Last Wednesday I overheard a rather heated conversation while doing some work in the IB lounge area. It began when a male student approached a group of sitting students (presumably his study group) and said, “Hey guys.” Fairly standard greeting, I thought. It seems as though some of his friends didn’t agree.
“Please don’t refer to us as guys,” said a female student. “It’s unfair.”
What happened next was surprising. The two got into an argument over the use of the word “guys” while the rest of the group looked on in awkward silence. While I don’t remember exactly what was said, I do remember the terms “equitable” and “inclusive” were thrown around. Eventually their argument subsided, and both were left fuming.
I’ve heard about this before—how our language, as an extension of our culture, is structured in such a way as to systematically subjugate women—but I have never seen someone actually take offence. It was clear that the male student meant no harm when he referred to the group (which consisted of several females) as “guys”, but considering this problem with English, was her reaction warranted?
Seeing as I’m a male myself, I’m probably not the best judge of that. I can’t say that certain words make me uncomfortable because their use suggests male dominance—nor can I say I feel more powerful, for that matter. But I do understand where she’s coming from. Men often unknowingly demean women through their everyday choices in the use of language.
Something as straightforward and seemingly positive as paying a woman a compliment (particularly if it’s in regards to her physical appearance) can be marginalizing. The basic idea is that we are stressing the importance of looks in a woman’s life, while simultaneously using the compliment to gain access to her. I would venture that most men who tell women they’re beautiful aren’t doing it with all (or sometimes any) of this in mind, but it does clearly have an effect, however subconscious it may be.
The important lesson to take from all of this is that there are socially constructed forms of male dominance present in how we use language, even though we don’t necessarily see it.
I am, however, at a loss for how “guys” can be understood in this same way. The only reason I can think of is that by using the word, we are only acknowledging the men in the group (or, as with the rules for French ils, are extending the maleness to cover the rest of the group). I suppose this is, in some small way, a marginalization of the women present. But I don’t think it warrants an argument; “guys” is so commonly used, it’s more likely that we just start to understand its meaning differently.
If you think this whole analysis went too far in depth, you may be right. But only then do these problems become visible, short of taking a Women’s Studies course. I hope that someone reads this and thinks twice about what impact their words have. Real talk.
Michael Di Leo