Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Guys: Not Gender Neutral

Forgive me, sisters, for I have sinned.

I have never been all that formal in my speech. I grew up a blue-collar kid. I’ve had mostly white-collar jobs, earned the whitest-of-collar degree (MBA), and even qualify to wear a clerical collar (ordained)… yet in my heart I am still pretty much a blue-collar guy. I think I usually write like a white-collar guy, but I often talk like a blue-collar guy. I can certainly be formal, but I prefer to be informal.

For years I have used the word “guys” as a gender-neutral term. I cannot count how many times in meetings (usually meetings that I was running, or had a great deal of influence) when I would announce: “when I say guys, please understand that I mean guys in a gender-neutral way.” I meant it as a term of endearment. “Come on guys, let’s get this done. Would you guys like to join me for lunch? How are you guys doing? Did you guys have a good weekend? See you later guys.”

The apologetic clarification revealed that I knew the word was not gender-neutral, regardless of what the dictionary says (most dictionaries allow the word to be gender-neutral as a secondary definition).

Nobody called me on it. Nobody seemed to mind. What were they going to say? I was the boss.

One day several years ago I decided to try to break the habit. I’m not sure why. I guess it was a mixture of politeness and an effort to show proper respect to my female colleagues. It was a hard habit to break, and I’m sure I still blow it from time to time, but I think I’ve pretty much got it under control. And I’m really glad I made the effort.

I don’t know that anybody noticed. But it seemed to make a noticeable difference. Maybe it was all in my head, but I found my relationships with female colleagues to be just a bit more productive.

When I pick up the occasional job in the corporate world, I rarely hear a man use the word guys in a gender-neutral way. I don’t think anyone would get in trouble for doing so… they would just run the risk of being marginalized. It could be perceived as a sign of ignorance or insensitivity; such a man would not be taken as seriously as he would like.

I do, however, hear the term used a lot in the church world. I am confident that nobody does so with intent to harm; they likely are just being lazy like me. 

If you are one of those guys (and by guys I certainly mean men) I want to encourage you to break the habit. If you do, I’m confident that you too will notice a difference.

For me, this isn’t a matter of political correctness; it is just correct.

I’ve asked women about this. Generally speaking it doesn’t really seem to bother them much… but they do notice. The term doesn’t usually carry much impact, but it does at least slightly impact the relationship, and it is always negative impact… usually just a little bit of caution or negativity. They usually easily overlook the minor offense. But why would we want to waste the energy, causing that bit of friction, for our lazy, outdated speech?

So what are we to do? One thing not to do is add something to the term. I was recently in a meeting of ministers of my ilk, mostly evangelical pastors, mostly men, but not exclusively men. One of the featured speakers, a genuine expert on the day’s topic, caught himself addressing the crowd as guys. Then he “corrected” himself by saying “guys and gals.” Seriously… guys and gals? He might as well have addressed the women in the crowd as “little ladies” or “dear.” It was clumsy… easily overlooked, but clumsy and it degraded his credibility a little.

I’ve never been a fan of doing the he/she or his/her thing. I guess in some cases it is unavoidable, but I’ve found that, with a little effort, I can usually write and talk in such a way that simply refers to people as people. We can be inclusive by specifying women and men… but it is most inclusive to simply talk about people, leaders, colleagues, and friends.

It seems that this is most important when we are in any kind of leadership. As leaders, our choice of words is closely scrutinized. When we use a term like this it can be interpreted and misunderstood in all sorts of unproductive ways.

I know that women sometimes use the term guys in a gender-neutral way; some women I know use the term regularly. That is fine for them, but it doesn’t give men license to use the term. This certainly isn’t the only term that a group of people uses in reference to themselves that is off-limits to those not in the group.

So, if you are a guy like me… come on guys, work a little harder and discipline yourself to not burn any goodwill on clumsy outdated language.


  1. I love this! Of course, it reflects many conversations we've had together. Let there be no mistake, you came to this conclusion all on your own. For me, I'm glad you listen, pay attention, then work to change. It gives you credibility. I'm proud of you!

  2. Nicely written. Thank you.

  3. Guilty as charged. Thanks for the challenge.

  4. Great post! Really! Thanks! :D

  5. Word. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I get so sick of hearing the term hey guys and it really annoys me when its used to greet women. I find it strange that women don't seem to mind being called guys .I think most men would get upset if they were called gals .I hear girls using it like hey guys i wonder why not say hey girls. I have young nieces from Oregon and they use it so much IM from Alabama . I don't say anything because its there right and I suppose its up to me to move forward with the times .THOUGH it does annoy me when the waiter calls me and my wife guys I say nothing