“You Guys”: A True Linguistic Struggle

An example of some of the many gender expectations I grew up believing

I grew up in a small town, in a deeply conservative Catholic family where “traditional” gender roles were not only expected and enforced rabidly by all the adults in my world, but also, I was told, by God himself. Needless to say it took many years for me to question the validity of these roles and even more years to be brave enough to voice my questioning.

To give you an example of how deeply these gender roles ran in the veins of my community, let me share a story from my childhood. From the time I was able to identify my colors, whenever anyone would ask me which color I liked most, I’d say red. Red made me happy. When I looked at red I felt a warmth that went deep into my body and made me feel safe and loved. I was the kid who would carefully select all the red M&Ms from the bag–because of course they tasted the best, and the kid who used up her red crayons to a nub at the beginning of the school year, often while the other colors still stood tall, with points in tact.

My mother was never really ok with the fact that I loved red. She tried really, really hard when I was young to dissuade me from selecting red to be my best color friend. She pushed me hard toward pink and purple–colors “appropriate” for a young girl. This color war went on between us for many years until just before I was about to hit puberty. And then one day I was flatly informed that red could, simply, not be my favorite color. It was the color of the devil, the flag of Satan, the pigment of hell, the color that only “bad” girls who didn’t obey God liked. “Good girls,” girls who followed the gender roles expected in my community, could not love red. While I was not yet old enough to understand the allusion to prostitution and “red light” districts that I realized years later my mother was making, what was very clear to me was that as a woman, red was off limits to me.

Slowly I began to cave. I began to answer “what’s your favorite color?” with purple-for I could not bring myself to love red’s softer, more “feminine” tint, no matter how much my mother tried to get me to see pink’s beauty.

Gender RolesIt wasn’t until I was nearing the end of high school that I really began to question the stark gender roles that had been so clearly defining my life and the lives of those around me. And it wasn’t until I was in college that I really began to understand how deeply problematic, dangerous, flawed, and exclusionary these gender roles were–not to just me, but to everyone.

Slowly, I began to become increasingly willing to critically engage gender roles in various aspects of my own life and in society. This critical engagement revealed to me the many ways in which gender expectations for women had impacted, framed, and in many cases limited my own experiences in nearly every aspect of my life. The more deeply I came to understand this, the angrier I became.

And then, one day, I had an epiphany that turned my world on its head. I realized that not only had others been using gender roles and expectations to dictate what I could/should do. But, that I had also, without realizing it, been using these gender roles to frame the expectations I had of others. At first I was mortified. I understood in a deeply personal way how damaging and hurtful these rigid gender expectations had been in my own life, yet, I had been holding others to these same standards. The insidious nature of societal expectations such as gender roles is that most often we absorb them naturally and without even realizing it. In turn we apply the expectations of the society in which we were raised not only to ourselves but also to others, in turn reinforcing the very power of those expectations to frame the lives, experiences, and potential of those around us.

Eventually my mortification gave way to the power of critical thinking, and I realized that being embarrassed about what I’d done wasn’t going to fix anything. The only way to change the world around me was to begin changing myself.

Over the course of many years, I’ve worked diligently to be more aware of and attuned to the gendered expectations of Western society, and to adapt my behavior so that it works to challenge and complexify the gender roles mapped out by society rather than to reify them. In fact, many who know me now like to tease me about being a “radical feminist” who is hyperaware of issues related to gender and always talking and thinking about them. And I think everyone who knows me well would agree that I have brought this “radical feminist” work into all aspects of my life.

But, the reality of cultural agility journeys, is that no matter how hard you might be working on something, there is always more to do. And for me, one of the hardest struggles has been removing the phrase “you guys” as a way to address a group with multiple gender identifications, from my linguistic repertoire.

While I have spent much time and energy working on this goal, I am still far from achieving it, as those who know me can attest. I certainly use “you guys” far less than I once did, especially in the classroom, where my initial classroom greeting for many years was “How are you guys doing today?”  But one of my personal cultural agility goals is to really eradicate my use of this phrase unless I’m referring to a group of people who all self-identify as male.

Why, when there are such bigger “feminist issues” to tackle at the moment do I care so much about refraining from the use of “you guys” to address a group of people with multiple gender identifications? Because while it may not “solve” any of the bigger issues at hand, it is part of the cultural foundation that shapes and supports these bigger issues. As Judith Butler writes in Excitable Speech, “if language can sustain the body, it can also threaten its existence” (5). Butler aptly reminds us that language does indeed matter; in fact it matters deeply. And using language that suggests that being male is somehow the universal or at least preferred way of “being” in the world very much threatens not only the rights of women and opportunities available to them, but also their very existence.  And that, for me, is very much a “big issue” for all of us.

You guys #3 daily mailThe image to the left gives us a sense of just how big this issue really is. A study conducted by Joshua Katz, a PhD student at North Carolina State University revealed just how prevalent the use of “you guys” is to refer to groups of people regardless of gender. The orange areas of the map–which cover roughly 75% of the U.S.–represent areas in which respondents claim to use “you guys” most often to refer to groups of two or more people. I feel compelled to note that all of the places I’ve lived within the U.S. fall frighteningly within the orange areas of this map.

This visual, paired with Butler’s reminder that language can threaten the very existence of the body, is a startling combination, which makes me even more determined to face my linguistic struggle head on and eliminate my use of “you guys,” especially in the classroom. If students are trusting me to guide their learning, I cannot be irresponsible in the words I choose to use in the classroom.

Urban Dictionary's

Urban Dictionary’s “Top Definition” for “you guys”

As part of my quest to change this linguistic behavior, I’ve been doing research about the phrase “you guys,” such as examining its usages as well as people’s reactions to the ways in which the phrase is employed. One of the places I consulted was the Urban Dictionary, a favorite website of many of my students. I was not surprised but a bit saddened by their “top definition” of “you guys,” which can be seen to the right. While I was a bit heartened by the 57 dislikes this definition has accrued since it was posted in 2006, I was more bummed by the 151 likes it’s accumulated. But, then I realized that even though I might “dislike” this definition, I’m also partly responsible for its existence since I still continue to use this phrase in exactly this way, even if it’s just part of the time. All the more reason to work on changing my own behavior with the hopes of making some tiny change that may have the larger long-term impact of helping to make the map above less orange over time.

A more critical definition of

A more critical definition of “you guys” from the Urban Dictionary

One of the definitions of “you guys” on Urban Dictionary is one that inspired me to be more committed than ever to this piece of my cultural agility journey. User aleclair clearly points to the problematic nature of the ways in which “you guys” is often used, and doesn’t shy away from pointing out that this phrase is used as though it’s gender neutral just as often by female speakers as by male speakers.

Guilty as charged aleclair, but working on it, I promise.

What really motivates me most about this post is that while this definition has earned 48 likes since it was posted, it’s earned 196 dislikes–more than quadruple the number of likes. For every one person who found this definition as inspiring as I did, four seem not to find the gender-neutral use of this term problematic.

While I certainly find this 4 to 1 statistic upsetting, I also recognize that I do not really have the right to be upset with this definition until I can modify my own behavior. For every time I utter the phrase “you guys” to a group that is not composed of all self-identifying males, I am responsible for normalizing this usage in ways that fuel the ideas and attitudes of those likely to dislike a definition of this phrase that opposes the gender biases present in this language.

Journeys toward being more culturally agile don’t happen overnight. They also don’t happen without the support, knowledge, wisdom, and input of others along your path. So I’m asking for your help. I’m asking that you don’t just let me slide by when I use “you guys” to address a gender diverse group, but rather that you call me on it. That you make me pause and realize what I’ve just said and help me to restructure my linguistic patterns so that I am using language to help liberate myself, and all of us, from the power of gender roles rather than in ways that give language the power to dominate us and our lives.