The Sexist

Note to Saint-Ex: “You Guys” Is Gender-Neutral

Yesterday, I arrived at Café Saint-Ex, a self-described "charming restaurant and lounge." After waiting at the bar with my male companion, the host seated us and informed us that our waiter would be by shortly. The waiter approached from behind. "Hey guys," he said, wheeling around to face us. "Oh, God, uhh, wrong choice of words," the waiter said, nervously darting his eyes at my face. "I saw the short hair and—I just assumed," he continued. He apologized, asked for our drink order, and took leave of us.

It wasn't the first time a stranger had confused me for a dude—the short hair, etc.—and I'm not often unsettled by a slip-up. In this case, however, the sheer awkwardness of the encounter was stunning: The waiter, after mistaking me for a man, had apologized for referring to us with an entirely gender-neutral greeting. When he returned to read off the daily specials, we both stared at him with open jaws.

"What the fuck?" we asked each other, when the waiter had left again. Was he so freaked out by mistaking my gender that he couldn't even use a gender-neutral term to describe me? And why did it feel so fucking weird? The waiter studiously avoided us for the rest of the meal, only dropping by our table when necessary. But we couldn't shake the encounter.

"I'm going to go to the bathroom," I said, at one point.

"Which one?" my companion asked.

At the end of the meal, we split the check. The waiter took care to lay out the receipts according to our genders, returning the female credit card to me, and the male credit card to the man. But I won't soon forget what he had said after our initial encounter. In a sweep of the room, he noticed our glasses were half-empty: "I'll get you guys some more water," he told us.

What the fuck?

Photo by Daquella manera

  • mdesus

    hey dude, how about you chill out with the rhetoric here. I mean, man, this wasn't even a big deal.

  • Amanda Hess

    why did he make a big deal out of it!

  • Coleman

    He made a big deal because, historically for heterosexuals, implying that a woman can be mistaken for a dude is an insult. The implication is that you were unfeminine and therefore totally busted.

    As you note, the sexist convention is reinforced mostly in the waiter's effort to apologize for (what he believed was his) mistake.

    But I think another power-relation structures this encounter: that of the service employee in the workplace. The waiter's livelihood depends on achieving good vibes with customers (leading to tips). I can say that when I was a waiter, not all women seemed to think that "guys" was gender neutral. Occasionally I was corrected.

    It's interesting to think back on that job. The trick was to follow the customer's lead. If women wanted to flirt, I'd flirt. If men wanted to flirt, I tried to project comfort with the gesture. If someone told a really stupid joke, I acknowledged their sense of humor. If people wanted to be left the fuck alone, then I'd try to do that. The last thing you want to do is insult someone. Unfortunately, everyone has different ideas about appropriate speech.

    The worst was when you fucked up on the first approach, which is what the waiter believed he did. Ideally, he shouldn't even have acknowledged (what he believed was his) mistake, modified his speech, and moved on. This whole blog post stems from the awkward apology, but SOMETIMES that apology is expected. You know what I mean, dude?

    "You guys" is definitely on its way to gender-neutrality, but maybe the last place that that neutrality will take root is in the alienated encounter of a waiter with a table of strangers.

  • Conrad Davis

    I lost a high school debate round once for using "you guys" because my opponents successfully argued it wasn't gender neutral.

    I make an effort to say "you all" instead, which people hear as "y'all". Oh well, better to sound dirty south than dirty sexist.

  • Amanda Hess

    Coleman---dude, this guy is starting to make sense to me now. Thank you.

  • Coleman


  • Conrad Davis

    Does an illegitimate contraction precede the birth of a bastard?

  • JB

    I know it's inconsistent, but I'm OK with "you guys" as a gender-neutral second-person plural--but I detest the (quite rare) use of "guys" alone in the same function, to address a group of guys and gals. Several options would be much preferred: "y'all" or "you folks" or just plain "you" (with a glance to the whole group).

    Common usage is that "guys" is only truly gender-neutral with the "you" before it.

    But yeah, that waiter did overreact. If you think you insulted someone, then you should be going out of your way to give them extra service, not ignoring them!