Hey, Guys!

The first sentence out of my Sociolinguistics professor’s mouth was, “So, where y’all from?”

He was from Tennessee. He pronounced my name, “Ginny”.

We spent the whole first class — and several classes after that — going around the room pronouncing different words and exploring dialects. Among the 20 or so students, nearly every region in the country was represented. We chuckled at what we considered strange pronunciations or phrases that cropped up throughout the semester. We spoke fondly of our hometowns, of how we were taught, of the people we knew.

One day, we started talking about ways of addressing other people. I was envious of the professor and many of my Midwest classmates for their effortless integration of the word “y’all” into conversation.

“Y’all” seemed to me a simple solution to the nagging question of gender bias. In my home state of Connecticut, and in many other places in the country, we say, “you guys”, but “y’all” eliminates the address to gender altogether.

I made a mental note of this in class, but since then, every time I’ve felt “y’all” on my lips, I’ve hesitated. It still feels forced and fake to use that word after 25 years of “you guys”.

But “you guys” and the similar “guy”, “dude”, “bro”, etc. present several issues related to identity. Of course, gender bias is at the forefront of these issues; but it is not just a question of gender bias. The words we use, what we call ourselves, and how we name others have a deep impact on the way we see the world and how we view ourselves. In this context, even a simple greeting has deep implications for our identities and the identities of others.

Gender

The problem with how we talk about men and women in our society is that many male pronouns are associated with positive or neutral ideas, while many female pronouns are associated with negative characteristics.

Common Male Pronouns:

  • Guy/Dude/Bro: Casual, edgy, also oftentimes used when addressing a woman.
  • Boy/Man: Even though boy evokes naivety and innocence, it is also associated with an exclamation of excitement, just as the word “man” is. “Oh boy, I can’t wait for that movie to come out.” “Oh man, the movie was amazing.”

Common Female Pronouns:

  • Girl: The casual counterpoint to “guy”. The problem with this word is that it evokes naivety, youth, and simple-mindedness.
  • Lady: Evokes an older, stuffy image.

In addition to common casual pronouns, there are insults related to gender. We have several insults related to women (“bitch”, “pussy”, “cunt”) compared to those for men (“dick”). The power behind a word like “cunt” is also much greater than a male related insult such as “dick”.

The deeper you get into the implications of these words, the more problematic they become. The issue is that we rarely think twice about the way that we refer to men and women. It’s such an automatic part of our lives that we don’t even notice how pervasive the issue is.

And that’s the danger. When we desensitize ourselves to something, we fail to see the consequences.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences. The inequality between male and female pronouns is problematic because it attributes a greater importance to men than to women. This makes the use of such words a microagression towards women — a subtle yet pervasive issue that works on our subconscious and reaffirms inequality.

Although we don’t always realize it on a conscious level, the repetition of these ideas becomes ingrained in us. And it begins to affect the way that we view ourselves, as well as how we see others. We believe in the worth of a man, automatically. In the same breath, we begin to doubt the worth of women. Regardless of our own gender, these beliefs begin to construct our identities.

Geography

Despite the fact that we all speak “standard American English”, different regions have distinct ways of talking. Dialects are important cultural and social markers that help a lot of people form their identities.

After reading the above section, you might say that a simple solution is getting rid of certain terms and adding better ones. But it isn’t quite that straightforward. It’s easy to say “who cares” when it comes to simple language choices; it’s harder to let go of the ways in which where you’re from have shaped you. That shitty diner down the street from where you grew up is not a shitty diner — it’s where you had breakfast with your parents every Sunday morning, where you went after your prom, where you first ate hot wings. You don’t want to see it torn down or disparaged even if it gave a whole mess of people food poisoning. That’s your spot, and you’ll defend it til the end.

It’s the same with language. When I hear someone say, “you guys”, I think of my grandfather, who really pronounces it “youse guys”. I remember all of his linguistic idiosyncrasies, how he says “tree” instead of “three”, how he can never say a sentence simply and always exclaims, “oh, I’m getting my mords wixed!”

The words we use and how we say them are part of our identities — they are a representation of our hometowns, our cultures, and those who came before us. This makes it difficult in the first place to decide that words are “wrong” and shouldn’t be used. When “you guys” is framed as a microaggression, I’m all for doing away with it. But when it’s framed as a connection to my past, I have reason to pause.

Even if we do decide that certain words or phrases should be done away with, letting go is a different story entirely. Eliminating words means scraping away parts of our identities — a task that many are not up to.

Delayed Adulthood

“You are all a lost generation.”

That’s what Gertrude Stein said of the post World War I generation, but the term resonates today. And I think that this is another issue that my generation has with language. Mostly, that we know what the hell we’re doing.

When my mom was my age, she had been married for three years, she owned a house, and she was pregnant with me.

She was completely financially independent from her parents, and she was starting her own family. I don’t know if she felt like an adult, but for all intensive purposes, she was an adult. She was a woman.

Do I carry the same clout, as a 25-year-old without these social markers? Am I comfortable considering myself an “adult,” when I still eat ramen for breakfast, and sleep on a mattress without a bed frame, and call my dad to ask him how to hang a photo?

Have I earned the title, “woman”?

When do we grow up? What signifies adulthood? Sexual maturity? Financial independence? Is it just a “feeling” that you get?

Lines between childhood and adulthood are now murkier than ever. In the past, we had religious or cultural events to help us define ourselves. You had your bat mitzvah at 12; then you were a woman. You went on your vision quest when you were 16; then you were a man.

Our markers of adulthood have changed, and they are less contingent on age. You can get married at 20 or 40. Same issue with other modern marks of adulthood — financial independence, having children, moving into your own house, etc. This leads to a generation of people who don’t know what to call themselves.

I think we hesitate to actually call women, “women”, because we don’t know if they are truly adults yet, just as we don’t know if we are truly adults yet. Men face the same issue — you don’t hear men in their 20s addressed as “men” very often. The difference is that they have other acceptable words to be called (as mentioned in the first section).

Does It Matter?

Are words like “guy” and “girl” the end of the world? No. But if we believe that words matter, we need to accept that these words have an impact on gender, society, and identity.

Many people don’t think twice about these words and others that they use. I didn’t for a long time. But if we care about who we are and where we are headed, we need to understand how even seemingly small choices impact how we see ourselves and the world.

This piece was first published as part of a larger essay on Dishwater Lemonade. View the full essay here.

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Jen Sanfilippo

Jen Sanfilippo

Writing about the ideas I get stuck on 📝