In my work, I talk a lot about language and the power of words. Today we’re going to talk about ‘guys’. Not guys in the casual gathering of men sense; more from the “why do we refer to people of all genders as guys” point of view.
I’ve recently adapted the concept of ‘andronormativity’ as a way to describe why is commonly accepted to use masculine words for non-male people.
My working definition of andronormative (andronormativity) is the unconscious worldview that assumes ‘male’ as the default or normative assumption for people.
This is similar to another social lens, heteronormativity, which assumes that being heterosexual is the default sexual orientation. Generic or encompassing terms for people are male; social norms are organized around straight, male + female partnering. Intersecting these two creates a significant blind spot. An absence of other genders, gender identities, or sexual orientations goes completely unnoticed in most situations. Sounds harsh, but stick with me here.
Features of andronormative language: using “guys” for people of various gender, terms that use ‘man’ to represent ‘human’ or ‘person’ (man-hours, *occupation*man, all men are created equal, mankind, man-door, etc.), and using “he” or “him” to describe a generic person in a hypothetical situation (spoiler: the APA style guide recognizes using ‘they’ as a single, gender neutral pronoun).
Using male language hinges on the assumption of “rounding up” to men. Greeting a team of people comprised of different genders with “good morning, guys”, and very few people notice. Replace that with “good morning, ladies” and people are disrupted.
Why? Glad you asked. My position is that our collective social assumption for people is masculine. Non-males are inundated with language that conveys an underlying message; male identity is presented as the norm, much to the social recognition detriment of everyone else.
If you have a non-male gender identity, the term guys is presented as ‘rounding up’. As a non-male identified person, you should be ok with that because you’re being lifted up to belong with the rest of the group.
This doesn’t work when I address the same mixed-gender group by saying ‘ladies’ because it’s rounding down. Not just rounding down to women, but rounding down to an even more limited social expectation of ‘ladies’. Now I’m telling you who you are AND I’m layering on restrictive social expectations as well.
Don’t believe me? Try it sometime.
Andronormativity is different than sexism or misogyny; although there can be elements of either, depending on the situation. The perspective itself is steeped more in ambivalence and invisibility. This lens of ‘male as the norm’ is reflected back when the absence of non-male people goes unnoticed.
The andronormative influence varies slightly when gender expectations intersect with stereotypical roles. Situations where gender-based stereotypes presume a predominately non-male presence (nurses, daycare providers, stay at home parents), the absence of men is not surprising. However, even in these environments, the words used will either still include masculine tones (guys) or expand to include men if even one is present. Missing here still is the visibility of other genders and gender identities.
Interestingly, even when images are used to disrupt gender-based stereotypes, they continue to stick within an expected schema. Shifting from a male pictured as the doctor, to a female as the doctor, still keeps that woman within the confines of care provider. Unless women are moms or intimate partners, we see images of men taking direction from them far less frequently.
So, what now?
Now, you can take control of the language used to describe other humans. Notice when biases creep into your language and expression.
Use this as an opportunity to create more robust greetings like, “good morning, all of you amazing rockstars!”
Use the buddy system and encourage colleagues to shout ‘andronormative language!’ during meetings
Embrace using ‘they’ to describe a person in your examples (when a customer comes in, they typically go to the popcorn counter first)
Find more precise terms for occupations than just adding ‘man’ at the end (wow, that police officer looked surprised when they clocked me doing 90 in a Prius)
And, finally, stop saying ‘guys’ when you mean people. Don't be that gu... person.