Pickets, Peaks, Prusiks, and .... Pronouns?

How does focusing on intentional use of language foster inclusive learning environments?
Steve McClure Steve McClure
Board Member & 2016 Super Volunteer
August 29, 2017

Last year, The Mountaineers went through an exercise to clarify and distill our core values, both as an organization and as a community. The core values we identified—Adventure, Advocacy, Community, Education, and Volunteerism—closely align with our mission to “explore, learn, and conserve." In a recent course, one of our students identified a common language shortcut with the unintended impact of being non-inclusive.

By Mountaineers Board Member Steve McClure and Mountaineers Climbing Education Manager Steve Smith

Scenario: “What do you guys think?”

An instructor stands in front of a class full of students of all genders to show how to tie a butterfly knot. After a few demonstrations, she breaks the students into smaller groups to practice. “Okay, let’s see if you guys learned the butterfly. Break into groups; I'll walk around to help. Okay guys, let’s go!”

Although not meaning to be exclusive or offensive in her choice of terms to use, by referring to the class by the gender-specific term “guys” the instructor has alienated several of the members of the class.

How?

Society has normalized referring to mixed-gender groups as “guys” when we would never refer to mixed-gender groups as “gals”. This seemingly small matter of semantics matters. Clearly, the instructor is not meaning to target anyone or make them feel unwelcome. But the cumulative effect of this language choice, along with other ways in which women are discriminated against in subtle ways, creates what one woman called "death by a 1000 cuts."

For more on why this simple mistake might feel toxic for folks who have grown weary of being referred to by a gender-specific term, explore the ideas in this article.

What now?

Regardless of your gender or how you are personally affected by this language, we can all work to use more inclusive language when working with groups. The way we use language to create learning environments in our programs should align with our core values. Together, we can work to become more self-aware to help us create inclusive, welcoming learning environments in our programs.

Alternatives for 'guys'

Breaking this language habit is a challenge for people of all genders. We suggest trying out these alternatives to see what fits best for you:

  • You all: Okay, let’s see if you all learned the butterfly. 
  • You/Your (can also be plural): Okay, let’s see if you learned the butterfly/ What are your thoughts on tying a butterfly? 
  • All: Okay all, let’s go! 
  • Folks: Okay folks, let's go! 
  • Everyone: Okay, let's see if everyone learned the butterfly.
  • Everybody: Okay everybody, let's go!
  • Team: Okay team, let's go! 
  • Friends: Okay friends, let's see if you learned the butterfly.

Other examples

ways to unintentionally create an unwelcoming environment:

  • Introducing (or allowing) racially-charged phrases such as “let’s have a quick pow-wow” or “too many chiefs, not enough Indians.” Even our casual use of the abbreviation for carabiner ('biner) may be offensive to Latino students as it resembles the extremely pejorative term “beaner”.
  • Introducing (or allowing) sexually-suggestive jokes (“you two ought to get a room!”) or homophobic jokes (“Hey Josh, you just look so hot in that pink harness!”).
  • Running our classes and activities in a way that privileges extroverted students.
  • Ignoring a student or leader’s choice of pronoun. We tend to ask folks their preferred name ("Do you prefer Matthew or Matt?" "Suzy or Susan?") but not their preferred pronoun (“he,” “she,” or the gender-neutral “they”). For our younger members, this is a normal question and a routine part of school procedures. For a few of our members, being gender misidentified really hurts.

This is a chance to uphold our core values.

If our stated core values are useful, they can serve as signposts to help guide us in a direction to fulfill our mission.

Two seem particularly helpful:

  • Community: We strive to create a diverse and inclusive community of people who respect the places we love and respect each other.
  • Education: We share knowledge in an inclusive learning environment to empower others to become Mountaineers so they can safely and responsibly pursue outdoor activities.

The goal is not about politically correct language for its own sake. The real point of this blog is to remind us all about the core values of community and education, and point to ways in which the unthinking use of a simple pronoun or slang term can become linguistic choss stopping us short of creating an inclusive learning environment.

Small things matter in the outdoors: a well-placed boot, a solid cam, going left or right at a fork in the trail. We are 2,000 volunteer leaders who already do countless small things on our long journey toward making The Mountaineers a truly inclusive environment. We, of course, will sometimes fail on this journey, but being precise and intentional with our language as educators and trip leaders is one way we can continue to refine our craft, guided by our core values in our bold pursuit of adventure.

One of the authors, who learned the second-person gender-neutral term of the deep South from his daughter-in-law, intends to embrace this handy linguistic form:

“Hey y’all, who’s got a spare wiregate?”