Here comes a rant. There’s a handful of words I hear people using repeatedly that make my skin crawl. Say for example I’m sitting in a meeting, coffeeshop, or at a conference. The speaker will say “check out this sexy code I just wrote” and immediately my train of thought is derailed. Instead of paying attention to the new library they built, I’m now wondering “Is the person actually sexually aroused here?” or “Did he really just say that?”
Depending on the situation, I usually either ask the person to clarify things on the spot or follow up with them shortly after the event. A talk from Mekka Okereke about building inclusive engineering teams reinforced my belief that not acting when an event occurs sets a bad example for others, so I try to bring it up when it happens, but it’s not always possible.
Most of the time, it turns out people are just not aware of the effect of the words they say. This creates a wonderful teachable moment. This is why I decided to share a list of words I’ve been talking to people about. Not because I want to guilt people, but because I’m hoping to raise awareness across a wider audience.
Guys — “Hey guys”
This is one of the terms that I have a hard time sorting out in my mind. Talking to enough folks from different gender identities has led me to believe that maybe it’s a battle not worth fighting. But I still can’t seem to let it go. Every time I hear someone start a meeting with “Hey guys” or end it with “Thank you guys”, I keep replaying this Vox article in my mind. I then look around the room to see the faces of people and wonder why we’re basically asking everyone there to be “one of the guys”. And for the folks that believe the word ‘guys’ is gender-neutral, give me a break. It’s not.
Alternatives: Folks, y’all, colleagues, people, earthlings
Gyp/Gypped — “Ah man, I really got gypped”
Almost everyone knows “being gypped” to mean having been had, or being ripped off. But few people stop and think about the origins of this word. Gyp is an abbreviation of the word gypsy, which refers to the Roma people who were descriminated against throughout Europe. It’s negative connotation is derived from a stereotype of the Roma people as liars and cheats. Every time that term is used, it’s reinforcing the stereotype that this large group of marginalized people can’t be trusted.
Fun fact, the Roma people were called gypsies because they were thought to originate from Egypt, which they did not. So it’s an extra stupid word.
Alternatives: Duped, swindled, tricked, ripped off
Powwow — “Let’s have a little powwow”
A powwow is a traditional ceremony organized by indigenous people to celebrate various events. Using this term to denote a short meeting diminishes the cultural significance of the powwow and the amount of effort that goes into planning one. Call it what it is: a meeting. Or a party if there’s cake.
Alternatives: Meeting, sync-up, sesh, party
Sexy — “That’s a sexy demo”
Many people use the word sexy to describe their code, research or spreadsheets. They’re not bad people. Using the word sexy to describe something in the workplace is likely not what was intended, unless the person really wants to f*ck that code. In that case, not appropriate.
Most human resource training videos will make this very clear: keep sex out of the workplace. Consider sexualized language may make some people uncomfortable. The early version of the term sexy was sexful. Can you imagine walking into a meeting to demo a “sexful” new feature? There are so few places where that would be a good idea…
Alternatives: amazing, super, clever, ingenious, succinct, adequate, stupendous…
Talking about it
Until a few years ago, I was also not aware that some of these terms are insensitive, but I am learning and hopefully am more insightful now than I was then. Another thing I have learned along the way is that it’s ok to admit that there is room for improvement. I learn about this sh*t every day, and accepting there is room to grow has given me the freedom to receive criticism more openly.
But it’s fine, everyone does it…
This is by far one of the dumbest reasons to do anything.
I have been in environments where I was on the outside looking in, and every time I hear someone use non-inclusive or otherwise insensitive language, it reminds me of that feeling of being alienated. Sure, these comments may seem small and “not a big deal” because “everybody does it”, but I think we can all strive to do better. Language is one of the most important aspects of the human experience. Our ability to communicate and transfer knowledge has allowed us to get to where we are today. So how about we all take a moment to consider the impact of our words before we speak; Is this the correct term here? Could I possibly be alienating, offending or excluding someone by using this term? It only takes a split second, and can have a huge impact.
As a bonus, maybe consider calling this stuff out if you see it. Speaking up means putting yourself in a vulnerable position, so it’s especially important for those of us in a position of privilege / leadership to set the example. Because as long as everyone does it, we will continue to normalize it, and continue to alienate good folks who just want to be part of the team.
Plus I have doubts about that spreadsheet with the piechart, shadows and 3D effects being sexually arousing to anyone, no offence.