Language matters

This morning, I’m running a Twitter poll on whether people regard “you guys” as a gender-neutral second-person plural. It is an issue near and dear to my heart — in fact, it may be the hill I will die on. I understand that “guy” is coded masculine in other usages. I get that some people recoil from any hint of gender-non-inclusive language. I grasp all the arguments, and I even went through phases of trying to replace it with “you all” or some other circumlocution. But, as I later said, joking but not joking, “you guys” is a part of my regional dialect. In that dialect, “you guys” is always gender neutral. I have never, in my life, heard anyone use it in a way intended to exclude female members of a group. And it’s not just some random idiom — on a gut level, it is the second-person plural pronoun to me. It is a structural part of how I speak. I would have to retrain myself on a deep level and I’m just not sure why it’s fair to ask me to do that.

Why am I so attached to this particular usage? I think it may be because I have already given up some of my “natural” way of speaking. It started when I was in grad school and I started to feel self-conscious about the Michigan habit of dropping the “g” from -ing words. This was never a problem growing up, nor indeed in college, because Podunk Christian College drew heavily from my part of Michigan. Prior to grad school, adding the “g” felt pretensious and forced, but once I entered the hallowed halls of a mainline Christian seminary, I felt self-conscious. I started training myself to add the “g” back in. No one told me to do this. They are all studiously progressive there, so they would probably feel really bad to hear that I felt that way. But that’s how I felt regardless.

It’s a small change, but it’s also a big change. It affects a huge percentage of sentences, especially the most casual and cast-off: “I’m comin’,” “let’s get goin’,” “I’m doin’ it right now.” Now I don’t even think about it, but for a while there I didn’t really feel like myself. I probably even code-switched with my roommate, who was also from the same part of Michigan. (He was also one of the few people who recognized the usage of “sliver” instead of “splinter,” which seems to be part of a microdialect focused almost exclusively in my family.) It’s become second nature to me now, so that it feels weird to go back.

At the end of the day, this is a small loss. It emphatically doesn’t matter. But imagine if I had been consciously shamed. Imagine if they had told me I sounded like a hick and a Republican and I needed to fix it. Imagine if they acted offended whenever I dropped that fateful “g” and implied that after a certain point, they would no longer associate with me. That would be bad, right? And that’s the kind of thing that has happened all the time, whenever different accents or dialects have existed — those differences have been moralized and used as an excuse to scapegoat or exclude others.

This is an underappreciated aspect of the continual battle over speech norms that has gone under the name of “political correctness” and now “wokeness.” What the activists are asking is, in different degrees, for people to adopt a new dialect or accent — to change the way they talk about deep-rooted social categories. Some of those changes are, or should be, low-hanging fruit. If a white person is still routinely using the N-word at this late date, for instance, they really should know better and the presumption should be that they’re doing it out of malice or stubbornness rather than out of naive habit.

Some of them are much more difficult. The use of a singular “they” to refer to a generic or unknown person has been conclusively demonstrated to be deeply rooted in English usage. There is probably not a single native English speaker who sincerely finds it unnatural — it rolls off the tongue, much more easily than the supposedly “correct” generic masculine. But the use of a singular “they” to refer to a specific, known person is a different story. It feels weird and wrong at first and for a good length of time after that. I personally want to respect people’s pronouns but keep messing up in the moment, simply because my social circle does not provide many occasions to practice.

And it does take practice, because changing something structural like the way you use pronouns is like learning a new language, even if only in one limited respect. The same goes for the proposed social norm where we should never presume anyone’s pronouns until we have been explicitly told. That proposal has merit. The motivations behind it are clear and urgent. But it also cuts against some of our deepest habits. From a very young age, all of us are trained to identify people’s gender immediately, and that becomes an irreducible part of how we think and refer to them. Changing that habit will be hard, though certainly not impossible. For instance, I think that most of us have adopted a related habit of never using a person’s race or ethnicity as a primary identifier when pointing them out in a group (e.g., “the tall man over there” or “the guy in the suit” instead of “the Black guy”). And on the gender front, I find myself more and more using the singular “they” to refer to persons unknown to the person I’m talking to, in contexts where highlighting their gender does not make sense or feels awkward. It takes effort, but it’s doable.

In online circles, I have not seen a lot of acknowledgment that it takes effort. Instead, there seems to be an exasperated impatience that people haven’t already caught on. Part of that is just social media culture, which is toxic in familiar ways even among people who presumably mean well. Part of it is also the understandable sense that dealing with transphobia is a bigger burden than changing speech patterns and so we should all just suck it up. And — fine. That’s true. I should do better and I want to do better — but not on “you guys,” because I sincerely don’t think anyone is hurt by that usage and in fact I believe that the people who claim to be offended are looking for something to be offended about. It feels to me like they are wanting me to change the way I speak simply as a power play. In other words, it feels like they’re being judgmental jerks because they enjoy being judgmental jerks.

The fact that I’m inclined to dig in my heels here surely reflects my demographic background as a white man. But I think it also reflects my working class background, and I think it matters that the context where I felt embarrassed about the way I spoke was a mainline Protestant context that is, regardless of any individual’s actual class background, coded upper class. It probably also matters that the way most people encounter these kinds of proposed new speech norms is from their kids on break from college or from the HR department. Sometimes — even most of the time — people are being stubborn or short-sighted, but there is something true in their suspicion or bristling. Kids really are arrogant sometimes and love to have something over on their parents. The HR department really doesn’t have their best interests at heart! In fact, they probably don’t care about the moral issues at play in the speech norms and are just worried about not getting sued.

This is where the disconnect comes in, because from the position of the activists, they are the ones who are more burdened and more worthy of consideration. But most people are not encountering these norms in contexts of genuine dialogue and collaboration — they are either having them handed down to them through actual authority (the HR department) or from someone claiming or at least aspiring to be their social betters (their upwardly mobile children). It feels like an elite imposition because it is. It doesn’t have to be. Ideally it wouldn’t be. But in practice, the deployment of these norms in higher ed and HR contexts does actually taint them for a lot of people. We hear them doubling down on racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, but they hear: “Shut up, you lower class lout — can’t you ever learn to speak properly?”

Who’s right? The activists are probably right in the last analysis. But a politics based on who’s right — meaning who is the most oppressed and therefore gets to set the agenda — is a version of the zero-sum austerity thinking we should be trying to escape. If it’s important for us to talk to each other in a certain way, we should start by talking to each other. If language is important to you, that’s because it’s important to everyone. Asking someone to learn a new language is not a small ask, no matter how big your reason is.

UPDATE: After talking with My Esteemed Partner about this, I am backing down somewhat. Though she agrees with me that “you guys” is gender-neutral in intention and usage, she helped me talk through people’s objections in a human way, without shaming or sarcasm. A lot of what made me want to dig in my heels is that in the online context, people were simply being dismissive jerks. It seems a mode of engagement intentionally calculated to be anti-convincing.

3 thoughts on “Language matters

  1. If you think about it, in everyday speech, most people don’t speak in prose. It’s closer to iambic pentameter, which is why trying to modulate speech forms is useless. There might be instances where adding or dropping the ‘g’ adds the lyricism of the sentence. ‘You guys’ might be a better fit than ‘y’all’, ‘everyone’ or ‘people’. Or maybe not. The folks-ification is fashion rather than an obviously exclusionary poltical language. Isn’t it just better as a general rule not to listen to what people say so much, rather than what they mean? This brings us back to your people who are looking for something to be offended about. We are not attuned to forms of communication that exist below the level of language. This is particularly true on american television. We aren’t paying attention because it isn’t immediately graspable, lives in ambiguity and isn’t something we can do anything about. The Right exploits this to the hilt. A ‘look’ isn’t a speech act and wouldn’t admissable as any evidence in court, yet the intended meaning maybe all to clear to the recipient.

  2. Hi Adam,
    I’m on both sides of the fence on this one, but I’d like to point out an overlooked reason why ‘you guys’ may not be cool, and the reason it is overlooked is because you focus on whether it has caused direct offense or been used to cause direct offense. And I’m pretty sure it hasn’t either.
    But if you zoom out and see language as more of an ecosystem, isn’t ‘you guys’ playing a role in coding masculinity as the normal presentation of the person, as category? So, the argument that you have overlooked is that it may be innocent in direct use, but still be part of the infrastructure that supports overall linguistic patriarchy?

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