The power of language at work: “guys”, “hussies”, and “executive presence”Featured

Words matter. And language can encode hidden biases and have negative consequences.

But without specialized training, it can be hard to explain what the problem is. Or convince people that the problem even exists.

In this post, I’m going to unpack the issues with saying guys, hussy, and executive presence. I’ll use the science of linguistic anthropology to help you understand the hidden issues and consequences. And you’ll learn both useful alternatives and how to explain to other people why they are needed.

Guys

A manager protested to his female report. “But ‘guys’ means everyone! You know I’m including you when I say ‘you guys’ to the whole team.”

Was he right? Is guys inclusive?

____

A single word can create a whole scenario in your head. This is what linguists call semantic framing.

We can do some easy semantic testing to see if guy and guys are universal when it comes to gender, or if they are gender-specific.

1. Min-young, who identifies as female, is in a restaurant and needs to use the bathroom. The first restroom door she walks by says “Guys” on it.

Does she decide this is the bathroom for her? Or does she keep walking down the hall and look for a door that says something like “Girls” or “Gals” or “Dolls”?

2. Min-young and Brad are sitting at a table outside. Brad points at two people sitting at a table in the distance and says, “Hey, Min-young, who is that guy over there?”

Does she think he’s referring to the person at the table who appears to be male? Or the person at the table who appears to be female?

3. Brad identifies as straight. Marc asks him, “So, since you moved to town, how many guys have you dated? I know it can be hard to meet people here.”

Does this sound like a usual question to ask a straight man?

Or does it sound like Marc thinks that Brad dates men?

This semantic testing tells us that the common semantic framing for guy and guys is male. Not gender-neutral. Not universal. But specifically male.

One of my principles of inclusive language is that it should accurately reflect reality. And the reality is that not everyone is male.

So use other ways to address groups, like “hey, team,” and “y’all” and “folks.”

Hussy

Ok, I know you’re not saying “hussy” to your colleagues. (At least, I hope not!) But the story of hussy has all kinds of relevance to women at work.

In Middle English, hussy was a standard contraction for husewif, the older form of today’s housewife.

But by the 1650s, the word hussy had turned into a strongly derogatory word with negative sexual semantics. A hussy was now a woman who was “inappropriately” sexual, “stole” another woman’s man, had relations with “too many” men, etc.

These negative semantics for hussy remain to this day. The neutral meaning, where a hussy is simply partner to a husbonde (husband), is long gone.

___

This downward slide from neutral term for a woman to something more negative is actually quite common. Linguists call it pejoration.

A few examples of gendered word pairs where only the female half has undergone pejoration:

Lord – Lady

Master – Mistress

Governor – Governess

For all these examples, the female word has become limited to the domestic domain, sexualized in a negative way, or otherwise made smaller or more trivial.

For example, a man slamming on his brakes for a wayward pedestrian may yell, “hey, lady!” But he’s certainly not going to yell “hey, lord!”

And have you ever noticed there’s no equivalent male word for mistress?

___

This downward semantic change comes from the way words are used. Again and again, words for women become more negative, more domestic, more sexual, more trivial. Because this is how the culture views women.

Use neutral words in negative ways enough times, and the semantics start to change. Eventually, you have a word with a new meaning, referring to something different in the world. Hussy changes from “housewife” to “slut.”

These cultural perspectives on the roles and behavior of women continue to this day. And they are right in our workplaces.

Women belong in domestic domains? Well, look at all the “office housework” women “naturally” end up doing. And the emotional labor – how many women reading this have been asked to smile by a man?

The constant sexualization of women is the backdrop to problems ranging from inappropriately sexualized compliments to sexual harassment, where the vast majority of targets are women.

And the trivialization of women and their work contributes to problems in perceiving women as authoritative leaders in public domains like workspaces and politics.

Women are not “naturally” more domestic or more emotional. It is not “natural” to constantly sexualize them, or to over-scrutinize their sexual activity. And it is deeply unfair to trivialize their contributions and keep them from leadership tracks.

So be on the lookout for words or attitudes that suggest that “women’s work” naturally involves an unfair amount of thankless and draining labor. You can use them as a springboard for conversations about equitable distribution of labor.

Executive Presence

“I don’t think she’s cut out for the VP role. She just doesn’t have executive presence,” said the recruiter.

I’ve heard it said that “ambiguity is the door that bias walks through.”

The concept of executive presence is ambiguous. And it is often used to shut out well-qualified candidates who are “different” in some way. Like people who speak English as a second language. Are soft-spoken or collaboration-oriented. Or maybe just female.

People say about executive presence, “I know it when I see it.” Or, “it’s just a feeling you get from someone.”

And even if you find a breakdown of executive presence into more granular components, those components are filled with ambiguity. For example:

  • Charisma
  • Gravitas
  • Confidence
  • Relatability
  • Composure.

___

As a linguistic anthropologist, I analyze hidden meanings. Sometimes this involves figuring out what cultural identity a word is pointing to.

And in the US, the cultural identity being referenced for executive is white man.

Executive presence points to the behavior of white male executives. Many women don’t speak according to the cultural norms for white men. (And there is usually serious backlash if they do.) So they don’t read as “executive.” And then they get shut out.

Who runs companies in the US? It is overwhelmingly white men.

For example, almost 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. And there are more CEOs named John or David in the S&P 1500 than there are female CEOs.

With this kind of data as input for our brains, no wonder many of us end up with mental models where “acting like an executive” and “acting like a white man in an executive role” have almost complete overlap.

___

I once interviewed a woman I’ll call Jessica. She ran a satellite office in a big city, managing $20 million of annual business.

A few months earlier, Jessica had gone up for a promotion. And although she felt the interviews had gone well, she hadn’t gotten the job.

So she asked for feedback so she could learn how to improve. Make herself a better candidate for the next time a role like that came up.

And, after a long delay, HR came back with almost nothing for her. Certainly nothing actionable. Or specific. But they did say that she didn’t seem to have “executive presence” yet.

Jessica can read between the lines. So she recognized that this ambiguous and unhelpful feedback meant that her company had no interest in investing in her. In cultivating her professional development. In moving her to the next level.

She decided to leave and start her own firm. She’s been an executive for years now – and her firm is doing great.

Using white men as the implied standard to judge all candidates for executive roles shuts out well-qualified people. And using executive presence as the justification? It’s often just a socially acceptable way to express bias.

Instead, committees should have clear, granular, pre-defined criteria that are applied equally to all candidates.

___

Words like guys give us insight into subtle ways people who aren’t male get excluded.

Words like hussy give us insight into pejoration of women and their work. And they highlight the problematic ways women are seen through domestic and sexualized lenses.

Words like executive presence give us insight into gatekeeping and the ways ambiguity can serve as a protective cover for bias.

So keep your eyes open for exclusion, sexualization, trivialization, and gatekeeping. And use concepts like semantic framing, pejoration, and ambiguity to explain to other people the hidden meanings and hidden bias of problematic words.

I'd like to gently disagree with your point about "guys".This may not be obvious to native English speakers because English doesn't have a lot of linguistic genders separate from gender-gender, but "guys" is gender-neutral in the plural, and follows similar linguistic rules as certain nouns in other languages like Spanish.For example:Hermano = BrotherHermana = SisterHermanos = Brothers/SiblingsHermanas = SistersHistorically, this may be in part due to the fact that it became popular among communities with a large Spanish-speaking community. Speaking personally, I like being called "guy" when it's part of an inclusive collective ("You guys"), as the usage is more neutral to me and more accurately reflects how those in my community speak normally. I understand why this topic has come up recently, and I respect the value and intentions behind drawing attention to it, but if I'm being completely honest it smacks a bit of linguistic prescriptivism, just in another form. Not everyone who uses gender-inclusive "male" plurals is just some out of touch white guy in management.
I agree that words and language matter. I don’t agree on the idea that we should set explicit rules on certain words as global as ‘guys’. For these reasons:- Semantics change over time. ‘Guys’ is not a derogatory term and doesn’t have negative semantics history. It’s not meant to exclude anyone when used in a gender-neutral way. Why are we turning a neutral term with no derogatory history into a derogatory term? I think we’re all aligned that we don’t need more derogatory terms in our vocabulary. Personally, I like that I can use the term ‘guys’ to mean a group of people no matter their gender. I wouldn’t like it if ‘guys’ was exclusive for men only.You mentioned: “Use neutral words in negative ways enough times, and the semantics start to change. Eventually, you have a word with a new meaning, referring to something different in the world.”From the positive perspective, guys have been used in a neutral way enough times for it to start to change. Now we have a word with a new meaning, that in my opinion, is much better for everyone.- Tolerance for each other. The world is filled with many different types of cultures, communities, and languages. We are not all the same or have the same perspectives. I understand being mindful of saying ‘guys’ in certain settings, but we should be tolerant if someone says it. This doesn’t go for everything, but ‘guys’ is not a harmful derogatory term like other words that packs a punch to the gut. As @Yoko164 mentioned, there are gender based languages with neutral words like Latina, Latino, Latinos. In Spanish, the gender-based language is not meant to exclusive.- Linguistic prescriptivism. Meaning “The term prescriptivism refers to the ideology and practices in which the correct and incorrect uses of a language or specific linguistic items are laid down by explicit rules that are externally imposed on the users of that language.” I feel that creating explicit rules for ‘guys’ expresses exclusiveness and a ‘better than you vibe’. A good example is the term LatinX, which is meant to express inclusiveness and recognize the diversity of Hispanics. However, it ignores aspects of Hispanic culture, language, and history. People who I’ve talked to in my Latino family and community is offended by this word. It makes them feel that those who uses that word considers themselves more progressive, and more educated than them. That they’re better than them. In LatinX’s drive to represent inclusiveness, it’s done the opposite.- Perspective on bigger problems. There’s a lot of other problems that we should be debating and solving like education, incarceration, access to healthcare, crime, war, truly derogatory terms, etc. Gender noun debates like with the word ‘Guys’ is not going to solve any bigger problems or make an impact. It’s petty compared to the problems that are not being debated and solved.You mentioned that one of your principles of inclusive language should accurately reflect reality. For me, reality includes culture and community as well. Semantic changes, in both negative and positive ways. I see 'Guys' changing in a positive way.___My first thoughts on the other words as I’ve never heard them before. Hussy sounds like what you would call a dog. Now this word has a straight up derogatory history and current negative semantic. I agree on the idea that we shouldn’t use this word. There’s a clear line here where this word isn’t used in a neutral way anymore.I’d love to learn of more examples of pejoration and on the flip side: amelioration. ___Executive presence. My first thought here was that this is an inclusive word. I would have never thought that it was used to shut out people who are ‘different’ and points to the behavior or male executives. This makes sense now as the standard was probably baselined to the majority of executives, which you pointed out, are overwhelming white men.I’ve also been turned out for roles because I didn’t have enough ‘influence’. I wonder if over-time we can change this ‘executive presence’ to mean something else that’s a positive?I completely agree that committees should have clear, granular pre-defined criteria.
amygong's profile thumbnail
Loved this, thanks for sharing!
AutumnGarnet's profile thumbnail
As a trans woman, guys is absolutely not gender neutral - any more than dude or buddy.These words may be innocent to most, but it's important we amplify marginalized voices which are harmed by careless verbiage.
kateschiffelbein's profile thumbnail
Dude is an interesting one. My mom, sister and I have called each other “dude” my whole life. But I wonder if that’s just a California thing.
christinephu's profile thumbnail
Other alternatives that I like to use instead of guys in professional settings: hey everyone, hey all. Using y’all and folks just doesn’t come easily to me and I feel super weird saying that in a greeting context.
nancymaher's profile thumbnail
@suzannewertheim Love this. In terms of @yoko164 great comments about languages such as Spanish, I have another perspective to add to this great discussion.Language is a construct and can have built-in sexism, i.e. the male gender is seen as the default. I challenged a male colleague in France who opened emails with 'Gents' when sending to mixed-gender audience. He argued that if he used 'guys' then 'gents' was inclusive. He was coming from a French-language perspective and translating default male concepts into English.This article articulates the issue with in-built sexism languages - and I could see the link towhy 'guys' and even 'gents' could be seen as inclusive.https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201006-are-some-languages-more-sexist-than-others"The world’s four most spoken gendered languages are Hindi, Spanish, French and Arabic. They share many of the same gender patterns: masculine as the default grammatical gender, mixed-gender groups using masculine endings, and feminine nouns derived from masculine versions. Through their structure, they emphasise Criado Perez’s observation of the male default.For example, Spanish follows a generic masculine when it’s unclear if a subject is male or female; a male friend is amigo and a female friend is amiga, but a group of friends is amigos. The male default also applies to mixed-gender groups, like amigos, which use masculine endings. The same goes for adjectives: a group of good female friends are buenas amigas, but as soon as there is one male in the group they’ll be buenos amigos. It’s also clear that masculine is the standard gender in Spanish, since it’s the default form used in dictionaries."The default male is embedded in every part of our world - if you were ever unsure then I recommend this book, which blew my mind.Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men - Criado Perez
christinephu's profile thumbnail
This is a great perspective. This book has been on my list for a while now so I’m glad you brought it up! It reminded me to read it finally.
mickimaynard's profile thumbnail
Actually, in a French setting, it would be “mes amies” or “gens” (people) or “tout le monde.” “Gent” is short for “gentille homme” or gentle/kind man. It’s still gendered. No one calls a woman a “gentille homme.” She would be “gentille madame” or “gentille dame.”
Josefina's profile thumbnail
Really thoughtful comments from everyone! I'm no linguist but I just wanted to chime in here from a Spanish-speaker perspective. It's correct that Spanish is a gender-based language, but in recent years with the feminist movements, there's been a push to start using gender-neutral terms when referring to individuals/collectives. For example, instead of saying "amigas" or "amigos" you'd use "amigues" or "amigxs". Or, for the purpose of this discussion, the equivalent to "guys" would be "chicos" but in an inclusive form you'd use "chiques" instead. Of course, making these changes in language has been quite divisive, some groups use it in an ironic way but other groups have really incorporated it into their vocabulary modifying both pronouns, nouns, and adjectives. For instance, my gym instructor uses inclusive language and the word for "ready" is gendered, so instead of asking "¿listos?" or "¿listas?" (are you ready?) he says "¿listes?/¿listxs?".
"¿listes?" I can understand, but "¿listxs?" feels like an insult/condescension. I know that part is on me, but I'm posting this so see if anyone else feels similarly.
There are numerous gender neutral terms that can substitute for “guys.”TeamTeam membersTeammatesEveryoneEverybodyFolksYou allStaffColleaguesFriends (I see this a lot now)This isn’t that difficult, and since “guys” rubs people the wrong way, pick something else.
soph's profile thumbnail
I would not use "guys" in a professional setting, just because to me it is too informal and seems out of place. That being said, I think when it takes semantic expertise to detect the level of subtlety described in your post, perhaps we are making mountains out of molehills. I believe strongly in seek and you shall find, and if you are out looking for subtle digs, you will find them. If you assume no ill intent, you can focus on leading by example and creating the kind of environment and culture that you want.
amyh's profile thumbnail
I think context matters for "guys". My Dad, a native New Yorker, would always address me and my sisters as "you guys", but that phrase is the NYC equivalent of "y'all". And my Dad was always saying it with affection for his daughters -- if a manager at work said it with disdain for women, it would not be acceptable.
ericarios's profile thumbnail
No, its not inclusive because if you use the opposite "you gals!" there will likely be very strong feelings about being referred to in that way. The guys/gals dichotomy also excludes everyone that is gender fluid or otherwise non-conforming. It is reasonable for him to be asked to use gender neutral terms like "team members".
sarahfre's profile thumbnail
I’m a bit late to the party, but wanted to add one thing that has rubbed me the wrong way.Generally, I’m ok with “you guys” being used to directly address a group I’m in. But for some reason it sits differently with me when I hear managers talking about work I had contributed to as being made by “the guys”, i.e. the team I’m in. The not-quite gender neutralness of “guys” in that (very similar) context made me feel a bit erased. I think that was because I was the only woman in that team of software developers. If someone from outside the team appraises our work they’re more likely than not going to underestimate my contributions due to my gender, so language that subconsciously encourages that bias really, really grates on me.Especially as it’s such a nuanced thing to articulate to a manager for what is, to him, a very minor issue in language choice.