Earlier this year, I decided to see how long it would take me to expunge the phrase “you guys” from my daily vocabulary.
The experiment started in February. Here’s the funny thing: I often bristle when someone includes me in a group addressed as “ladies,” but I’d been resisting the complaints I’d been seeing about “you guys.” I found myself saying things like, “I don’t mean it in a sexist way when I say it. It’s just a phrase.”
Ah. “It’s just a phrase.”
Most people don’t say sexist (or any -ist) things with the conscious intent of being sexist; they say them because those phrases are woven into the fabric of their speech. The very fact that they don’t think about those phrases is part of the problem. Sexism is a systemic problem, not necessarily a problem of people sitting at home twirling their moustaches or lady-staches or whatever and scheming up ways to piss off an entire demographic. (Although apparently there are people who do sit at home scheming ways to piss off entire demographics. These people are not likely reading my blog.)
So I decided to see if I could do it, to stop saying “you guys” altogether. And here I want to digress for a moment, because in order to understand some of my deep-seated resistance to language policing in any form, you have to understand my quirky personal history.
As kids raised in a very conservative Presbyterian house, we weren’t allowed to use profanity, or anything that hinted at profanity. Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” etc. etc. So no “oh my god” or “jesus christ” or “good lord” (or even “Jesus H. Christ in a handbasket,” which genuinely impoverished my speech for many years). “Goddammit” was out, and so was just “damn it” because “only God can damn.” (When you believe in the eternal flames of hell, these issues become much more pressing.) Euphemisms were no good because they made you think of the original phrase, so no “gosh” or “golly” or “gee” or “darn.” (One time I got in trouble for saying “darn it” because I had to leave a Christian death metal concert early. This is 100% true.)
Unlike my Mom’s generation, we were allowed to say things like “oh my goodness” even though “goodness” is an attribute of God and so really, saying “oh my goodness” is questionable. Profanity by proxy, or some shit like that. Oh yeah, definitely not allowed to say “shit” or “piss” or “fuck.” Also, no “butt” or “booger” or “that sucks.” And for good measure, we weren’t allowed to say “shut up” or opine that we “hated” something. “Hate” is too strong a word, you see. You should say you “dislike” it.
Good lord but I fucking hated those rules. And I’ve been swearing up a storm ever since, in large part because I can, and no one can tell me not to anymore, goddammit.
Where was I? Oh. Right. “You guys.” So yes, despite my resistance to “not being allowed to say” a particular phrase, I decided to ditch the default American plural second person. Except this time I wasn’t changing my speech because someone had commanded me. I wasn’t sanitizing my speech because some deity would be offended, or because it would get me in trouble. I was changing it because a phrase that has no actual purpose to me, beyond its convenience, can cause actual living human beings to feel excluded. Unseen. Erased.
And that shit doesn’t fly with me.
So. I set out on my mission to de-you-guysify my speech. I thought it might take a month or two to see a significant change.
Nine months later, I’m finally seeing consistent results, but it’s been a slog. I know I used “you guys” a few times in September. In October, I’m pretty sure I haven’t used it once. At some point this fall, the neuronal connections to “you guys” finally atrophied enough that I just don’t say it anymore.
In general I now use “y’all” or “folks” or “everyone.” I sometimes get a little more flowery, especially when I’m teaching: “beautiful people” or “brilliant people” or “amazing folks” or things along those lines. (This seems like an upgrade. I’m happy the experiment has opened me up to more creative ways of speaking.)
Factors that seemed to make it more likely that I would revert to using “you guys”:
- Speaking to a small group of people, most especially a couple. I wonder if my brain interprets “y’all” as too big for just a couple of people, while “you two” feels weird to say. Now I generally say “both of you” or “you both” or just “you.”
- Speaking to people I know well. On the one hand, for a while I was more conscious of a sense of “I’m changing my speech patterns, will they notice? will they think I’m a weirdo? I mean more of a weirdo than they already think I am?” And on the flip side, I was more likely to relax into existing patterns with people I know. With strangers or acquaintances there’s already significant verbal filtering happening, so it’s relatively cheap to add another filter.
- A stressful situation. (Ah, stress.)
Some things I’ve noticed along the way:
- When I first started the experiment, I focused on just noticing when I said “you guys.” And I realized: I said “you guys” all the time. Like, constantly. Way more than I realized. Also, everyone says it. All. The. Time.
- I had a lot of resistance to saying “y’all” in particular. There is a certain social stigma to phrases that sound “Southern” (which is a whole other topic). Eventually I got over it. I still favor “folks” but “y’all” is a perfectly serviceable gender-neutral plural.
- I’m not one to address a group as “ladies” or “girls,” so I didn’t have the added burden of training myself out of other gendered terms for groups. I imagine for someone who often says things like “ladies” or “girls” or “gals” (or “boys” or “dudes” or whatever), this exercise might be even more challenging. (Note to the interested: I’m not a fan of being addressed as “ladies.” Especially by male-identified people. Unlike my overall neutral feeling about “you guys” earlier this year, this is a hot button for me, for reasons that will be explored in a separate post. If you’re male-identified in particular, please stop saying “ladies.” If you’re female-identified, at least start paying attention to how and when you use it; is it possible that the people you’re addressing feel a sense of dissonance that you’re not aware of? If you’re non-binary-identified… we should hang out.)
- The less I say “you guys,” the more I notice other people saying it.
The experiment was even more fruitful than I expected. And as “you guys” fell out of my vocabulary, it exerted a gravitational pull on a lot of other gendered language and pulled some other phrases out of use. Things like “sir” and “ma’am” and “mister” and “lady.” This wider language shift feels even less like I’m policing my own language, and more like a natural consequence of taking off the ubiquitous gender filter. Which is just as well; mine was blurry anyway.
Which is a whole other topic. For now, I just want to thank you folks for reading.