghetto” some of my students begin to chuckle, or some get offended. I ask them what does the word “ghetto” mean to you? For some it is hard to define it without seeming too offensive. Some relate it to the upbringing of someone who lives in a community that is filled with poverty, or some simply say the word is whatever they want it to mean. For example, a student stated if someone were to use duck-tape to hang a mirror, then that is considered ghetto. The word ghetto comes from more of the urban life, and living conditions of those who do not have the abilities to live the life of the first or middle class. However, some African-American students may get offended because the word ghetto is often associated with African-Americans. I believe that each person has their own frame of reference and perception of what words mean to them. They have their own connotation because this is how they see the word whether offensive or not. They have adjusted to the word, use it in a sentence frequently, and find it impossible to back away from using words that may or may not be offensive to others.

 I find it interesting when students tell me about the different slangs they have created. I feel that something goes wrong when we begin to latch on to slang, and start using it frequently. Those who frequently use slang to communicate have diminished the proper way to communicate, using the new words, abbreviations, and acronyms as their only way to communicate.  I can understand why this is happening, however, what I don’t understand is how some believe these behaviors are acceptable, just because they believe it is acceptable. Technology has played a huge role in the creation of slang, acronyms and abbreviations, because it has allowed those who do use text messaging or chat to speak in a quick way, and to shorthand everything, causing this to be their verbal language as well. Informal communication has become formal for the current young generation, and the thought of changing something they have adapted to is like telling them to stop listening to Justin Bieber; it just won’t happen. Language is a beautiful thing, but when tampered with, it becomes confusing, and a barrier for those who have English as a second language. Those coming from different countries and live in the United States are left confused and not sure what has happened to the English language. Of course those who do come to the United States begin to adjust to slang, and improper pronunciations of words. However, this is what continues the use of improper words, and words that have negative connotations to them.

Using the Words “You Guys”

This brings me to my discussion of the phrase “you guys”. During my lecture on verbal communication I discussed generic language. When we think of generic language, we think of words that have generalized both sexes using words that speak to both genders, but are more specific to one sex. Sayings such as “you guys’ was the main discussion in my class. I had them

Picture Credit to Bowmanitis.com

read an article called On Language: You Guys, by Audry Bilger (2002). To sum up this article it basically gives the idea that using the phrase “you guys” when speaking to a group of both genders, has become an informal way of greeting people regardless if both sexes are present in the conversation or group setting. When we think about the problems in language we can say that the words “you guys” has been looked at, as a gender neutral word when greeting people, even if it is just a group of women and no men.  It also makes the claims that even as feminists we tend to use the words “you guys” even though we strongly believe in changing words such as fireman into firefighter, police man into police officer, and chairman into chairperson. Bilger (2002) stated that “during the same decades in which feminist critiques of generic uses of “man” and “he” led to widespread changes in usage-no mean feat- “you guys” became even more widely accepted as an informal and allegedly gender-free phrase (77).

I asked my students to read this article and answer some questions along with the reading before we met again. Of course some read, and some didn’t. I put my students in individual groups of 5-6 to talk it out. They were able to discuss it, while others surely didn’t see the relevance of this article to the course. Some of my students felt that I put them in groups so that they could agree on the questions and come to a consensus, so that they don’t have to critically think this out. Others actually discussed it and had debates back and forth about the usage of “you guys”. When it was time to debrief the article, some students were afraid to speak up. However, once the ball started rolling, it was hard to stop them from talking. What really brought me to discuss this was the fact that the majority of my male students still didn’t see why it would be a problem. Since I teach three courses, I would say overall out of the 70 plus students that I have, 50 of them are males. This semester is interesting because I am used to women being the majority in my class, and men the minority. Regardless of the amount of men versus women in the class, men will always try to dominate discussion in the classroom. Some men made some valid points however, they believed that because the term “you guys” is used frequently and in the dictionary, it makes it okay to use it. I agree that it will be hard to remove this type of language, but it isn’t impossible. Women in the class barely wanted to speak up because they felt vulnerable in this situation. They do not want to say anything that would harm their image, or make them look stupid or wrong. When they did, some of them were agreeing with the men, and other women were actually upset that they were referred to as a guy. One female student said something that stuck in my head. “Everyone is so sensitive about things like this, so I do not see it as a problem”. I believe that when we define the term feminism, we are often associated as sensitive, pushy, and emotional about wanting to be equal to man, or society thinking women want to be just like man.

My whole point of this discussion was not to force her to feel she needed to be persuaded to change by me, but to critically think about the language usage of “you guys”. I felt attacked by some male students when I stated “what if I called all of you girls and this was the way we communicated to both sexes, and it ends up in the dictionary?” Immediately some men said, in a high-pitched voice, “Well it’s not in there!” They were upset that I could consider calling them a girl, and not a guy. However, soon after, I stated that even though it may not happen, those who are called guys but are women and do not like it feel the same way as a male who is called a girl. I do not believe it is about sensitivity. I believe it is about proper language, and referring to both genders properly. The fact that it is used constantly doesn’t make it acceptable. I had a male student speak up, he was raged that I even assigned this reading, and thought that this article was a waste of his time to begin with. He really thought I would be offended. I wasn’t offended, however, I was offended that he didn’t take the time to understand my view-point, given the fact we have discussed frame of reference and perception in the course. He completely dismissed the point of the article just because he wanted to continue saying “you guys”. But in honesty, I would like to believe that when he does say the words “you guys”, he will refer back to what I stated in  the discussion, and think twice about the discussion we had as a class. I felt as if I were shut out by the majority of my male students, only because they felt I was trying to push them to think just like me. I am all for persuasion, however, I am more pushy for critical thinking than to think I just want to persuade them to change their language. Some even stated that calling someone “people” or using the term “you all” was weird for them. In each class, the discussions were different. Some had some great points, and others weren’t sure what they were trying to articulate. I believe articles like these highlight the fact that women are always looked at as the other. If both sexes are looking at the words “you guys” as not a problem, then our society is making clear way for other terms to be used to refer to women such as bitch, slut, whore, etc. The students that took the time to respond made interesting points about language, and how as a society we cling on to words, and continue using them, and soon passing them along. They were right on these points. But what I saw as a problem is that some students stated that using the words “you guys” should only be used in informal settings, and not formal. Saying this is like saying a four-year old can say the word bitch in front of family, but can’t say the word bitch in public in front of strangers. Whether informal or formal, saying “you guys” should not be used at all when referring to both sexes in a group setting.

If we keep convincing ourselves that it is okay, then we will continue to accept other objectification for women. I can admit I have used the words “you guys”, however when I do I am immediately conscious to what I just did, and I am not proud of it. What I surely hope to accomplish is that even when people use it, they still are reminded that they used it improperly, and that they will try to lessen the usage of those words.  I actually trained myself not to use “you guys”. When I do hear it frequently, I get irritated, even if it were women saying it. As a feminist, I am not trying to be so pushy about my ideas and thoughts about specific inequalities. My whole philosophy on life is to try to be as fair as possible. 


I wrote this not to vent, I wrote this to point out that we use a lot of words in the English language without really realizing the meanings, and whether or not it offends someone. What I wanted my students to get from reading this piece is that language is powerful. Language can hurt, it can satisfy, and it can intrigue. Being an educator is one thing that may sound easy, but it can be difficult. It can be difficult in the sense that not all students will understand, and not all students will like what you say to them. However, the whole point in education is not to push a student to think like the professor or instructor, it is to push the student to just think. Students and even teachers should think rationally, critically, and explore all meanings before making decisions. When words like “you guys” are used in the classroom or outside of the classroom, whether formal or informal, we create an invisibility of women, and make the usage of he, man, or guys as the norm, and only the norm. It is not to dismiss the male sex; it is to enhance the visibility of the female sex, and to let people see that women are people too. I know that may sound so sensitive, and peaceful, but it is what needs to happen in order to continue to become equal, or to become considered normal. After all, women have been fighting for hundreds of year for equality, why should we let the usage of the words “you guys” keep women from seeing that they are separate, and not a guy. If my students left class that day thinking about the words that debase women, and words that make women feel inferior to men, then I have done my job by enlightening them enough to think about the topic. We have the ability to stop obscuring women’s importance. Those who do not understand the word feminism or feminist will always have a negative connotation of what feminist want to reform, especially when reforming our language usage. As stated before language is powerful, and words in the English language seem to support male dominance, and is used to heighten male supremacy.

The thought that words like “you guys” doesn’t seem like a problem to some, is because this type of language has been accepted, and not seen as a change needed. Gender-neutral words have become part of our reality, and it needs to be reformed in order to create a new and supportive reality for women. A lot of people believe that if they support this type of reform, then they support feminism and become feminists, when they don’t want to be considered a feminist. To be considered feminists, one does not have to have any specific personality, physical characteristics, or hidden agenda. To be a feminist or pro-feminist, one has to accept that society creates unjust situations for women, equality has not been accomplished in all aspects, and that women or men believe that women should be able to have a voice and speak up, and to not be shunned by the world because she is a woman. I understand that my students are young, but that is no excuse to allow them to accept words that offend or insult. Even if people do not get insulted by the words “you guys”, it is still a negative way to address an audience full of women and men. These so-called “gender-neutral” terms are sexist, and are not just something to hide under the rug, and pile the mess.  I disagree with the fact that if women accept it, it is okay. The women that accept sexist language are the same women who accept objectification from men or society in general. There should be no difference between language and action. Our language is so important, because it is how we view society, how we share our thoughts, how we offend someone, and how we compliment someone. Language is action because it allows us to provide words that allow people to take an action, to change improper behavior, and to provide a better outlook, and opportunity for others.  Bilger (2002) stated that “feminist reform is an ongoing process that required a supportive community of speakers. The more we raise our voices, the less likely it is that women and girls will be erased from speech” (80). I am glad that some of my colleagues pointed out this article to me, so that I could engage my students enough to discuss their feelings and thoughts.


Bilger, Audry. (2002). On Language: You Guys. Bitchfest. p 76-80.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. ................................................ says:

    It’ll change. Vernacular always changes. Just wait and something new will replace it.

  2. nutaliuh says:

    We just covered this in my class called Sex & Gender in American society! Such an interesting topic.

  3. MB says:

    I have been warring over this at my workplace and in personal life and women are the worst culprits. It was the MEN that pointed it out to me first when I was in college. I don’t use “you guys” since then (college) and I actually think less of people who use it after I point out to them that it bothers me and it’s sexist. You can thank “pro-feminist” people like Oprah and even the website Jezebel and all mainstream media who support and thrive on sexist language.
    Thank you so much for posting this article, very well thought out! 🙂

    1. feministtalk says:

      Thank you for this comment/ I agree, a lot of women accept it, because they are used to it. I spark this dialogue in my classroom, and at times it’s amazing how much they don’t understand the effect it has on our language. But there are people out there who get it, and try to change. Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog
    that’s equally educative and engaging, and without a doubt,
    you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something which too few people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m
    very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something
    relating to this.

  5. Kay says:

    Hello! I have recently become very interested in this subject of gendered language. One compelling argument I have heard is the theoretical generic “white” for a person, i.e. mailWHITE, WHITEkind, all WHITES are created equal, etc.: At first, I thought “you guys” wasn’t a big problem as it has become accepted and seemingly “gender neutral”; however, after reading it in a metaphorical racial context, it became extremely apparent to me how unacceptable gendered language is.

    I really liked reading this post; it was insightful and intelligent. I was especially intrigued by your observation on how quickly some students (especially male) dismissed your opinion without even thinking about its merits. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s