Should we stop saying “you guys” at work?
Advice from The Sherwins for July 2017
One of our new employees recently brought up that our firm says “you guys” all the time, even with clients, and that it’s sending the wrong message to women. Honestly, I’d never thought about it before. (We’re a mostly female law firm, so there are plenty of other ways that we feel excluded in our industry because of our gender.) Should our firm try to stop saying “you guys”?
T in Las Vegas
Yes. Yes, you should. And not just because of the whole gender thing. Or because it doesn’t exactly scream professional conduct for a group of lawyers.
Let us tell you a story.
Mary’s high school hosted a bunch of exchange students from Germany. The first thing her class did was teach them all how to use the word “dude”, despite the fact that the German students had an exponentially better grasp of English. Why? Because dude was what Americans said. That’s how you knew someone was an American, among other difficult-to-define things like having a favorite X-Files episode and having strong feelings about Nirvana.
But really, for Mary, all that dude-i-fication did was make the German students look even more German. (And curiously, dudette never caught on.)
When learning a language, we look for ways to signal fluency. Slang is an easy signal. Swearing is easy too. Sometimes it works, and other times…. well, let’s just say that dropping -chan in an email to your Japanese professor will likely end in tears. Every German student could say dude in conversation, but gaining fluency—that is, accuracy and appropriateness of the word’s use—took more time.
As a lawyer, you work within a system that is heavily scripted, with a lot of jargon. You can spot a rookie faster than you can spot a house on fire. If you’ve ever worked at an acronym-heavy workplace, you know what we’re talking about. Same thing.
We’ve noticed an alarming uptick in the use of “you guys” with our students, especially with those who came to English later in their childhood. Our hunch is it’s not just an American English problem. You is already a plural. But it doesn’t sound like one, and that’s what we’re aiming for. A way of saying “all of y’all dude/ttes/ys over yonder or maybe around me generally” and sounding like we mean it. There’s something about “you” that makes us reach for something more: Hey, you kittens. You astronauts. You guys.
We love studying how people approach linguistic issues, because it says a lot about a culture. Youenz, yinz, folks. As Southerners, we use y'all a lot. You lot is a favorite in Britain, and it gets bonus points for accidentally-on-purpose conveying a smidge of cheek with it. Not that there’s any real reason to defer to regionality. Team, everyone, all of you: These are fine. Really, they’re fine. And not a single one conveys gender. Not a single one signals where you are from.
So why did dude make the Germans sound more German? Because when Mary thought about it, the German students using dude revealed to her how she had absolutely no idea why she said it or when she’d started saying it. Some cultural moment had been defined, and dude was the thing. It was just something that Americans said and Germans didn't. No one got an opinion, no one got asked, no one got a choice.
And it seemed to Mary that how a community talks should be a choice. One made with intent. The German students, on some small scale, were given a choice to determine how their language would function and how it would fit into their culture.
When you have a choice, T, take it. Ambivalence about our words, our lifestyles, our opinions, our clothes, our politics…they are all slow, creepy ways that we can cede our power to others. You know what happens when people lose their ability to choose. You probably see it every day. If you don’t express an opinion when you can and choose an option when you're offered one, others may come to believe that they can speak on your behalf. That you agree with them. That you condone whatever choices they make and actions they take.
And then time will pass, and you may lose that ability to choose forever. Or, to put it another way, one of David’s professors once said, “If you don’t have an opinion, then you can never change your mind.”
Gender, politics, agency, inclusion, English, all of those things aside… if you have the chance to make things better, why not do it? It really boils down to this: Reward for effort over time.
If your team continues to use “you guys”, maybe it is a problem. Maybe using those words demeans people. Maybe you’ll have a client who doesn’t feel like she got a fair shake.
Then again, maybe no one really cares, and it’s just what people say. There are a few possibilities where people could be hurt—but notice, T, that absolutely nothing in your firm's continued use of "you guys" points to a future in which things get better.
It costs you nothing to try. It could be rewarding. It could prevent future issues. You may never have the opportunity to choose again. Why not do it?
This isn’t just about “you guys”. You know that, right? It’s about intention. It’s about giving a damn about the things that have power in your life: Your language, your relationships, your community, even your politics.
Don’t wake up one day and realize that you're stuck with the language and the life that you have because you never got around to choosing something better.
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