“Hey, Guys!” (Or: a brief digression about gender-neutral terms and how an old dog can learn a new trick)

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Like so many of you out there, I’ve used the term “guys” when referring to groups of people comprised of both sexes. I never once thought the word would make anyone feel excluded. In fact, I’ve always considered it a gender-neutral term.

It’s not, however. The first Merriam-Webster definition of guy is “MAN; FELLOW.” While the second definition is “PERSON—used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex,” we can’t ignore the word’s primary definition.

The English language largely does not assign grammatical gender to words as so many other languages do. That was my justification for using “guys” as a catchall word, one much less clunky than “ladies and gentlemen,” or the genuinely neutral (and weak) “folks.” Because I found it inoffensive, I couldn’t initially see why anyone would. And, yes, I know how narcissistic that sounds.

Since hearing about how some groups were protesting the use of “guys” as a gender-neutral word, I may even have blown a prolonged and juicy raspberry, a sound difficult to reproduce as dialogue, but derisively effective nonetheless.

“People have become too damned sensitive,” I may have said. And I may have said it on more than one occasion, and in different contexts.

But, I thought about it.

I do that sometimes. Think, I mean. It’s not always intentional. Sometimes my train of thought begins to run on a circular track. When this happens, I realize it means that something is troubling me. Something, indeed, was bothering me about the current debate over the word “guys.”

I don’t believe that I was wrong, however. Not entirely. My intentions mitigate the offense, to a degree. In my head, the word “guys” had become as gender-neutral as “folks.”

I often find it helps for me to reverse the situation to understand an alternate point-of-view. I find it impossible to imagine myself as a female, because my imagined female self doesn’t find “guys” offensive, either. My imagined female self also seems to be very much a man in a wig playing dress-up in his wife’s closet. That’s never been my kink, by the way, but there’s no judgment here if it’s yours.

So, that wasn’t very revealing. Well, maybe the crossdressing allusion seemed a little revealing, but that was just in jest.

When I imagined that I was a part of a group—let’s say a team of co-workers comprised of both men and women—and the person who was addressing the group was a female who addressed everyone as “ladies,” regardless of gender, I could see how this could make me feel excluded from the conversation. And maybe a little uncomfortable.

I’ve had male coaches and gym teachers in the past who wouldn’t hesitate to refer to a group of young men as “ladies,” but in this case I don’t think the term was meant to be gender-neutral. It was more of an emasculating insult, and more of an argument for using true gender-neutral words. I had a feeling that these coaches/teachers would have said “you bunch of fags” if they could have gotten away with it.

Men tend to insult each other, face-to-face, in some genetically driven male-bonding ritual. We’re actively mean and rude to each other, and seem able to maintain healthy friendships even after hurling the worst epithets at one another. My wife has said, on more than one occasion, that she doesn’t understand this at all.

I believe her. In my experience, with the women I’ve known or worked with, women don’t normally do this. In fact, most women seem supportive and nurturing towards each other. Face-to-face, at least. ‘Nuff said.

My point is that I began to understand a perspective other than my own on this issue. So, okay, I shouldn’t use the word “guys” unless I’m referring exclusively to a group of males.

During the three decades or so I spent in retailing management, corporate culture often dictated how I referred to the people I worked with. At a Southern discount store called Rose’s, I believe all employees were referred to as “associates,” just like at Walmart. I honestly can’t remember how this was done at Hills Department Stores, but it may have been the same. At Target, we were all “team members”, and the customers were called the “guests.”

Target also liked to use the word “leader” in place of “manager.” For most of my career at Target, I was considered an “executive team leader” in charge of logistics, instead of “assistant manager.” I never could wrap my brain around the reasons “manager” was a bad word and “executive” was not. The store manager was called “store team leader” or STL for short.

Corporations understand that words have power. Technically, to my current employer, the US Postal Service, I am a sales and service associate, I think, but everyone just calls us window clerks. I’m workshopping “postage facilitator.”

While it’s questionable that age has brought me even a small measure of wisdom, this old dog may have picked up a new trick or two along the way. Maybe I have become more empathetic. Maybe I have gained the ability to see things from perspectives radically different from my own. Maybe I can still evolve as a human being.

LGBTQ+ issues, gender pronoun preferences, and associated topics are all current hot button issues. We’ve all heard the jokes inevitably made about controversial subjects. Maybe we’ve watched comedians share their own thoughts on these topics, at considerable risk of falling victim to cancel culture.

Perhaps you have your own opinions about such issues, some of which you are afraid to share publicly.

I, for one, am glad that all of these things are topics of conversation. I’m in favor of inclusion and equality for all people, certainly. What right thinking person isn’t?

But, I have another reason as well. I remember my school days when I’d write a sentence requiring a singular pronoun that wasn’t gender-specific, having to resort to the clunky construction “he or she,” because “it” would have been offensive on an entirely different level. Because of the current pronoun crisis, it has become increasingly acceptable to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun. When I would do that as a student, just because it was less awkward than “he or she” or, worse, “he/she,” I would be told that my usage was ungrammatical, rather than a style choice.

For example, the sentence “If a person wants to become a published writer, they should learn to accept rejection and submit their work to multiple publishers” is, technically, ungrammatical. Yes, I know I could have fixed this sentence by making the subject plural, but just go with me on this. Past wisdom would have writers refer to singular antecedents with an aforementioned “he or she,” which I’ve never liked, or with just a separate “he” or “she.” I’ve read books and articles where this happens frequently. If I refer to all nongendered antecedents with just “he,” which was once common practice, it’s certainly not inclusive. I’ve read books—specifically books on writing, as it turns out—where the author would alternate using the pronouns “he” and “she” just to give equal representation. While I appreciate the effort, it still comes off as awkward on the page.

Using “they” as if it were a singular pronoun solves a whole host of issues. This practice has been widely acceptable in British English for many years. Less so in written American English until this current gender crisis, although prevalent in speech for as long as I can remember.

Just like Star Trek helped make splitting infinitives acceptable (“To Boldly Go…”), the current gender identity debate has also made my various and sundry ungrammatical sentences more acceptable. If anyone disagrees with this, they should speak up now.

All kidding aside, inclusiveness is a noble goal. One World. One Love.

That’s all, Folks.

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