Whatever it wants, they gets

Navigating gendered language as a professional writer.

I was elated the first time I sat down to write copy for a NYC subway ad. Only six months earlier, I was freelancing and wondering if I’d ever get to write something that didn’t suck without going to a portfolio school or interning at a big agency.

Then I landed a job at a startup. They gave me the affectionate title of Content Dude Man. “Dude,” in this case being a modifier of the head noun “man.”

It was, by all accounts, a dream job.

Here I am goofing off in stereotypical man flannel while surrounded by talented women.

After some months of figuring out our voice, tone, and messaging pillars, I found myself brainstorming ad concepts with our new creative director. And we did it right, folks. We considered every angle possible, murdered our most darling concepts, rearranged copy until we were dizzy. Like I said, I was elated.

The headline came to me one morning while finalizing concepts with my CD over coffee. It felt as if it came out of nowhere. A lightning flash of inspiration. As soon as I’d blurted out the words, we knew we had something to work with.

This is what I wrote:

Almost everyone in the office got a laugh out of it. My friends were impressed. I was basking in the mild glory of a headline circulating in NYC subways.

And then someone Tweeted at me.

Anonymized. @InsightfulLady isn’t a real person (but it is an available Twitter handle!).

Looking back on it, it’s hard to think that I didn’t see the sexist social stigma propping up my moment of inspiration. And not only did I not see it, but I flaunted it. I shipped it all the way to the subways of New York City!

Sorry, ladies

Is exactly what I said to an office full of women as soon as I read the Tweet critique. “It never even crossed my mind, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Imagine a bustling startup at 10:00 am, everyone working as fast as possible. Now imagine the room falling silent after my earnest apology and twenty faces looking at me in silence. The collective telepathic message was clear: “yes, and?”

It’s not that they didn’t care. They were just busy, and it wasn’t their jobs to coddle a 32 year-old dude who’d just realized that male-centric language runs rampant.

Sails officially deflated.

But I already knew the perils of sexist language. Before graduating college, I enrolled in a taboo rhetoric honors program and graduated magna cum laude. I was raised predominantly by my mom and my aunt. I firmly believe that all men share a collective burden for the horrifying man club we’re constantly perpetuating. I fucking get it, ok?

What troubled me most about my sexist ad copy is that it came from such a deep place of creative inspiration. It was one of those moments that artists wait for, when hours of thinking and writing and reiterating come together into a small sliver of reality that perfectly represents the vision you’ve been chasing.

This wasn’t a flash of creativity, though. And it wasn’t an instance of chauvinism intruding on my otherwise conscientious language choices. Plain and simple: This was my own prejudice in action.

What my user wants, they gets

The subway ad wasn’t my first difficult experience with gender, sex, and sexuality in language, and it wasn’t my last. UX writing, in particular, is notorious for amplifying potentially contentious language choices.

Making a big deal out of microcopy. Image source: Sabrina Fonseca
Barack Obama follows this spot-on Tweeter.

If anything can divide an office against itself more than the serial comma, it’s the singular use of they.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve bumped heads with folks who argue that the word they as a singular pronoun is ungrammatical. Often, these are the same people who preach the values of stealing like an artist or practicing radical candor. But when it comes to an antiquated and arguably unfounded grammar rule, people dig their heels in. They really don’t want to hear it.

“Singular they? Fine, but only if we absolutely have to!”

So then how do we accommodate for users or members of our audience who consider themselves genderqueer or gender nonconforming?

Ask them!

The Trevor Project

Hey guys, are we cool?

Similar to the pronoun dilemma, English doesn’t offer many easy ways to address groups of people without classifying them all as “guys” or “ladies.”

Using “y’all” feels rather Southern, and “folks” is a tad old-fashioned. But I’ve used them both. In fact, I’ve used them both so much that people will often tell me, “just say ‘guys,’ nobody cares!”

But I think people do care. I think they care a lot. Using ‘men’ to refer to any group of people assumes that humans are, by default, male.

“Male-centric language is just that: a subtle yet constant hint that women are different, that their lives constitute a sort of subcategory of human experience dependent on feminine modifiers…” — Julianne Ross

The problem is that the people who care the most aren’t always there to push those conversations forward. And as a writer, I’m beginning to realize that it’s my responsibility to take on that role, even when I’m exhausted by forcing the words “folks” and “friends” into another bit of copy.

The best writers care

The writers I admire most are the ones who start conversations about things most people would consider to be “not my problem.” In a recent Slack discussion, Val Klump of Gusto asked a group of UX and content specialists:

Val: “How do you feel about emails that start with ‘Hey guys’ or ‘Hi guys’ and are addressed to a mixed gender group?”
Beth Dunn, HubSpot: “I’ve always been a fan of ‘Hi folks’ as a non-gendered greeting. Stuck in my head as a good alternative after I had a choir leader who liked to have us sing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlefolk’ as a more inclusive carol.”
Andrea Drugay, Dropbox:I’d prefer a ‘Hi all’ or even ‘Hi friends’ or ‘Hi [smiley emoji]’… I think both from friends or a company!”
Emily Diffenderfer, Editor: “I personally don’t have a problem being included in ‘guys,’ but I know plenty of people who do. And they care enough about it that I’d say you should avoid it.”
Jess Hutton, Clearlink: “I’ll be honest — I don’t really care one way or the other. But! That being said, I’m super conscious about projecting that lack of preference on other people. I’d err on the side of ‘Hi, team’ ‘Hi, all,’ or just ‘Hey there’.”
Kristin Carney, Editor:Personally, I don’t care. But the people who do care about this tend to care about it a lot. So I’m in favor of using overtly gender-neutral terms.”

This conversation, centered around the choice of one word, offers a glimpse into the empathic mindsets of professional writers. In addition to devoting spare time to dissecting language that many people will overlook, there’s a clear awareness of the fact that they’re writing for their users, not themselves.

Why take a stance?

Coming from a man, these gripes could sound petty and misappropriated. My inner voice questions why I focus on these seemingly minor issues when people face overt discrimination, abuse, and physical violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

For me, it’s because nothing I write exists in a vacuum. So when I accidentally write something with sexist connotations, it’s more than a mistake: It’s a linguistically-inherited artifact of inequality. And it’s an inequality that I’m responsible for.

So I continue speak to and for every individual user. Because they deserve it.

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