While consulting for a well-known science and technology firm, I found myself working with five twenty- and thirtysomething middle managers who were members of a fast-tracked leadership development program within the company. Despite their geographical and cultural diversity–they hailed from China, India, Colombia, Italy, and Egypt–I noticed that a distinctive slice of vernacular pervaded all of their speech:
“You guys” (or “Hey, guys” or simply, “Guys”).
When I asked about its use, there was a chorus of, “That’s what we hear from our American colleagues.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we owe the modern-day linguistic tic of “you guys” to Guy Fawkes, a conspirator in the thwarted 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Parliament. More than four centuries later, Fawkes is still burned in effigy in England on the anniversary of the aborted attack.
With such notorious roots, it’s surprising that the phrase transformed over the years into a near universal generic salutation. According to the Google Ngram Viewer, which charts the popularity of millions of words and phrases published in books as far back as 1500, “you guys” in the early 1900s, and its use increased dramatically from the 1980s through 2004, the height of its popularity.
But regardless of its ubiquity, I say, enough already.
Much of the social and even linguistic criticism of “you guys” zeroes in on its implicit sexism. The reasoning is that it would never be acceptable to refer to a group that includes men as “you gals,” so why is it acceptable for gatherings that include women to be summoned as “you guys”?
But my objection to “you guys” isn’t about sexism. It’s about presumption. Especially when invoked by professional subordinates, “you guys” assumes a level of familiarity that may be viewed as impertinent by those up the food chain.
Some who use it may view “you guys” as a shortcut to fitting in, but the closeness it rushes to establish may be off-putting. Rather than creating the impression of a polished, self-aware professional, it projects an air of casualness that’s inappropriate in professional settings. I don’t want to hear it as a greeting from a restaurant server, and if it’s uttered by a job candidate during an interview, there’s no chance the individual will be my pick.
I believe this casualness and premature grasp at familiarity stem from our reliance on digital communication. We’ve become a society that thinks it’s too much effort to type “okay” in a text, instead opting to shorten it to the single letter “K.” Emoticons have replaced true expressions of gratitude or frustration, even as many of us have learned awkward and even career-damaging lessons when trying to communicate emotions digitally. It’s not much of a leap to think the disproportionate time we spend relating via email and instant message affects the way we interact face-to-face; hence, the growth of offhand vernacular such as “you guys.”
Although it may sound like a generational divide, my feelings about “you guys” have little to do with my birthdate. Age no longer dictates hierarchy as universally as it once did: The world has grown accustomed to CEOs and venture capitalists in their 30s. Organizational power is now likely to be determined by what I refer to as “reporting-up” relationships–connections in which something is required of the other (money, business, authorization, approval, etc.) Do organizations really want their investors, clients, senior leaders, or board members referred to as “you guys”? Equally importantly, how do those stakeholders feel about such a label?
And that’s where I think the opportunity is: Regardless of someone’s age, gender, ethnicity, or organizational rank, exhibiting a code of professional conduct provides a source of differentiation in today’s business world. Those who demonstrate a respectful, considerate manner stand out–and not in the way my restaurant server and job candidate did. A first step is replacing “you guys” with a greeting or rallying cry that delivers a more deferential and courteous impression: How about, “team,” “colleagues” or in more casual settings, “everyone”?
Stephanie Nora White leads WPNT Ltd.’s Chicago and San Francisco offices. She is writing a book about how to establish meaningful and career-enhancing business connections in today’s algorithm-driven world.