“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I remember my mom teaching me that when I was little – I was a very small, physically timid, sensitive kid. I wasn’t aggressively bullied, but I certainly had my share of taunting. And it hurt. I tried to believe my mom, but somehow, I just couldn’t shake the mean things those kids said to me.
In reality, we all know that words DO hurt. While physical pain may heal, the destruction wrought by cruel, demeaning, mocking words can last a lifetime. Sometimes this language comes at us deliberately with the intent to cause harm. I saw this happen way too often between the 4th grade girls my daughter hung out with (or didn’t, because they were mean). And I remember being the same when I was that age. Kids can be cruel.
There is also quite a bit of rhetoric in our current political environment that seems intended to be cruel. This language is overt, deliberate, and is used to gain an advantage.
But there is another side to all of this – the unintentional harm that language can cause. This tends to happen ‘under the radar’ and it happens all the time. Slights, inadvertent uses of words that someone finds offensive, the inappropriate use of a cultural reference…these are sometimes hard to spot and generally result from lack of exposure, lack of understanding of another group’s culture, a simple misunderstanding, or personal preference. The amount of offence taken can vary from person to person, even between those of similar characteristics.
It can sometimes seem that we have become, as a society, overly sensitive to the language we use to refer to each other. And yet, it is important. As the demographics of our country change, as diversity becomes more and more a part of everyone’s lives, the understanding of how to relate to each other becomes an urgent matter. The words others use to define us carry meaning and intent. This is why certain words are offensive when spoken by some, and yet not offensive when used by in-group members.
At a recent diversity workshop I participated in, this question was posed to the people of color in the room: How do you wish to be identified? Each person had a different, personal, response. Some people were passionate about the words used to identify them. Others did not, to a certain point, care. The problem was, how do you know who is who? How in the world do we navigate such an impossible minefield?
This has also come up in several recent conversations I have had with friends and colleagues. In one, a friend referred to me as a “gal.” She quickly added, “…unless you hate being called a ‘gal’. I should have said ‘woman.’” In another longer conversation with several women, one of them referred to us all as “chicks.” She then quickly added that she meant nothing disrespectful by using that word (as far as I know, none of us felt disrespected in the least) – and a long, incredibly interesting conversation ensued, covering many things including the use of ‘girl vs woman vs guys vs dudes’.
During this discussion, we also covered when and where we police our language – where we tend to be more cautious about the words we use. Each of us had a different take on this which led to such a rich collection of thoughts and ideas.
Given my focus on women in the workplace, I thought it would be interesting to share this discussion with a larger audience, and invite my friends in to share their thoughts in their own words.
A word about these friends – we are all women, we are all white, and we all belong to a group that believes in providing non-judgemental support for each other. That is roughly where the similarities end. We are from different states, from coast to coast. Our upbringings differ widely, our educational levels are not the same. Some of us work inside the home, and some outside. Some of us have kids, some do not. Some of us are married (even more than once in some cases), some of us are not. We might have similar political leanings, but we don’t talk about that.
I considered editing their responses, but I love their incredible ways of expressing themselves – I am just going to leave them as is. In order to keep this to a somewhat reasonable length, I have not included all responses, but have tried to be sure all viewpoints are covered as best I can.
- Everyone is different, and kindness and respect dictate that we should recognize this;
- Our understanding of the world and of ourselves changes over our lifetimes;
- The words we use matter;
- As Megan states: “HOW we speak to others about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive” because we all come from different places, have had different experiences, and really just want to get along.
How do you like to (or usually) refer to groups of women? (girls, chicks, women, guys, ladies, dudes, etc)
Anna: For me, how I refer to a group of women depends on who those women are. When I’m speaking about the group I grew up with – the ones who knew me when I was a skinny, braces-wearing, wannabe cheerleader – that group is my girls. When I’m speaking about my village of soul sisters that I developed in adulthood, they are ladies. And when I am speaking about the larger female and female-identifying group, most often I refer to them as women. These distinctions are not something I think about, but rather are conventions I’ve developed over time based on familiarity, comfort, where I am in my own life, and, in a sense, external standards of political correctness.
Emily: If I’m in a group of only women, I usually use the word “ladies.” But I’m also a major fan of gender-neutral terms like, “folks,” “y’all,” and “friends.” When I refer to myself, I usually say “person” or “human.” Occasionally, when I’m frustrated by someone treating me a child—general infantilizing of women and/or infantilizing of millennials—I’ll refer to myself as a “grown-ass woman.”
Erin: I use “friends” if it’s among friends, “everybody” or “us all” or even “peeps”. “Ladies” in business environments, typically. Trying to work more “them-friendly” language into my life – that’s slow going.
Jill: I have given a great deal of consideration to the words that I use to describe people because I want to be accurate and inclusive in my use of language. When I am consciously thinking about it, I typically use the word “ladies” to refer to a group of women. I landed on this word because I like the slight connotations of formality, sophistication, and respect. To me, the word “women” feels a little impersonal, although I think it is also a perfectly acceptable word to use. “Gals” feels like an old-fashioned word that it is an afterthought to the far more common word “guys.” Occasionally, I will slip into saying “you guys” when I am talking to a group of women, although I am in general trying to remove that expression from my vocabulary because it implies that being male is a default.
On the other hand, I have been calling my close friends (mostly women) “dudes” since the time I was in high school. To me, the word dude is an indicator of inclusion in certain subcultures (i.e. stoners, surfers, skaters, particular music scenes). Often when women use the word, it is a way to subversively express a sense of belonging in those spaces, which are frequently male-dominated. I still use the word “dude” or “dudes” when talking informally to people of all genders, although I have recently come to consider that calling a transwoman a “dude” could be very offensive because it does, on balance, still have male connotations.
Megan: In the past, I’ve usually tried to say ladies or women, but in the last year or so, I’ve been trying to curb my usage of calling women ladies, though I haven’t been entirely successful. As I’ve been reading more feminist books and really evaluating my usage of language, the term “ladies” has begun to represent a group of women who act in accordance of the rules set out by our patriarchal society to me. In my opinion, while there’s nothing wrong with calling a group of women ladies, the majority of women I know and love don’t necessarily ascribe to patriarchal norms and in some cases, are actively trying to shake them up. Thus, ascribing a word that represents “proper femininity” to them doesn’t seem fitting to me. I’ve also heavily used “you guys” as well, which I’ve been trying to break myself from, but it’s proved much harder.
Then the usage of calling a group of women “girls”, by men irritates me to no end. While I understand that often that men don’t mean anything by it, it feels like a term that is diminishing to women. If a woman uses it, I’ll admit I side-eye it unless it’s someone I know well and understand that their usage of it isn’t representative of the way that they respect women. I sometimes use chicks, but that’s rare – I’m more oft to use “dudes”, though I’m much more likely to call a single person “dude” versus a group of people “dudes”. I’ve had conversations with several of my friends who are very active on the use of language in social justice about the usage of “dude” and largely we feel like it is a West Coast generational thing to use it, though we haven’t looked closely into it. However, now that I’m not on the West Coast, it does feel more foreign to me to use the term dude when referring to someone. I only use that term when I know the person (or group) fairly well though.
How do you refer to yourself? Any thoughts on why?
Erin: I used to be adamant about being called a “girl” until recently. Then I grew up. But now I just don’t care. Call me whatever you want, I know who I am and who you’re talking about.
Jill: I think that the times I am actually most offended are when men refer to women as girls because it is infantilizing. I am occasionally bothered when other women refer to me as “honey” or “sweetheart” because I feel like it implies that I am naive, inexperienced, and need to be cared for. I have always looked young, and I am particularly sensitive to people treating me like I am a child.
There are also contexts in which men refer to women as females, bitches, sluts, whores, etc., which are dehumanizing and thus offensive. However, there are ways, where in the proper context, humor can be used to take those words back. I think it is common for women who are very close to each other to call each other bitch, as in a context such as “Hey my bitch, want to go out for lunch?”
One time, while we were waiting in line at a nightclub, a man (boy?) came up to my four friends and I and referred to us as “five vaginas.” I was honestly more baffled by it than offended because there is no context in which that would be an appropriate way to refer to other people.
Megan: I refer to myself as a woman, since that’s how I identify, though I have been known to call myself a badass every once in awhile too. Who knows though, with our language changing, especially around gender, a new term that I love and feel represents me even better may be just around the corner.
Have you ever been offended by a term someone used to describe you? When/where/why?
Anna: Generally, I get offended when someone I don’t know refers to me in a familiar manner. Even though my husband, for example, calls me babe at home, it’s absolutely not acceptable for a stranger, especially a strange man, to call me babe.
There was another specific instance I remember being extremely offended by a reference. I was in law school in Seattle in the mid-2000s and ran into an African-American NFL player in a club in one of the more posh areas of the city. He called me “Candy.” This was the first time I’d ever met him, so he was not a friend, and every Candy I knew of had been a stripper. Interestingly, when I let him know he’d offended me, he did apologize and explained that the term was apparently a common name/nickname in his community. I’m not sure if he was sincere or not, but that instance still sticks out in my mind.
Emily: I have several friends and colleagues who use the word “guys” to refer to any mix of genders. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say this offends me, but I definitely notice it and feel a bit of a sting. The problem is that the person who most regularly does this is one of my supervisors (a woman), and I don’t feel like I necessarily have the power to call her out on it.
Erin: Nope. I honestly just don’t care about that in the least.
Megan: I don’t know if I’d say offended because I understand that language can be generational and regional, but I’ve definitely been annoyed before. Moving from an area in the Pacific Northwest that is pretty conscious of how people refer to one another down to the South has been quite eye-opening for me. Right after we moved, I had an affluent older middle-aged white man call me “sweetheart” and “girl” and I was annoyed. I didn’t know this man at all and it felt presumptuous to call me “sweetheart” and diminishing to call me (a grown woman) “girl”, especially since I was buying bourbon at the liquor store.
When and where do you find yourself policing your language? Any particular reasons for this that you are aware of?
Anna: I definitely police my language around people and groups that I’m not familiar with. Because I don’t like it when people I don’t know take liberties with their references around me, I try to stick with the most common or politically correct terms and then wait for the person/people to correct me or let me know of their own personal preference. For example, I always start with African-American, Native American (or Alaska Native), and/or Mr./Ms./Dr. I have had people who preferred to be called by their first names or referred to as Afro-Cuban or Indian, and I always make an effort to remember their preference and respect that going forward.
Erin: I try not to police myself as it triggers my social anxiety in a big way. If people are offended by me, then so be it. My language tends to be pretty bland and I’m generally okay with that.
Jill: One of the main ways that I have really started trying to police my language is around issues of inclusion for trans-people and non-binary people. I think there is a shift occurring in language (at least in some circles) where we are either removing gendered language or acknowledging that people exist who are not strictly male or female. Still, it is hard to rework your brain to use new linguistic devices such as alternate pronouns. I think this is particularly challenging in situations where I know people before and after their transition. However, even though it may be awkward and result in an occasional blunder, it is still important for everyone to attempt rewiring their brains to include all gender identities. I have been to a few live performances where the introduction includes language such as “ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between and beyond” or “ladies and gentlemen of all genders,” and although that language is still a little bulky, it takes the important step of acknowledging the existence of all people.
How have you seen your ideas on this change over your life?
Anna: Both of my parents were the children of Army officers and were raised in a very formal environment, so they, in turn, raised me to err on the side of formality. My sister and I were some of the only kids who always referred to our friends’ parents as Mr. or Ms., and we always made an effort to refer to people based on more neutral characteristics such as city/state/country of origin rather than race or physical attribute. I have found that beginning from a place of formality, similar to at least trying to speak the native language when in a foreign country, lets people know you’re trying, and starts off the relationship on a more amiable foot.
Emily: I used to use the word “guys” to refer to all humans until I read an argument against it in college. I used to call my female friends “girls” until I read an essay about how we never call grown men “boys.” I think I’ve definitely done some learning and growing, and a lot of that came from being called out.
Erin: See [my response to the previous question] above re: girl. So much that my first husband had to take me as his “girlie” in our vows and not as his wife. That relationship had problems and lots of them were me.
Megan: Absolutely. Before university, how I used language to represent myself and others was never given a second thought, especially since I grew up in a conservative, patriarchal environment. Once I got to my very pretty liberal university and into my field of study, my mind was blown about how language can be used to represent us in both positive and negative lights. And after reading a few of the other responses for this blog post, I’ve realized how my language now may not be best epitomizing how I want to convey meaning and representation.
What else should I be asking/would you like to share?
Anna: The one area of language that I think is talked about less often but is becoming increasingly controversial is the issue of cultural appropriation. The most recent example is the use of “tribe” in the self-improvement community, which is perceived to be appropriated from Native Americans vs. taken from anthropology. Similarly, the use of certain cultural references in sports has also been under scrutiny. While the lines are a little more clear when it comes to whether or not to put a label onto someone else, it seems to be less clear when it’s alright to take a word from someone else and put it on yourself.
Erin: I like it when my current husband calls me “wife” or “wife-cakes”, if that helps. 😀
Jill: In professional settings, I think it is best to default to using more formal and less-gendered language, such as women/ladies or people/folks. Occasionally I think that when gendered language is misused, the intention behind is, ironically, an attempt to create a more friendly or impersonal workplace. However, attempting to imply a more intimate relationship in a professional setting has the potential to violate boundaries. I also think it is important to use the same principle when considering intersectional identities. Often the best course of action is to have thoughtful conversations about the words that people prefer. These conversations do not have to take a lot of time, and yet, they can go a long way in creating a feeling of inclusivity.
Megan: I want to share that I feel like HOW we speak to people about their language usage is just as important as explaining why some terms are outdated or offensive. There are so many regional and generational differences in language, that often people just need to be educated on why certain terms could be construed as offensive. And our language now is evolving around representation and gender at such a quick rate that it can be difficult to keep up if you’re not constantly reading or in academic circles, so not everyone will be up to date in how language is best used.
So, as for me, I feel my language evolving. When I am on social media, I often correct a “Hey girl” to a “Hey Lady,” or even just “Hey!” After reading these responses, I’m going to give the word “Lady” some thought too.
And let me say – I know there are many, many other viewpoints out there. As mentioned above, we are all women/gals/chicks/females, and we are all white. This is a limited sample. I’ve already been asked by some of my editors to pose these same questions to other, more diverse audiences. I hope to do that in later posts.
I am interested in your thoughts and ideas on this. What do you think about the words around identity? Have you seen your ideas shift in recent times? Where do you see yourself policing the language you use? Be sure to share.
As always, keep it positive, and have a great day!
Something I often notice is that while groups of women are often addressed as ladies, it is much less common for groups of men to be addressed as gentlemen. It almost seems like people, both women and men, feel it less necessary to use a polite and respectful form of address for men, even though gentlemen is the male counterpart of ladies