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Hey Guys, Maybe There Are Other Words We Should Be Arguing Over

© Samuel Zeller

On yesterday’s episode of Woman's Hour presenter Jane Garvey sparked debate when she proclaimed that the phrase 'hey guys' should not be used to address a group of people that included women.

Recommending that ‘people’ should be used instead, Garvey joked that it was only appropriate if addressing a “daringly informal guest speaker at the annual meeting of The Society Of People Named Guy”.

“I’m not a complainer to bar or waiting staff generally — no one wants to be that boring git — but I am not a guy,” Garvey expanded.

While the language around gender shouldn’t be underestimated when achieving equality, is 'guys' really the word we want to focus our attentions on? A quick straw poll of friends and colleagues reveals that no-one seemed particularly offended when addressed as part of a group as 'guys' - indeed people cited 'girls' 'birds' and 'chapesses' (which is, to be fair, the worst) as three terms of address that set their teeth on edge far more. It seems ‘guys’ has become so embedded in our vernacular as slang for ‘people’ that we don’t necessarily see it an gendered way.

As Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist at the University of Oxford, argues, being comfortable with the word ‘guys’ is not betraying the feminist cause. “I don’t dispute that words like ‘chairman’ are sexist, but I think s terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are a more complicated case. For one thing, they are slang, whereas words like ‘chairman’ belong to a formal, official register,” Cameron told The Times.

Cameron makes a good point in highlighting that maybe we have bigger (semantics) fish to fry when fighting for equality. For example, it's important that we use chair instead of chairman or actor instead of actress as these words have the power to improve inclusion and tackle the gender pay gap.

On a more basic level, it's also difficult to come up with a universal alternative to the much-used ‘hey guys’ that doesn't grate. Garvey may suggest ‘people’ but apart from that the choices are quite limited. Neither ‘everyone’, ‘pals’ or ‘folks’ sound quite right.

And when you dig deeper into the responses on Twitter, it appears it’s often the familiarity of ‘hey guys’ as opposed to its potentially sexist connotations that people take issue with. After all, we can all agree that there’s nothing that enrages the British awkwardness more than an overly chirpy restaurant server who screeches ‘hey guys’ before launching into a monologue describing every dish on the menu.