My friend Mike is a personal trainer. We were discussing client personalities, and the fact that different clients like different approaches, different techniques, different attitudes from the person training them. At one point Mike remarked that while everyone is an individual, and people vary widely, he has noticed a pattern of differences “between guys and females”.
I interrupted: “Why do you say it that way?”
“What do you mean?” Mike wondered.
“Well, you always say guys and females,” I observed. “Never males and females. Never men and women. I just think it’s interesting.”
He flashed a shy smile, looked me in the eyes, and then looked away. After a pause, he said, “I don’t know. I never really noticed before. But I guess I do say that, yeah.”
Mike is your standard extremely handsome hunky straight guy in his mid 20’s. Six feet tall, about 180 pounds of muscle, with brown hair and a Superman jawline. He gets a lot of young women as clients for personal training.
“I guess it started when I was in college,” Mike mused when we were talking later that same day. “If I said guys and girls, some women would get upset because… well, girls sounds childish. Sort of disrespectful, you know? And I get that. They’re over 18, they’re adults. So I started saying women.”
“But then, I started noticing that some of my female…. uh….” Mike paused awkwardly and laughed, “…some of my female clients that I was training, would actually get upset if I called them women because it, like, implied that they were older. You know what I mean? They wanted to be seen as younger, and they’d get mad if I said woman.”
“They wanted you to see them as hot college girls,” I prompted, smirking.
“I guess,” Mike blushed slightly. “Maybe.”
“So you couldn’t win either way?”
“Yeah… So I started avoiding the whole thing by just saying females.”
“Of course, you know females also could be seen as demeaning,” I offered.
“Well, it’s kind of a technical-sounding word. When you use the word guy or man, that means male human. So when you say female, it’s like: what are you saying? She’s not human? Is she an alien? If she’s a female human, the word for that is woman. Saying female makes her sound… like some other species.”
Mike laughed, “I see what you mean. I guess I can’t win no matter what I say.”
“I guess not.”
The reality is, Mike was doing exactly what he should be doing. He was paying attention to what people wanted to be called. When he was with a women who wanted to be referred to as a woman, he would pick up on that as quickly as he could and he would do that. When discovered that he was with a woman who preferred to be referred to as a girl, he would oblige her as well. And when he was unsure, he simply fumbled around the best that he could.
And isn’t that all that any of us can do, really?
Whenever I’m talking to someone new who happens to word something in a way that I find abrasive or unsettling, I try to remember Mike — poor confused Mike, who can’t win no matter what he says! It’s easy to get swept up in outrage culture and assume the worst: “The offensive misuse of words is microaggression,” some people say, “and bespeaks of terrible evils in a person’s soul!” But I simply am not that cynical. I don’t think it’s useful to fly into a rage every time someone uses a word that I don’t like.
Some people are mean, it’s true. And some people make a great show of using whatever words they want, no matter how it makes others feel. Those people are being assholes, and it’s right to call them out when they behave that way. But sometimes we humans–both guys and females alike!–are just fumbling around in a world where there simply are no words that can please all of the people all of the time.