Is it time to stop saying ‘guys’ at work?
That’s what I called out to my colleagues most mornings as I wandered to my desk at my old job — until one day when a colleague, who had recently joined my team, visibly winced at the greeting.
She cheerily responded with “Morning, everyone”, before shooting me a wry smile.
It was a subtle but undeniable way of calling out my word choice. There were five women in the mixed-gender group I was addressing. So why did I — and so many of us — use “guys” to address mixed-gender groups?
And is it time to drop it from our vocabulary at work?
Isn’t ‘guys’ gender-neutral these days?
The term “guys” found its way into the Australian lexicon around the 1970s via American television and radio programs.
Alison Moore, chief editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, explains that it’s mostly used as a colloquialism by the younger generations to refer to both men and women.
Ms Moore says it wasn’t borne out of a “patriarchal context”, unlike other terms now widely recognised as exclusionary or sexist — such as “chairman” or “mankind”.
The term “guys” was originally a reference to British historical figure Guy Fawkes, but in the mid-1800s it began being used in the United States to mean ‘men’ generally.
Linguist John Hajek, from The University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics, says the term doesn’t always mean “males in the plural” nowadays, but he acknowledges others take a different view.
Critics argue the term is sexist because, while claiming to be gender-neutral, it actually positions men as the “default” (after all, “guy” in the singular invariably means “male”).
“Some people do not feel excluded by the word ‘guys’, but some do,” agrees Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia. “The word ‘guys’ can be used to mean both men and women — but not for everybody.”
For women in male-dominated industries particularly, “guys” can reinforce their sense of being in the minority.
Felicity Young, a receptionist in the automotive industry, explains the use of “guys” has become the default at her workplace: “It annoyingly does become ingrained,” she says.
Similarly, women in tech can feel sidelined by the phrase.
Jessian Choy, a public speaker focused on inclusive language and environmentalism, has compiled thousands of tweets showing how the phrase can inadvertently make women feel invisible when used in phrases such as, “This app was built by the guys at…”
The term is also problematic for some gender-nonconforming or trans people, for whom “guys” could be an instance of ‘misgendering’ — a consistent obstacle to LGBTQI+ people feeling included at work, Diversity Council Australia’s recent Out At Work report found.
Don’t we have bigger fish to fry?
For some, debating the phrase “guys” sits at the bottom of a list of priorities in the struggle for positive social change.
Lucy Tatman, coordinator of the gender studies program and senior lecturer at The University of Tasmania, says there are more pressing issues, such as domestic violence, sexist language and “slut-shaming” language — which she says has been used by some politicians across the political spectrum — and penalty rate cuts that disproportionately affect women.
Ms Choy challenges that view, saying the use of “guys” is part of a larger structure of exclusion facing women.
“You could say there’s bigger fish to fry for anything, but why not focus on what we can control, which is our language?” Ms Choy says.
So should we all stop saying ‘guys’ at work?
It’s clearly a divisive topic. But to be on the safe side, Professor Hajek and Ms Annese say it’s best to avoid the term in the office.
“In a business environment, you don’t want to upset anyone [or] get a proportion of your workforce offside,” Professor Hajek says.
And context is important, he says. Keep in mind that language you use without trouble outside of work can be non-inclusive at work.
Just because your female friends or your kids are fine being addressed as “guys”, doesn’t mean your women colleagues will appreciate it.
Similarly, if you know one or two colleagues well enough to be sure they’re fine with the phrase “guys,” it’s probably fine to use the phrase, Ms Annese says. But addressing a broader group at work as “guys” is another matter altogether.
“In the workplace, you cannot reasonably predict the impact that your words have on other people,” Ms Annese says. “If you’re a leader and you’re addressing a whole group of people, isn’t it better to use a more accurate term?”
‘But I didn’t mean to offend anyone!’
Most of us have misspoken at some point, and “we can’t lead a completely scripted life,” Ms Annese says. So don’t beat yourself up if your language thus far hasn’t been perfect. Just be willing to learn.
And keep in mind the power of words and how they can affect people, even if you don’t intend any harm.
“What that’s doing is transferring the negativity of the comment from the person who made the comment to the victim of the comment.”
What are your alternatives?
Arguably, one of the reasons “guys” has persisted for so long is that the English language doesn’t offer many easy replacements.
The term “folks” sounds, well, folksy, says Dr Tatman. And “y’all” sounds too American for most Australians to comfortably use (which is ironic because “guys” was also originally an Americanism, Professor Hajek says). Then there’s the Aussie slang term “youse,” which is often derided as grammatically incorrect.
When addressing a group of women, there’s simply no perfect female equivalent of “guys”. The options seem patronising (“girls”, “chicks”, “babes”) or prim and refined (“ladies”).
Melbourne-raised Tom McQuillen, who works in tech, says he makes a conscious effort to use the term “hey team” when addressing a group of mixed-gender colleagues.
“‘Team’ is a completely inclusive term, and also it’s not so formal that is sounds ridiculous,” Ms Annese says, who also uses that term when addressing groups of employees.
Professor Hajek suggests “hey all” as an alternative to “hey guys”. Other terms you might try include “everybody” or “people”.
I’ve now made a conscious effort to edit “hey guys” out of my vocabulary — and I’m grateful to that former co-worker who corrected me.