While many people these days use ‘guys’ as a gender-neutral term, not everyone does. Some people have no problem with it, but others have a genuine and valid objection.
Guy is a masculine term with a masculine history. It began in 1605 and the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of conspirators led by Guy- whose name was actually Guido- Fawkes planned to blow up the English Parliament. Guy Fawkes was tried, convicted, and put to death for his crime. Parliament instituted a yearly observation of the date in the ‘5th of November Act’ which encouraged remembrance and thanksgiving that the plot did not succeed. Commemorations of that plot being foiled, quite literally in the nick of time, involved effigies of Guy Fawkes being paraded through towns and then being burned in bonfires. Guy Fawkes Day is still celebrated today, often with bonfires and fireworks, although many people have no idea what they are celebrating.
Over time, the word guy came to be used for young men in general, a practice which became common in the 20th century.
It is, by comparison, very recently that people have been inclined to use guys as a gender-neutral term.
The risk of assuming that it is acceptable to use it inclusively is that it is not automatically an inclusive term: consequently, it can put up barriers for those who do not feel included by it, and even more so for those who feel actively excluded.
Some people may think it’s an overreaction or political correctness gone mad, but I would encourage those people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and consider the question from a different point of view: perhaps a girl who is continually overlooked while her brothers or other male peers are favoured, a teenager who identifies as female and hates the fact that they have the body of a guy, or a girl who simply wants to be acknowledged as a girl. In each of these examples, the use of guys as an all-inclusive term is hurtful. To each of them, it is just as offensive as calling them anything else that they are not.
In social or close group settings such as family or friendship groups, there is probably more freedom to speak in any way that the members of each group are comfortable with. In more formal environments, or in groups where we are less familiar or intimate, there is less leniency in the way we address one another, and certainly less forgiveness for poor judgement.
In any structured environment, but particularly professionally, we need to speak and behave in ways that do not isolate or offend those we claim to serve or represent. As a teacher, the emotional well-being of each of my students is as important as their physical safety. I don’t want to do anything to harm them or to damage our working relationship. The same is true in my role as a director in a theatre company, and at other times as a cast member. People will learn and perform at their best when they feel valued, included, and respected. If not using a given term helps to achieve that, then not using it is the best thing to do.
Therefore, even though I am not personally offended when people include me in “guys” despite the fact that I am not a guy, I choose to speak otherwise to my students and to the cast and crew when I am directing.
There are other things one can say instead:
- The year level/name, such as Year 9 or Grade 4, according to the conventions of the school and/or locale.
* Not an exhaustive list.
This can sound impersonal, so try moderating it by using various positive adjectives: happy, busy, friendly… there are many appropriate options. I often walk into my classes and say “Hello, beautiful people!” If anyone responds that they aren’t beautiful, I always say that there are different types of beauty, and inner ones are far more important than outer ones. It may have taken some of them a few days, but now they happily accept the greeting because they understand what I am communicating by it: I appreciate each of them for their own unique character.
I often mix this up with adjectives too. It’s actually an opportunity to give your students some affirmation while getting their attention. Try saying , “Okay, cool kids” or “Right-oh, groovy kids” and it’s not hard to see the difference in how they respond.
Once, one of my students said, “We’re not kids anymore.” I apologised and said that I wouldn’t repeat that mistake again. The next time I wanted their attention, I said, okay, you incredibly mature and responsible young adults.” They applauded, so that is how I have addressed them ever since.
In more relaxed situations, you could also use:
* Also not an exhaustive list.
Sometimes I try to put a fun spin on things:
- “Right, you rowdy lot!” I might say this when they are working hard and being anything but rowdy.
- “Hello, unique individuals!” Again, it’s an opportunity for affirmative language that includes everyone.
- “Greetings, earthlings!”
- “Whæt! Geats, Danes, Monsters and Dragons!” has been a favoured greeting while studying ‘Beowulf’, while “Aaaaarrgh me hearties!” Works when studying ‘Treasure Island’.
Finally, whatever you say, remember that tone is everything. The feeling in your words is what signals sincerity and positivity to the people around you.
As the saying goes, it’s not what you say, but for how you say it that matters.