In the fall of last year, my wife and I signed our 3-year-old daughter up for an indoor soccer skills class. And right away, she loved it. We loved it, too. It was fun to watch EJ work on fundamentals like dribbling and kicking — her game face would emerge, her little tongue would come poking through her lips as she concentrated — but it was even more fun to see her laughing as the coach incorporated silly games like Red Light Green Light Black Light. (The black light ignited the field-wide toddler dance party, obviously.) There was just one problem.
All the “guys.”
“Come on, guys!” “Let’s go, guys.” “Way to go, guys!”
There were seven boys in the group. Our daughter was the only girl. And yet every time the coach addressed the group of kids, it was as guys. My wife and I would occasionally see EJ drifting off into space, neglecting to do whatever task the coach was asking the group to do, and we would wonder, does she even know she’s talking to her?
Though we don’t refer to EJ and her baby sister as “guys” at home, we live in a world in which people regularly use the word “guys” to address a group of people, regardless of their genders. Part of the problem is linguistic. The English language lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun, such as “ustedes” in Spanish, or “ihr” in German. For most English speakers, using “you all” to address a group feels too clunky, and substituting “y’all” is too Southern. And so people default to “guys,” a word that can be traced back to 1605 in England, to the ragged effigies of Guy Fawkes, who tried and failed to blow up the House of Parliament. Then, “guys” was a slang term used to describe poorly dressed or creepy-looking men. By the 1930s in America, according to linguist Ben Zimmer, the word had lost its critical edge, and was being used to indicate people of any gender.
I’m tempted to wade deeper into the history and theory connected to the word. I could debate ideas from people such as Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist who defends the use of “guys” by claiming it is used primarily to express a stance, an attitude, one of “cool solidarity” with the people being addressed, and that the word’s association with gender is secondary. I could gripe about how even if that’s true, I can’t shake the feeling that people who use “guys” to address a group — some of my well-meaning female friends and family members included — are acting out of a patriarchal habit, not thinking, and just being plain lazy with their words.
None of this changes the fact that my daughter is 3. She doesn’t want to tear down the patriarchy by challenging the micro-aggressions of language with me; she just wants to play the game where she gets to act like a bear and kick giant blueberries into the goal.
Before we knew it, the holidays were upon us and the 10-week soccer camp was finished. Come January, we signed EJ up in the same soccer program. She had the same coach, who was, once again, kind, energetic and motivational. And she was still calling everyone “guys.”
“Hey,” I said to EJ at lunch after that first day back at soccer. “Did you ever notice how Coach always calls everyone ‘guys’? Does that seem weird to you?”
EJ chewed on her sandwich, thinking. “Yeah,” she said.
“Well,” she said. “Because we’re not all guys.” To her, it was just that simple.
We talked further, about how maybe a better word for Coach to use would be “everybody,” or even “team.” I asked her whether she wanted to talk to Coach after soccer the following week, and she said yes.
By the end of the next week’s soccer class, she appeared to have forgotten all about it. I can’t blame her; there was an obstacle course at soccer that day, and it was awesome. EJ came running over to her baby sister and me on the sidelines. After we high-fived, I asked whether she still wanted to talk to Coach. “Oh yeah!” she said, her eyes lighting up. Then she did a 180 and ran right back toward the goal, where the coach was busy putting away equipment.
“Wow,” I thought, watching her ponytail bounce away from me. “My daughter is a boss.” I’ll admit: I had been impressed that she hadn’t wanted me to go with her, but part of me was also a bit relieved. I was secretly embarrassed by this relief. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say to the coach, how to broach the “guys” subject without coming across as overly critical, how to call her in without calling her out. I feared I was having my toddler fight my battles for me. And yet, wasn’t it her battle, too?
When she got to Coach, EJ was so excited, she started jumping up and down. “Hey!” she said. “I have a question for you!”
The coach knelt down, her eyes brightening in response to EJ’s energy. “Yeah? What is it?”
“Um, how come you’re always calling everyone ‘guys’?” EJ said something more, but from the sidelines, I couldn’t quite hear it.
Coach listened, then said that she could try calling everyone “soccer friends” instead. “What do you think? Would that work?”
“Yeah!” EJ said. “That’s good!” She ran back to me, juiced up with even more toddler adrenaline than before. I was thrilled, too. My 3-year-old daughter was making changes in the world. I was so proud of her, I sang her praises the whole way home.
I wish the story ended there, on such an easy and happy note.
But this isn’t a fairy tale. This is a story where we went back to soccer the following week, and the coach continued to call the kids “guys.”
This time, I went along with EJ to talk to the coach. I nodded as she apologized.
“I don’t mean anything by it,” she said. “It’s just something I say.”
Even though I knew to expect it, I was frustrated by her nonchalant justification. I told myself to react calmly. “We understand that a lot of people have a habit with that word,” I said. “Thank you for trying.”
It wasn’t enough. What else could I have said? Maybe that I want my daughter to know that her words have power and can make a real impact on people’s behavior. Or maybe I could have told the story I once heard about two girls in a school classroom, how they kept falling behind in the lessons, and after the school labeled them as having learning disabilities, they discovered that the girls, being literal learners like most young kids, simply didn’t think any of their teacher’s repeated “What do you guys think?” questions pertained to them. They weren’t falling behind. Someone was pushing them, with language, to the end of the line.
A lot of people think this stuff doesn’t matter. As I write this, I can imagine the critics: They’re just words. Stop being so politically correct. You’re taking the fun out of everything. Maybe they should know that I can see, in my daughter as she bolts across the field, the champion who will achieve greatness no matter what she is called, by anyone. And yet I can also see, in those unknowable distant stares of hers, the girl who gets forced outside the circle because of what someone says to her, some repeating glitch of a word that people just use and use without thinking.
It’s exhausting to try to correct everyone who uses “guys” to address our daughters. I have been met with defensiveness, and sometimes outright annoyance. Well, team, I still think it matters: how we use words, how we evolve both through language and beyond it.
Jason Basa Nemec is a freelance writer with a PhD in English and comparative literature. You can follow him on Instagram @jasonbasanemec.