girls chase boys chase girls
May 12, 2016 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I see on AskMe all the time, whenever someone refers to an adult of the female gender as a "girl," several people will immediately pop up to sternly correct them. I've come to accept this as part of the site culture here, and keep it in mind for my own questions and comments, but it quite honestly seems bizarre based on my own life experience. I'm curious how common this view actually is, and whether people actually stick to it in real life.

So I hope this isn't too chat-filtery, but I find the "don't call adult women girls!" thing really odd. As someone who has studied linguistics, I think it must be a cultural/contextual thing... Maybe regional? I can certainly think of contexts when calling adults "girls" is demeaning (a 50-year-old male asking why he can't get dates, for example) but I can think of tons of others, especially casual contexts, where it seems perfectly normal ("some of the girls and I are going to the pool tomorrow morning, want to come?"). A few people have used the comparison of calling adult men "boys," and saying people would never do that. Well, actually, personally, I sometimes would and do; as does basically everyone else I know - "the boys are out of town this weekend" referring to a couple husbands; "he seems like a really nice boy" regarding a college-aged sister's boyfriend. These phrases are used by literally every single person I know: liberal or conservative, feminists, progressives, academics. True, often "guy" is used as the casual counterpart to "girl," but being as there is no age-neutral casual word to describe a female-gendered person, we tend to often default to "girl" particularly when the woman in question is in our general age cohort or younger.

Personally, I (33, female-gendered person) have no problem being called a girl by close family or friends; would find it odd or insulting in a professional context, and would usually use "girl" in casual conversation to refer to anyone in their mid-20s or younger. I would also use "boy" in this context. (I have six younger brothers ranging from 14-31 years old, and call them all "boys" unequivocally.) Of course I completely understand the rationale - if "girl" is defined as a female of minor age, then calling an adult that is infantilizing - but I kind of question the premise there.

As for the actual question: I am curious to know when and how other people would or would not use these words, in what contexts (if any), and what age/gender you are and what region you live in. My suspicion is that there is a definite gray area between "if you call anyone over eighteen a girl you must be a misogynistic caveman" and "sheesh why are females so sensitive amiright, go back to the kitchen." Educate me!
posted by celtalitha to Society & Culture (110 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Context matters. A woman saying she's having a "girls' night in" seems totally fine and appropriate. A man asking how to meet girls is totally strange and immature.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:52 PM on May 12, 2016 [60 favorites]

I'm late 40s female in California who defines myself as a feminist, and I feel similarly to you: I call my pals "girls" all the time and don't mind being called it myself. I use "boys" for both my youngish male child and my older husband. In all casual contexts I am fine with girls/boys/guys, but agree, not in a professional context. And yes, it's terrible when a PUA/bro/dude refers to women as girls in a dating context.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:53 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't mind it in a men meeting women context as much as many people do. I'm a little older than you, also female.
posted by zutalors! at 2:58 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

True, often "guy" is used as the casual counterpart to "girl," but being as there is no age-neutral casual word to describe a female-gendered person

posted by AndrewInDC at 2:59 PM on May 12, 2016 [14 favorites]

Here's my take.
It's pretty simple really: if it's used in a situation where the word 'boys' would also, mutatis mutandis, be appropriate... then it's probably okay. If not, then probably not.

(I don't speak English on a daily basis though. So add salt as desired.)
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:07 PM on May 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

I work with plenty of men who refer to their professional female colleagues as 'girls'. It's especially bad when it's referring to an all-female team, like 'the HR girls'.

They don't call their male colleagues boys. Children generally have lower social status than adults. Women generally have lower social status than men. Calling women 'girls' in a professional contexts suggests you view them as extremely low on the social ladder. It's demeaning and belittling, and implies that they're more naive and less competent than their male equivalents.

Some women get socialised to go along with this and only ever be nice and unthreatening in the workplace, even if it costs them personally and professionally, because shit like calling women girls pigeonholes grown women as all of the negative things society implies about very young women 24/7 - annoying, irrational, flighty, overly emotional.

Reducing some women's status in this way can be harmful to all women - I've learned to be firm and icy enough at work that I don't think anyone does this to me, but doing it to my peers devalues the status of a group that also contains me. It makes us all a bit more dismissable and disposable as a demographic.

I call my male colleagues out on this all the time and it feels like a sacred duty.
posted by terretu at 3:08 PM on May 12, 2016 [209 favorites]

I'm a guy in my late '40s. I cannot imagine a single context where it would feel appropriate for me to refer to any woman over the age of 18 as a girl. Not one. It's demeaning and is a subtle way for me to reinforce the fact that I am higher up the prestige ladder by virtue of being a man.

Now you being a woman it's a different situation and you have a better feel for what is appropriate for you and other women. It's like white people and the word "nigger/nigga". Again, as a white person I would never feel it was appropriate to use either of those terms (except in this kind of use/mention situation) but for African Americans (and any other native speakers of AAVE) it's different.

As for referring to men as boys I wouldn't do that either but it's not something that feels nearly as important to me. If a woman refers to men as boys I would notice it but not find it particularly offensive.

I know this adds up to a lot of inconsistencies but that is the very nature of language, dialect, power structures, society, and so on.

There's an interesting phenomenon with the word "female" v "woman". A significant number of women really don't feel comfortable with the phrase "female X" and prefer "woman X". Meanwhile "male X" is more acceptable. Again, inconsistent but there are lot of cultural and contextual things at play here. I've adapted easily enough. And if one wants to run a survey using Google's ngrams the results are really interesting.

Language and understanding social norms is so very difficult that I find it miracle that we all mostly pick up on these subtleties without ever thinking about it.

And we make allowances without too much effort. For my mom (70s) everything is "female that" and "female this". A friend of mine who is male and 62 and thanks to a couple of strokes has a difficult time getting his words out (which is making it difficult to get him his retirement benefits and housing) always refers to women as girls. It's ok, just being able to communicate whom he's talking about is a huge breakthrough.

So context and age and fluency etc all play into the equation.
posted by bfootdav at 3:08 PM on May 12, 2016 [15 favorites]

Best answer: The problem is that it can be infantilizing in certain contexts. I might refer to myself as "just a girl who ______." But, I'm in my 40s. I'm an adult person with a lived history. I've been through battles and struggles and life and stuff. If anyone else who doesn't know me calls me a girl, I'm like "Uh-uh. I've worked too hard and for too long and have been through too much for you to dismiss all of that that. Respect me, my wisdom, and my maturity, thank you very much. To you, I will not be 'just some girl who _______.'" I'd probably throw a wagging of the finger in there too, for emphasis.

To me, formally referring to an adult female as a "woman" is a show of respect, and it's a form of respect that I feel I've earned.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:08 PM on May 12, 2016 [47 favorites]

Oh and also: people talking about themselves and their peers is always, always inherently different from people talking about others, or groups that they are themselves not a member of.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:09 PM on May 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

a 50-year-old male asking why he can't get dates, for example

This is almost always the context in which it comes up here at AskMe.

I don't take issue with, for example, my 30-something female writer friends talking with me about how "there just aren't enough girls in comedy" or whatever. Or really any casual conversation among women or in mixed company about a non-sexual topic. "Who knew this Game Of Thrones viewing party would be all girls?" "Girls have it easier in summer because they can wear skirts to work," etc. I personally don't prefer this, and would probably call it out in writing, but among friends in a casual setting, you can't exactly get all Feminist Grammar Police on people.

I also remember the liminal period between high school and my mid-20s when I still thought of myself as a "girl", and the term "woman" felt weird. Which feels like a very different context from the use that tends to get called out on MetaFilter.

Coming from an adult man in reference to objects for dating, romance, or sex, it's egregious.
posted by Sara C. at 3:15 PM on May 12, 2016 [18 favorites]

Oh and also: people talking about themselves and their peers is always, always inherently different from people talking about others, or groups that they are themselves not a member of.

I'd actually be just as happy not to be infantilized by other women, either. We can all say what we like among our friends without deciding that we're entitled to address adult strangers as though they play by the peculiarities of our social circle. I am not a fan of the idea that you don't have to respect women if you are one.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:18 PM on May 12, 2016 [31 favorites]

a 50-year-old male asking why he can't get dates, for example

This is almost always the context in which it comes up here at AskMe.

I want to second this. I don't see this coming up anywhere else either on the site or in real life. It's only in sexual contexts that it irks me. I call people girls and guys all the time (not at work, of course) and think nothing of it. But I don't date boys and girls don't date men. End of story.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:20 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe I'm a bad person, maybe I haven't spent enough time in grad school to care, but honestly, I feel like this is REALLY context-dependent. I say this as a twentysomething gay man who loves his mother and his female friends and makes a point of respecting everyone, but honestly? With the very important and notable exception of PUAs and bros, I think it's getting annoyingly PC when you jump on anyone who ever dares to refer to grown women as girls or men as boys.

When mom says " you should find a nice girl" or you express your desire to "find a nice girl who likes me for me" etc, I don't think she/ one means to denigrate an entire gender. Let's relax, except in cases where such a choice of words is CLEARLY indicative of a worldview that could be actively dangerous to one's female contemporaries.
posted by marsbar77 at 3:23 PM on May 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

That is to say, it's part of the Western cultural lexicon, for better or worse, and largely innocuous, with, again, several major exceptions.
posted by marsbar77 at 3:26 PM on May 12, 2016

As a (ahem) mature male, I've decided to call adult females either women or ladies because anything else is asking for trouble.

Ladies can use whatever terms they like. I'm staying out of it.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:26 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a 50 year old female who thinks that people get way too worked up about words. Honestly. I call everyone "Dude" regardless of gender and people get up in arms about that. But I also will call women "girls" and men "boys" as well as use the terms, women, gals, guys, and men respectively. I mean so long as I'm not saying "OMG, Sam is acting like is such a child!" then it's really not an insult, is it?
posted by patheral at 3:34 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

To me, it's mostly a question of familiarity or affection. I have two close male friends at work who I refer to as "The Boys" (they are men in their late 30s and mid-40s) and people know who I'm talking about. Similarly, if I see a bunch of men I know well standing around in the hall, I often greet them with "Hello, Boys." (I don't do that if any of them are PoC, however.) I also think stuff like "girls night out" is fine because it's a less formal context. But when adult men say "I'm looking for a girl to date" or what have you, I find that improper because it sounds deprecating to me, as though the man doesn't recognize that a woman is a grown person and equal to a man.

As to whether people stick to the "women vs. girls" thing in real life: I absolutely do, and in the past, when I've used dating sites, I put in my profile that if the person is over 30 years old and still refers to women as "girls," he should swipe left or otherwise pass me by. I'm not interested in men who view me as a child or somehow less than an adult.
posted by holborne at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

You calling your brothers "the boys" especially to a relative males sense is in the context of you having called them "the boys" for a large portion of your life and due to your intimate familial relationship with them. If you refered to your similarly aged coworkers as the boys, that would be inappropriate.

When I hear someone say girls or boys about adults I make assumptions about the amount of respect they give other people.

As a college professor I am especially sensitive to this and go to great lengths to use women, men, or occasionally guys in a moment of informality. "I randomly assigned groups! Why is group 3 all guys?"
posted by k8t at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I guess that I think that in practice, it's context-dependent. But if you tell people that it's context-dependent, they'll often rules-lawyer you to death until they've convinced themselves that their particular icky use of "girl" is fine, even when it isn't.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:36 PM on May 12, 2016 [21 favorites]

I'm a late 20s guy in California. I try to avoid calling adult women "girls" because they're, well, adults, and describing adult women as children has long been a way to indicate that they can't do serious grown-up things. This is especially true in professional settings. As I am imperfect and prone to saying stupid things, and the term is somewhat a part of our lexicon, I slip up sometimes, but I try and usually succeed.

I do think it's context-dependent to a certain extent, but it's easiest and more respectful to use a broader term that doesn't bring age into it. It's certainly more creepy sounding when applied to dating and sexual situations.
posted by zachlipton at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a (ahem) mature male, I've decided to call adult females either women or ladies because anything else is asking for trouble.

Ladies can use whatever terms they like. I'm staying out of it.

I would urge you to reconsider using the word "ladies", too. "Lady" is not a valueless term for a female adult, and it is not a synonym for "woman".
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 3:39 PM on May 12, 2016 [55 favorites]

Response by poster: See - personally, I would a million times rather be referred to as a girl than a lady. "Lady" or "ladies" feels waaaaaaay gross and patronizing, unless it's being said ironically or in a really seriously formal setting (like, the Academy Awards or something.) Please PLEASE don't call us ladies. Ick.

I do actually date "boys," when I'm speaking casually. A boy or a guy. "I met this nice man" sounds so ... OLD. And I don't blink when I hear men/guys/boys my age or younger say "I met this cool girl at a party last weekend" or "he's been dating that girl for almost a year now." However, the older the man gets the creepier it seems, and the creepiness increases exponentially if the woman in question is younger than him.

"Female person" or "female gender" in formal speak is fine. "A female" is totally gross and dehumanizing and I have only ever heard it said by total MRA types.

Oh and gal - I have never actually heard a live person say this word uncomdically. I assume that's regional.
posted by celtalitha at 3:39 PM on May 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

If women here say they feel that using 'girls' for adult women is patronizing, that means that there are going to be people elsewhere who at least think that and are judging you even if you aren't gonna come out and say that.

So as you get out of high school and out of college, you're going to come off as insulting to more and more people by referring to women as 'girls'. That doesn't mean it's universally seen that way, but your ability to read the room is not as good as you think if you are referring to adult women as 'girls' in the context of Metafilter.

And mothers are allowed to be, well, matronizing when it comes to their kids.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:40 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think one big challenge is clarity in writing. In a social face-to-face context, gesturing around to your friends as you explain you're having a girls' weekend is perfectly clear. Posting to Ask wondering about a good weekend getaway for a group of girls is less so--you might want Legoland, or you might want bar hopping. There have been a few asks where I had assumed at first that the asker was referring to children and realized later I was wrong.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:40 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing the "context matters" thing.
I was asked to re-write the (high school) graduation dress code for my school. I immediately knew I was taking out "boys" and "girls". They are seniors and calling them boys and girls seemed inappropriate for the occasion of this passage into adulthood, however, calling them men and women seemed weird too.
I went with male and female.
I think it is good that people are more inclined now to stop and think about usage, but also think that we need to cut people slack sometimes, not every mis-use is intentional and meant to be demeaning.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:41 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm roughly in your age group, and have spent most of my time hanging out with academics in large northern cities in the US for a while now, and it definitely seems strange and surprising to hear someone refer to girls, or boys, for that matter, when they're not talking about very young children. (Boy may be less obviously offensive between people of the same race and class, but it's got plenty of ugly history associated with it as well.)

I don't think I've used either word except when it's specifically part of a name (e.g., Girls Do Hack) in decades. For actual kids, "kid" does the job perfectly. And it saves me the bother of trying to work out or remember what gender the kid is. For non-kids, there are plenty of other good words that seem much more normal.

In general, this falls into the "don't do it, but try at first to assume good faith on the part of the people who do" category. But, I so rarely hear it except from women who are much older than me and from people who are very obviously non-native speakers that it doesn't ever really come up except on Metafilter. If someone like me said it casually in person, I'd certainly notice and think it very odd. If someone like me said it in a professional context, I'd assume they're going out of their way to offend people.
posted by eotvos at 3:47 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I find it troublesome when the context mixes styles - using men for males but girls for females, for example.
posted by Candleman at 3:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

No it's not a regional or site specific cultural thing.

Yes, it's contextual and depends a lot of who is calling who a girl.

The people who don't see any reason why it would offend, can't think of any situation when it might be egregious, and tell us variations of "relax, nobody means anything by it" are examples of how everyday sexism is so ubiquitous that it's invisible.
posted by stellathon at 3:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [25 favorites]

Best answer: This question alludes to something I said in one of my answers to another question so I will take a stab at it. I do think as others have said that it's regional and class-defined, and contextual. Particularly, when adult men talk about how to meet girls, it comes off kinda creepy. But when a woman says "girls' night out" (equivalent to boys' night out) it's not. The words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are fine regardless of age. It's really only a problem when a man who would not refer to himself as a boy uses the word "girl." It's not a problem when a woman refers to herself as a girl. To illustrate, I had a part-time cashier job recently, and most of the cashiers were women in their late 20s to early 60s. Our boss called us "the girls up front." What's more, he never put men on the register or gave women the tech jobs even though I, for one, have put together a few computers in my day and am pretty good with troubleshooting. In that context it was definitely sexist usage.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 3:51 PM on May 12, 2016 [17 favorites]

I follow the athletics model: through high school, females are girls, then women. Males are boys through high school, then men.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:53 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

"A female" is totally gross and dehumanizing and I have only ever heard it said by total MRA types.

I've heard this sort of language (or just "females") from people, both men and women, in the US Military or raised in military culture. Some examples:

"The sobering realization of being a female in the Army also hit her while in Kuwait."

"For us actually here in this MOS it's not really a big deal because we've been serving with females all of our careers."

"As a female in the U.S. Army, I can see how a woman in the JGSDF might have troubles"

It's a weird sounding construct to me, and one that struck me as especially odd hearing it from women, but it seems to be common in that culture.
posted by zachlipton at 3:56 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Girls" on AskMe is also partially a problem because it's written, and written in a context where you have time and space to think about your words. Throwing out girls casually in conversation or even in a Facebook chat is one thing, deliberately choosing it for something you're writing with some care is different.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:58 PM on May 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

About the "female" thing: to me it always reminds me of a Ferengi talking disparagingly, and it's animalizing as well. As far as the word "lady," that personally doesn't bother me as it doesn't seem that demeaning. "Miss" and "ma'am" both suck in their own way. Both sound archaic, and "miss" is a bit demeaning as it's generally used for teens and under while "ma'am" just sounds matronly and frumpy to me. So much is regional, too. Ma'am, miss, senora, and senorita are used in the southwest; lady in the midwest along with the generic "you guys" and "females" generally only on Reddit and such.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I (a woman) grew up in a lower-middle-class urban area in which "girls" was routinely used by women as the in-group term. Now, in the upper-middle-class major-coastal-city contexts where I have recently lived, I notice that "ladies" is the preferred in-group term ("Hey lady!" vs. "Hey girl!"). Don't have any idea whether this is at all generalizable in geographic, class, or temporal terms but it is a thing I have noticed in my own life.

Also, I am a grad student at a university, and notice that male grad students routinely refer to their female grad student colleagues and female undergraduate students alike as "girls," whereas female professors are referred to as "women." But, if a male professor were to refer to any of his students as a "girl," I think that would be perceived as quite skeevy/inappropriate. So even in this context where the label "girl" could arguably still apply to some people in terms of age, it's complex, but does seem to be correlated to status in a very direct way.
posted by Owl of Athena at 4:03 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman in my 40s and do not refer to people who are old enough to drink as boys or girls because it is, in my mind, disrespectful, full stop. When you start adding in contextual indicators (like those women being in male-dominated profession, or the speaker being white and referring to a person of color), there is even less question that choosing "girl" (or "boy") to refer to an adult is disrespectful and intended to belittle that person. This is the case even though an individual woman may refer to herself as a girl or say she's having a girl's night out.

It absolutely does not harm the speaker to use the word "woman", "person", "lady" or "y'all" and it absolutely plays into a culture of casual misogyny to refer to adult women as "girls".
posted by crush-onastick at 4:05 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I remember when my friend, who was a year ahead of me in school, went off to college and came home at break referring to her friends as "women." It sounded weird. But then I realized they were all young adults. Students, yes, but also adults. Ever since then I've used women for female people over the age of 18. (I'm a woman, btw, and this was 30 years ago.) If someone used "girl" or "girls" to refer to me, I would assume they were not up to date on their terminology. I probably wouldn't correct them unless it was in a professional context but I wouldn't copy their usage either.

Also, if it's good enough for Bonnie Raitt, it's good enough for me:

I've been around the world
I'm a woman, not a girl

posted by tuesdayschild at 4:06 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I grew up in Kansas but live in Portland, Oregon.

Today I was walking out the door at the same time as two of my female co-workers. I said "Hey, where are you girls off to?"

Then I felt awkward because, as you mention in the question, there are quite a few people who think that is demeaning. So I rephrased it.

"Uh, I mean ladies. Uh, women. Where are you headed?"

They didn't seem irritated and told me where they were going and asked if I was going to lunch.

All of that to say this: I don't think what I said was demeaning. It certainly wouldn't have been where I grew up. And I think trying to correct it *in the moment* made things more awkward.
posted by tacodave at 4:08 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

As someone who has studied linguistics, I think it must be a cultural/contextual thing

As someone who is a linguist, absolutely it is! And that's why it's important. Language use absolutely reflects culture. The fact that we refer to women as "girls" more often and in more contexts than we refer to men as "boys" is a reflection of sexism.

That doesn't mean an individual person who uses it is necessarily reflecting their own sexist attitudes; language use is in large part unconscious. But that doesn't mean that the usage itself isn't sexist and can't reinforce sexism.

As for my social circles:

I'm an academic and most of my social circle is made up of lefties who believe in feminism. We never refer to each other as girls unless it's part of a set phrase like "girls' night out," ironic, etc. Honestly, in casual contexts we end up referring to each other as "ladies" more than anything else if we need to be gender specific--unless it's a professional context where we'll likely use "women."

Not using "girls" for women isn't a conscious effort for me; it legitimately feels wrong.

It gets trickier when it comes to female people who are very close to the legal age of majority--like undergraduate students. It feels weird to me to refer to them as either "girls and boys" OR "women and men," and so I often sidestep the issue and use a gender-neutral descriptor. They just don't seem like adults yet, but they're not children either. I guess if I needed to talk about gender, I might use "girls" (i.e. "girls come to office hours more than boys"), but that's still iffy so I might say "female students" even if it sounds a little stuffy. I think, although I can't guarantee, that I have the same heuristic for males and females here.

I'm in the Midwest and from the Midwest.

And yes, I will be more skeptical/wary of a someone who (a) refers to women as "girls" while being male, or (b) refers to women as "girls" in situations where they won't refer to men as "boys."
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:09 PM on May 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

I hate the word "gal" - it feels very patronizing to me. In fact, someone I work with referred to me and one of our psychologists as "you gals" and I blew up. Well, in my head, anyway. For the record, it was used in an email by a mid-thirties woman, (another psychologist) in the context of trying to get out of doing something because "you gals" did it last year.
posted by firei at 4:09 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm curious how common this view actually is, and whether people actually stick to it in real life.

The women in my social group do not call women girls, I do not call women girls, and I absolutely stick to this in real life. This is true of my friend groups in the US, the UK and Ireland (all places I have lived for years at a time) so if it is regional, it's a pretty large region.

A 'girl' is a child, and I am not a child. I find the use of girls to be diminishing. I also generally find that it's a good signal; grown men who complain that they cannot get a date with a girl are generally people I suspect no woman should date. An employer who uses that word should be avoided at all costs.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:11 PM on May 12, 2016 [22 favorites]

"Ladies' is the worst. I got into a huge debate with a (male) friend of mine recently because, not only does he drop the word ladies into every freaking sentence, but he goes further and usually says "young lady". GAH that makes my skin crawl. "I was speaking to this young lady and she said blah blah blah" or "Then I met this young lady and she told me that..." OMG I could not make him understand how gross and infantalizing it was.

And HE is not a bad guy at all. He is kind and respectful. But when he speaks it just comes out so wrong. He asked me what he could use instead and I said just call her a woman, damnit! I am not a lady. I am not remotely a lady. I'm a woman. Hell, you can even call me a girl. But "young lady" makes me see red. It's just so prissy and dainty sounding.
posted by silverstatue at 4:19 PM on May 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

I'm in my early 40s and being called a girl incenses me. I am not a girl, I am a woman. When someone at work says "the girls in [Department]" I always correct him/her. I'll accept "ladies" because at that implies adulthood, unless it's "young ladies" and ... now we're a bunch of six-year-olds being told how to sit. Again, I am not a girl, I am a woman.

I wonder, though, if irritation at this is generational, because when I do this, the 20-30s say they ARE girls and the Boomers giggle like Wilma Flinstone and say they're girls too and my peers and I just shrug and know we've lost.

Let's relax, except in cases where such a choice of words is CLEARLY indicative of a worldview that could be actively dangerous to one's female contemporaries.

No. Let's not relax.
posted by kimberussell at 4:25 PM on May 12, 2016 [50 favorites]

Generally speaking, it's a prime example of bean-plating. But sometimes we get a question on the green where some guy is trying to figure out why he can't get "girls" to give him the time of day, and it's clear that part of his problem is that he's still thinking about women in a high-school mindset, so telling that guy to be more conscious of his language choices is spot-on.
posted by deathpanels at 4:32 PM on May 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

Another data point, I guess: I am a 30ish woman who uses "girls" pretty frequently with friends and "ladies" pretty frequently at work (as in, "hey ladies, anyone want to grab potbelly for lunch"). If I'm talking to friends about someone, it tends to be "so this girl..." or "so this dude..." because apparently I am a '90s surfer? I uh, say "dudes" a lot. My husband thinks it is super weird when I refer to women my own age as girls, and would never use that term for an adult woman. (He would also never call someone a dude. HIS LOSS, I say.)

Anyway I think the important thing here is that I try to mirror what other people in the group say. "Ladies" is a thing I heard other women say at work before I started using it; if my friends suddenly stopped talking about themselves as "girls" I would also stop. If a dude called me a girl I would not be impressed.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:41 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I never use "girls" for the reasons described above, plus it just doesn't roll off the tongue, no one I know uses that; only use "women" in the context of a discussion directly about gender; use "ladies" in a completely ironic way with friends, exactly because it's ridiculous; in informal settings, use generic defaults some of which, yes, do lean to the masculine nominally and by extraction but in usage and intent indicate universality ("guys", "people", and "dudes", interchangeably). It's a problem, for sure; it's what feels natural to me :/ I'm sure it's regional and generational, or maybe it's just my friends, all of whom do it. In work settings - "coworker" or "colleague", or other role designation, or actual names.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:42 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like "lady" a lot, but I also fall into the camp of it sort of being "our" word and being mildly creeped out when men use it.

Maybe "girl" feels that way, too?
posted by Sara C. at 4:53 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

In direct address, I (a woman) don't like "ladies" because it seems too femme to apply to a broad range of women with diverse gender presentations. Even for women who seem "outwardly" femme, it just feels nuance-squashing.

However, when I'm referring to someone in the third person, I find myself saying, "some lady on the train," etc. I should probably stop doing that because I'm realizing that it has a mildly pejorative flavor.

Eye-opening thread. Thank you for making space for us to discuss this.
posted by delight at 4:58 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I use women for women. That's anyone old enough to have graduated from high school according to the rules of me. I teach college students between 17-20 and it would feel very awkward to refer to them as boys and girls. In class I will often use gender neutral language - "could this group", "would the four of you", "those in the back corner". If I do use girls it is in scare quotes, part of a cultural phrase that is well known or a meme as in "riot girls", "white girls", "suicide girls". If a student writes girls, females or ladies in an assignment or exam (or boys, males or gentlemen for that matter - though this almost never happens) I correct it throughout the whole paper and often leave a comment at the end for good measure. I'm not angry or unreasonable about it, I'm just letting them know that a woman is a woman. They generally don't make the same mistake in their next paper and I hope they carry the lesson with them.
posted by Cuke at 5:18 PM on May 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think everyone has their own idiosyncratic preferences on this topic and you're likely to hit a minefield if you say anything other than "woman." I don't super care too much, but a lot of people do, so...just use woman at all times to stay safe.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:38 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify, as I stated in the original question, I would not use "girl" in a professional setting. I wouldn't use it in an academic paper either! I am more curious about casual usage, and the variety of responses is really interesting. I'm thinking that, to some extent, it's an upper-middle class thing. As someone who grew up lower-middle class (as did most of my friends) this might be a difference. I also live in the southwest, and it seems to be considered more offensive in the northeast? Hmmm.
posted by celtalitha at 5:38 PM on May 12, 2016

People are afraid to use "women," which is why they say "girls" and "gals" and "ladies" and "females" at times when it isn't appropriate. Do not be afraid to say "women."
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [18 favorites]

People are afraid to use "women,"

Maybe - but not necessarily? It's not an important identifier for me, until it is. I don't go around even consciously thinking of myself as a woman, it hardly matters until I'm reminded of it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:54 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I grew up and am in an area where referring to women as girls in the appropriate context is viewed as fine. I know a lot of women who would think I'm crazy if I thought referring to women as girls as wrong. It is all about context.

I had an essay typed out but I'll try to shorten it. Metafilter was a big part of my life growing up as I was on here since my early teens in my formative years. It went from what you would consider normal male dominated Internet banter to what I would describe as northeast liberal private school. This is not a bad thing, probably a better phrase I could use. In any case, there are a lot of things Metafilter promotes that are good and welcoming, but would be lost on an average person. Even an average "liberal" American who reads the New Yorker and NYT daily. If I went and used the term cisgender, no one outside of here or a graduate program would know what I'm talking about. That might be an exaggeration, but it is sort of the navel gazing debates that occur here that don't occur elsewhere. It is good and pushes thing forward but is odd and I think at times a bit alienating. Like you, I would consider myself a very liberal person and still use the term "girls" in the correct crowd. Hell, there's even a very liberal show on TV called "Girls" and you can over analyze it as much as you want but its still more progressive then 90% of America.

So I feel as if I'm being rambling about this, but Metafilter creates a great place for social awareness that doesn't really fit into the real world if that makes sense. It pushes things in the right direction but if you went about your daily business treating social politics like Metafilter, you'd be looked at side eyed.
posted by geoff. at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

to expand a touch: "womanhood" for me = dysmenorrhea, catcalling, sexism, statistics that apply to a group of which I'm incidentally (but not antithetically) a member, etc - an arbitrary, externally imposed category that happens to go along with cramps - problems, constraints, usually. enjoying culturally femme things like fashion (which I do) = play, performance, not core to identity, wouldn't do on a Sunday; grooming compliance, long embedded into habit, now quick and forgettable effort; liking trad "feminine" things like cooking =/= femininity. it doesn't feel like it matters, to me, personally, except in re those points of experience shared with other women (i.e., sexism, catcalling, cramps etc...). and that is not all the time. nothing essential or deeply felt about it, otherwise? would venture to say my friends feel similarly... will ask. that's why the word only matters when it does
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:26 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

My peer group very consistently calls each other "guys" (male or mixed group) and "girls". Also occasionally "males" and "females", mostly in a sports context. I haven't seen a real reason to change that, despite what seems to be a consensus on here. I do understand the objections to "girl", but I still haven't found any term I prefer more. Both "woman" and "man" seem far too formal for casual use. I know they're just the neutral terms, but they still feel super formal to me in casual conversation. (and "gal" is not a thing real live people say non-sarcastically around here either)

That said, "girl" can definitely be offensive for me in a professional context, or anywhere else where you'd be using more formal language. I tend to agree with the rule of thumb that if you would never say "boy" in a particular sentence, think twice about using "girl" in that context.

And please never call me a lady in any context. Ick.

(29, F, Canada, mostly middle-class-ish university-educated friends)
posted by randomnity at 6:45 PM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've used "women" since I was 20 or so but wasn't adamant about it until I worked in places where men used "girls" unironically and I realized that words matter.
posted by lazuli at 6:48 PM on May 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

As someone who said she uses "ladies," I want to echo the women above who said that it works because it's "our" word, and that I have a different reaction when it comes from men. There's a fine line between ironic use (which has been co-opted into a kind of default address) and condescending use, because it is a little ridiculous.

I don't often hear it from men, though, unless it's some employee ("What can I get you ladies?"). This is a little eye-rolling for me, but it's way preferable to "girls."
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:55 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree that men who are criticized for using "girls" here usually seem to be using it as an overall pattern of disrespect for women. They're usually asking why "girls" won't go out with them, and their use of "girls" is perceived as part of the problem.

I tend to use "women" and sometimes catch myself calling a 10-year-old a woman, but that was something I only became aware of in graduate school. There have been huge changes in acceptable language during my lifetime (I'm a boomer), and I tend to look at intent and mostly give people the benefit of the doubt if I don't think they mean any harm and if they aren't generally exhibiting harmful sexism. I try to remind myself that being educated about language usage is itself a kind of privilege and there are lots of people who simply have never learned to give it a lot of thought. And I think people who jump on others for their casual language use just end up shutting down conversation - although I am generally very PC, I've been known to make mistakes, and I end up spending less time with friends and co-workers who are always on duty as the language police.
posted by FencingGal at 7:11 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

The problem with "lady" or "ladies," to me, is that historically, "being a lady" was something a woman had to learn to do -- a status she had to achieve -- in order to be respected socially. (Or it was a status granted to her automatically through her lineage, and it raised her above other women.)

It all comes back to the fact that there are different, more stringent, culturally ingrained expectations for women, and the fallout of us not meeting those expectations is more or less measurable in a way that it isn't true for men.

"Woman" is a status I achieve by reaching a certain age and level of maturity. "Lady" is something I'd have to work towards. My grandmother, god bless her, was a capital-L LADY. I, madams and sirs, am not.

I grew up and am in an area where referring to women as girls in the appropriate context is viewed as fine.

I'd like to point out that this is one of those discussions where 'I'm a man and I can guarantee you no one in my circle thinks this is a problem' does not add substance or clarity to the conversation, and it would be nice if people could not.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:24 PM on May 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'm not angry or unreasonable about it, I'm just letting them know that a woman is a woman. They generally don't make the same mistake in their next paper and I hope they carry the lesson with them.

I live in a part of the country, and a rural part, where some people say girls and others do not and when you hear a woman saying she was out with a girlfriend you legit don't know if she means female friend or female partner. My take is that it reflects institutionalized sexism so I don't say it, it sounds uneducated to me (using girls for women) when said in a not-completely-obvious context. I also teach college and I call my female students women and often "young women" if I'm referring to people of late high school age.

Lady to me means "fancy" and so I tend not to use it but at least it means grown up female person. Female without a qualifier sounds MRA or military which is a weird combination.

With other people I don't so much make a thing about it but I just make it be a thing I know about them. There are a lot of not-very-educated people in my general area and I don't expect them to be up on "Hey don't call women 'girls'" sorts of things but I absolutely expect my educated friends to have gotten the memo so if they do it intentionally that is a lot more of a thing than just someone randomly saying it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:36 PM on May 12, 2016 [8 favorites]

Hell, there's even a very liberal show on TV called "Girls"

yeah, you mean the one about young women trying with great difficulty, often misdirected efforts and indifferent success to live as adults and sometimes not trying at all? The one that's called "Girls" because it's about women who have a variety of determined inabilities to perceive certain of their own qualities? It's not a subtle title or theme. at least I have never known a woman to find it puzzling.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:38 PM on May 12, 2016 [14 favorites]

I have noticed that there is a tendency for people in my area over the age of about sixty five to refer to women as girls and men as boys. I get the impression that using the words women and men might seem too formal. They use these words to describe themselves and each other, and also banter quite a lot about how one gender is superior to the other. They use the juvenilizing words to indicate both intimacy and affection.

Below this age generally does not use either the word boy or girl unless they are using those words after the word boyfriend or girlfriend has introduced the context.

There is also the use of the word girl that is clearly demeaning where the women referred to as girls are being assessed sexually. If the word girl is used demeaningly but without a sexual assessment as with "the girl who answered the phone didn't know her job" the male counterpart is usually "jerk" or sometimes "dumbass" or a similar term.

When someone refers to women as girls I take that as a cue to refer to men in the same conversation as boys. That seems to go over well, equalizing things without putting anyone on the defensive. Thus, "the girls in marketing" gets paired with "the boys on the floor".
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:46 PM on May 12, 2016

I think I accidentally make some sort of face when people call me a girl that scares them off of doing it again. I don't usually take offense at it unless it's intended as offensive (which it sometimes is), but it just sounds ridiculous to me to call grown women girls, even when it's someone referring to themselves that way. Same deal with grownassed men calling themselves boys. It just sounds weird.

People do it pretty regularly, though.

Ladies doesn't bother me at all because I've never had anyone whose opinion counts use the term seriously. I've had people tell me that I was being unladylike or something, gender and class policing, but it has never been anyone whose opinion had any import at all, save for possibly one company CEO, who was just so egregiously awful that that would barely have registered. I'm just lucky in that sense, I guess. And I call my friends ladies in a sort of Jerry Lewis/Beastie Boys way sometimes, but I try not to do that to anyone I don't know and who doesn't know me.

Women doesn't seem to bother anyone, so I stick with that in most contexts.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:48 PM on May 12, 2016

It is my impression that people with an Irish background are more likely to use the word boy to refer to an adult male than those with French, Scottish, English or Jewish backgrounds. This is especially true if they use nicknames ending in -ie for men, such as Robbie, Davie, Billy, Benny etc. I am not certain if people from an Orange lineage do this more than those from a Green lineage.

Context for these observations is Canada - Quebec and the Maritimes. My gender is female and my age is 53.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:55 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really wouldn't use "boy" about an adult man, I think basically because I was raised with such an intense taboo about ever using that word about an adult black man. And that's probably an artifact of where and when I was raised and by whom, but yeah. I would use "guy" about anyone over the age of about 12. Which comes back to the problem of there not being a "guy" equivalent for women.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:00 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Just to provide another data point, I have about 1000 emails in my (work) inbox which start with 'hey girls', and another thousand which refer to my coworker and myself as 'the [department] girls'. I am 33 and in the urban northeast. This is an office setting, from men and women both older and younger than myself. I roll my eyes but mostly file it in my brain as 'not worth the pushback'.
posted by matcha action at 8:43 PM on May 12, 2016

I've used "women" since I was 20 or so but wasn't adamant about it until I worked in places where men used "girls" unironically and I realized that words matter.

Same. And though a majority of men seem to understand that calling women "girls" in a professional context isn't acceptable, I get the feeling that the type of men who maybe used to do this have now switched to saying "ladies" instead of "girls" and it still rubs me the wrong way. Probably because I associate it with adults (of both genders) calling little girls "ladies" in a mock serious way. When used with little girls, I generally don't see anything wrong with it - it's usually innocent and sweet, similar to calling little boys "gentlemen" or similar.

But when adult men say it to women, it makes me think of the above usage, which goes back to how using "girls" treats women like they fall lower on the social ladder not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of age (and by extension, maturity and other things) by calling them a word that is also - or primarily - used on children.

There's also a weird dynamic I feel when men use it in the plural. Like when a man arrives at work and says something like "Good morning, ladies!" I know it's meant to be friendly but there's always just kind of a weird feeling I get because 1) it's reminds me of adults talking to little girls in a mock serious way, and can feel even more condescending than "girls" for that reason; 2) it is highlighting gender for absolutely no reason - I don't remember ever seeing any man (or woman) say to "Good morning, men!" to groups of men, unless it's an obvious jokey thing, and 3) by highlighting gender in a context where it is completely unnecessary, it can seem like an extremely subtle pulling of rank. I know that it's never intended that way, but it's always a little squicky to me for that reason. This literally just happened to me today at work. As I finished up a conference call with a female colleague and a man, at the end of the call, the guy said "Thank you for your time, ladies!" At the very least, we are all of an equal rank professionally; but realistically, my female colleague outranks him (and me) both in actual title and experience. He could have said "Thank you both for your time" but tacking on the "ladies" totally changed the feeling of it for me. It's a really subtle thing and I always let it slide for that reason - because I know no one is trying to be a sexist asshole and in the grand scheme of sexism, I have to carefully choose my battles or I would lose my mind. But I definitely notice it when it happens and it almost always feels a little gross.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:44 PM on May 12, 2016 [27 favorites]

Middle aged professional woman here who has (almost always) lived in liberal parts of the country. I find "girls" to be demeaning to me and other women and am deeply offended by its use. I use the term "ladies" ironically often - as in "Hellllooooo ladies (eyebrow-eyebrow wink-wink)". I realized though that I do say "girls" when I talk about the bathroom, as in "I'm going to the girls room" and when having a "girls night out" (which would probably be used ironically too). Otherwise its pretty much a no-no for me to call anyone over 18 a girl. As it turns out, I think I only use the term "boys" for adults in a similar way, as in "boys room", but would never ever call an adult man a boy unless I was saying something negative about his character.

Huh, never realized how proper I am. Go figure!
posted by Toddles at 9:09 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the simplest thing is just to use "guys" as a gender-neutral term for both males and females.
posted by 3491again at 9:22 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I feel kind of strongly about this, actually; I definitely am a woman, not a girl, and when people refer to me as a girl I correct them. I also find it weird to call a man a boy, but less problematic due to relative privilege. Particularly when men are the ones calling me a girl, it feels to me approximately equivalent to calling me a female as a noun, and both bring a hint of MRA/PUA flavor to the encounter though obviously the specific context can raise or lower the amount of MRA/PUA flavor present.

I do not feel as strongly about labeling other things with the modifier of girl, like girl's night out - though phrases like that still aren't fully comfortable. I also don't mind quite so much when it's said as a group thing as in "want to do this girls on one side boys on the other?" that also puts both genders at the same level. I'm okay with ladies unless it's said with that weird sneering intonation that sometimes accompanies it. I do dislike young lady, mainly because it seems to often be used in a condescendingly placating manner on older women.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:50 PM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just an anectdotal comment from an American residing in New Zealand, I've found that kiwis say "girl" more than what I'd heard in the States, including what people have described above as offensive. (Such as "the girls at the front desk", etc.) However, I've noticed that they also say "boys" a lot more than Americans; in fact it's rare to hear a post-game interview with a rugby player where he doesn't refer to how "the boys" performed. In saying that, I do suspect there is some of the latent sexism behind the usage of "girls" that people have mentioned above, despite the sort of egalitarian mindset found in many frontier countries.
posted by Metro Gnome at 9:50 PM on May 12, 2016

Also a feminist woman in her mid-20s. I agree that people are afraid to say "woman/women," because gasp, it means you're... adult. Not a sexy coed!

I do not use the word girls at all (unless referring to kids, and even then I'm more prone to say "students" or "daughters" or whoever they happen to be), and I'm from/live in the Midwest. However, it doesn't usually offend me unless it's used in a skeezy context.

I hate being called "lady/ladies" in any fashion, it's just so gross. I can't even figure out why, I think it's just the healthy dollop of condescension. It's weirdly presumptuous (oh, I will flatter you with my chivalry). I am an adult woman, asshole.

I have always been friends with groups of mixed gender, so when someone refers to "the girls" or whatnot, it feels really awkward to me. Either they're assuming girls only associate with girls, or they're isolating me from the group based on gender. Either way, no. (I realize that YMMV, I just very rarely find myself in a context where "omg the girls" is relevant.)
posted by stoneandstar at 9:58 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't want to threadsit but ... this is so interesting!

For the people saying no, they would never ever call anyone older than high school a girl, ever, and it wouldn't even sound right, and this should really be obvious because that's calling them a CHILD.... I'm kind of fascinated, because that is so far from any of my lived experience, it's almost alien. In fact, I never even knew the term "girl" COULD be considered offensive at all until I read metafilter. And that included the years I was in college! I'm quite sure that my family and most of the people I grew up with would look at me like I had two heads if I even mentioned such a thing.

Even as I evolved into a feminist, I only ever found the word icky when it was clearly being used in a condescending or other-ing way. I wouldn't have considered it offensive simply in referring to a young-ish woman. As in, "that girl over there on that bench." This being because, until very recently, the dictionary definition of "girl" included BOTH "female child" and "young woman" or "unmarried woman." In recent years some definitions have added "possibly offensive" to the latter, but to say "girl means child!" simply isn't linguistically the case, historically speaking. So it wouldn't have occurred to me.

Now, I completely understand why it's an issue. I understand why it's a good idea to be more mindful of our language choices and to push our collective use of language in a progressive direction. I disagree that I'm "afraid" to use the term "woman" - I use it plenty; just in slightly different contexts. "Men" and "women" feel formal. "Guys" and "girls" feel casual. At least among young (20s and 30s) people in my friends group.
posted by celtalitha at 10:21 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The more you use "women," the less stiff and formal it seems. I use it automatically these days. (Late 30s, F, West Coast USA but born and raised in the lower Midwest and South)

Also, linguistically speaking, it's important to note that as a rule, dictionaries lag behind usage and socia change. On purpose, of course; terms and definitions shouldn't be added or changed until they're well established. But there's generally a far amount of lag even after that.
posted by wintersweet at 12:04 AM on May 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: until very recently, the dictionary definition of "girl" included BOTH "female child" and "young woman" or "unmarried woman." In recent years some definitions have added "possibly offensive" to the latter, but to say "girl means child!" simply isn't linguistically the case, historically speaking.

Sure. But you can look at the reason we use Ms instead of Miss as a lens to examine part of the reason why girls is problematic.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:10 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

From a hillbilly in the Ozarks, it gets complicated, but in general, "girls" is friendly and can apply to any group of females. You will need modifiers like little, young, high school, and college or context to figger it out. Like "The Nixa Girls kicked ass in the barrel races." means the female members of the Nixa Saddle Club, aged from around 9 to well into their 30s had a good night at the rodeo.

"The girls are doing their Mexican lunch thing." could mean high school girls, but probably refers to retires having a monthly outing. Its fine to substitute "You girls," for "Y'all" when speaking to a group of females of any age.

Young ladies comes across as pretty paternal, ladies seems pretentious, but church ladies or old ladies is generally respectful. Old women is dismissive or hostile, but referring to women pulling down wages as the courthouse women or the seed plant women isn't.

Using "That girl..." means someone younger than the speaker unless they have a relationship like "That girls' my neighbor." Or they have a specific skill, "That girl could grow a garden on a pile of rocks."

Substituting girl for someone's name can be stern " Girl, get your homework done." and intentionally rude "Hey girl, bring me a drink." or a hostile assumption of authority "Girl, keep your kids away from my livestock."

Using "Gal" implies there isn't and won't be a relationship i.e. "Some gal gave me a flyer in town." as opposed to " There's a new girl working at the store." Still using "gal" in reference to Blacks is pretty much proof of active bigotry unless they're older than 70 or 80, the old bigots are much nastier.

Damn this is already too long to get into dude, bitch, chick, irony, sarcasm or just yankin' someone's chain. If this comes across as insensitive, I could have written as much about the word boys, and "the boy's table at the cafe is where the old farts sit and gossip over coffee every morning.
posted by ridgerunner at 12:38 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm in my 40s. We have girls' nights out. And that's okay because the whole point of a girls' night out is for women to meet up and hang out together and be themselves - and have one night where they're not being a wife or a mother or a partner or a carer or whatever, they can just be the person they used to be before life happened.

That is the only time I would ever use "girls" for anyone of voting age.

And "ladies"? You should never call an Australian woman a lady. She'd have your balls on a platter for that. "Ladies" conjures up images of white gloves and social etiquette and debutante balls and being "pretty" and being overly polite. Australian women are awesome, mainly because we're not that.
posted by finding.perdita at 1:44 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, there's also the power structure to consider. Calling the boss a boy doesn't take away any of his power. It's the default setting that males have the power. Women , however, have to fight for every scrap of power and respect we have ever earned and cling to it desperately to keep it. Being called a girl can definitely chip away at that in a way that being called a boy can't. I definitely correct people at work who say girl instead of woman. It's part of the silent, subtle, misogyny that we've been trained to ignore. "Be cool. You're overreacting " "it's not a big deal." "He didn't do it on purpose" " he didn't mean it like that"
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:42 AM on May 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

People are afraid to use "women," which is why they say "girls" and "gals" and "ladies" and "females" at times when it isn't appropriate. Do not be afraid to say "women."


I completely believe that many people are afraid to use the term "woman" or "women" when it is appropriate. As far as I'm concerned, "too formal" is not a consideration when referring to "man" or "men." Only with women. In fact, I suspect "too formal" is code for "don't want to give woman the power/respect that the word woman inspires in me"

posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:16 AM on May 13, 2016 [17 favorites]

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this, but I find the use of "girl" to refer to an adult to be analogous (not exactly the same) to the practice of Whites referring to African American men as "boys" and African American women as "girls." It's a deliberate misnomer. That it may be unexamined on the part of the speaker does not make it less a part of systemic sexism, a word choice meant to denigrate and demean.

Now, of course, it has other meanings in different contexts, and can be deliberately used to show intimacy or affection or allude to youth. But those are all intimate uses.
posted by OmieWise at 6:20 AM on May 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I mean, I think the diversity in this thread speaks to the fact that the word-as-written is extremely different from the word-as-used.

I use the word with certain people in certain contexts. Maybe the context is “riot grrl”. Maybe the context is “gurrrrrrrrl, NO”. Maybe the context is an incident in our past when we were called girls by men in an inappropriate setting and every time we use the word, we are mocking that man’s sexism in a callback fashion. Maybe it is a friend who I’ve discussed “Gone Girl” with on multiple occasions and she knows that when I use the word I use it like a knife. She can hear me saying it the way she expects me to say it, even if all I do is type the word “girl” in a text.

But we don’t all have those contexts in common here on metafilter. Someone might type it and mean “gurrrrrrrrl” but I read it and I have no way of interpreting it correctly, and so I think it is dismissive instead. So if someone uses it and assumes everyone else will interpret it the way their friends would, that’s a risky proposition.

I will say, though, that most of the time I see this correction taking place here, it is when men use it to talk about women dismissively or in the context of wanting to “date girls”.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:25 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh crap, I totally didn't know that "lady/ladies" was not generally a good thing to say (as a man). I have been conscious of not calling adult women "girls" for a while, and really thought I was doing the right thing by replacing it with "ladies". I feel kind of dumb, honestly. Thanks for the information!
posted by joelhunt at 6:34 AM on May 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

My gut response to someone who uses "girl" is either that they don't think women are adult human beings with all the rights and responsibilities of adult human beings (generally when someone uses "girl" when I know full well they'd use "man" if the person were male), or that the speaker themselves does not think of themselves as an adult human being with all the rights and responsibilities of adult human beings (generally when someone consistently uses "girl" and "boy" about adults). In the first case, it's generally sexist; in the second case, it's juvenile and/or age-ist, like it's expressing a fear of growing up or a fear of acknowledging that it's ok to be an adult.
posted by lazuli at 7:04 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Celtalitha, I too am a 33 year old female-gendered woman, and I use 'girl' in the exact same contexts you do. I do think that people on metafilter get a little too worked up about its casual usage, but that's metafilter. We/they are hypersensitive here, and that's probably a good thing in the long run toward creating a safe space for people to share their stories. And often, both here and in real life, I tend to police men's language a little more severely, because it is more often that men are not thinking about the language they are using when referring to our gender. (Not saying that women don't say offensive things about other women, it's just that I believe our personal experiences generally lead us to think about these things a little more deeply, especially those of us who identify as feminist).

I myself feel like a 'girl'. I've actually thought about this at length and have said that I probably won't feel like a 'woman' until I have had children (which I don't really want to do), or until I own a house (single woman in New York City, so probably also won't ever happen), or until I'm like 45 (which hopefully will happen). But that's just me :)
posted by greta simone at 7:06 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a 27 years old. I do not call men "boys" or women "girls". I think using "girls" "gal" "lady" ranges from fairly disrespectful to offensive depending on speaker and connotation. My year old half sister is a girl. My twenty year old sister is a woman. My mom is woman. I am a woman.
posted by Marinara at 7:10 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a 38-year-old female-bodied nonbinary type. I call myself a girl. I think of myself as a girly boy or a boyish girl. I never think of myself as a woman or a man.

The only time I bristle at "girl" is in a professional setting, because it's usually dismissive.
posted by missrachael at 7:11 AM on May 13, 2016

Am I the only one who grew up (41 F middle class northeast) with 'woman' used socially solely to describe only negative female adults? That woman. 'And then this woman came up to the counter and said...' Never neutral, 'lady' was neutral. Lunch lady, right? But 'woman' was how nice ladies say 'bitch.'

I consciously default to 'woman' because I read here and strive to not be a jerk, saving 'girl' for social-familiar exceptions as described above by others. But I'm pretty sure I say stuff like 'the lady at the check-out says the library switched to summer hours last week' or something.

I always feel a twitch inside with using neutral 'woman,' because with the usage I was immersed in, it feels like I'm doing the exact 180 degree opposite of using respectful word choices. Better yet, I'm doing it in a subtle, veiled hostility, passive-aggressive, gross gender-stereotype cattiness way. Like with plausible deniability that everyone could see through. Woman. When it was only ever spat with venom, it's very hard to rewire it out of being a slur.
posted by Fantods at 7:25 AM on May 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I totally didn't know that "lady/ladies" was not generally a good thing to say (as a man).

I think that it really heavily depends on context, as people have mentioned. If a man is talking to a mixed group and says "Ladies and gentlemen", I wouldn't think twice. Like people have said, if the person/group you're addressing were all men and you would use a similar term (such as "gentlemen") when addressing them, it probably wouldn't stand out to me personally (I know others may feel differently).

What I do know is that, like "girls", "ladies" has definitely been used on me in a way that is paternalistic/condescending, which is why is often bothers me, even when I am certain that the person addressing me is not that kind of a person and genuinely has no idea. It is such a subtle and nuanced thing and if I know the person, I won't fault them personally for it. It just bothers me because it's one of the many little reminders I get every day of how the world still views women and what a long and difficult road we still have to achieving a real societal awareness of these things when we're still at a point where we can't even get people to agree on the big things like women deserving equal pay for equal work.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:36 AM on May 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's really worth reiterating that there is no female equivalent of "guy" - something that sounds casual but does not imply youth or lower social status. So "girl" gets tossed out as the "guy" equivalent. I personally would like it if we all just got a little more comfortable about adulthood and just referred to people over the age of 20 or so as "women" and "men," but there you have it. (I have a friend who was still referring to our peers as "kids" as late as 25 or 27 and I thought it was really weird, though I didn't correct him.)

I do think girl is inappropriate in non-personal contexts (in casual conversation it's mostly OK), and especially inappropriate in professional and adult-romantic contexts. However, I also think Metafilter, and particularly Ask Metafilter, has a culture of projecting things into comments and questions which may or may not be there, and there are certain types of comments and questions which are more likely to trigger this response. So it's both an actual thing and a manifestation of the site's particular culture.

I actually tend to use gender-neutral pronouns as much as possible. Instead of saying "she's a nice girl" or "she's a nice woman," I'll say "she's a nice person." This isn't always possible, however - it would be nice if our language had more of those. I am a 31-year-old middle-class man in the US Northeast.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:32 AM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Honestly, I think people on metafilter care way more about this sort of thing then everybody else. Reading the posts above, I'm kind of appalled at how easily some people get offended. You have to go by context and tone. Women/Ladies/Gals/Girls can all be either respectful or disrespectful, depending on how they are used.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:43 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's really worth reiterating that there is no female equivalent of "guy" - something that sounds casual but does not imply youth or lower social status.

My brother thinks he's solved this problem by referring to every woman -- literally every woman he mentions -- as "that chick."

Yeah, no.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:05 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's kind of hard for me, honestly. Because of the woman/lady class difference, I may be saying too much or wrong when I use one of them. Some people are offended by female. So girls is really all that's left.
posted by corb at 11:35 AM on May 13, 2016

Am I the only one who grew up (41 F middle class northeast) with 'woman' used socially solely to describe only negative female adults? That woman.

Nope. "Woman" implies low class, not of the status of "lady", as I have heard it. I still vividly remember a date of mine saying "You're half lady, half woman" as both a compliment and an insult.
posted by corb at 11:37 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know you are focused on "part of the country" as to an explanation of "women" vs. "girls" - but I'd like to suggest another possibility of whether the speaker has experienced sexism and discrimination themselves or was otherwise sensitive to it from their own life experience.
posted by Toddles at 1:38 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am a woman. I refer to myself as a woman, I refer to other women as women. In casual, professional, any contexts. I am way past being a girl, and I am not just a female member of my species.

Once I went for a job interview, as administrative support for a department on a university campus. The (male) supervisor who interviewed me told me that they all loved "the girl" who had done the job for a long time and was leaving, and they were hoping to replace her soon.

I met "the girl." She was over sixty years old. This made me really, really uncomfortable. I was called back for a second interview, and didn't go. I really didn't want to become "the girl."
posted by 41swans at 2:38 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Female, northwest US, late 40s. I loathe being called a "lady" and the word "ladies" just skeeves me the fuck out. I'm fine with female and woman. Call me a girl at your own peril.

I try to stay away from gender as well and stick with neutral language as much as I can.
posted by hilaryjade at 2:39 PM on May 13, 2016

2) it is highlighting gender for absolutely no reason - I don't remember ever seeing any man (or woman) say to "Good morning, men!" to groups of men, unless it's an obvious jokey thing, and

I find the "ladies" thing interesting, that so many women are put off by it, and I had no idea. I see it as a respectful term with a bit of humor, because we all know we don't mean it in the Victorian sense, but not at all mocking in any way. In my experience "gentlemen" is used in exactly the same way to the same degree. "Good morning gentlemen" is something I say, and is said to me.

I have to wonder if there isn't a case that some women aren't often around when "gentlemen" is used and aren't that aware of it how common it is, so are taking "ladies" as some sort of odd usage. I would guess that many men who say "ladies" also say "gentlemen" so it doesn't occur to them there is anything odd about it.

I also have never worked in a corporate environment, so there may be a whole other level of double standard I'm not exposed to. I also don't really find a need to use gendered greetings all that often.
posted by bongo_x at 2:52 PM on May 13, 2016

People are afraid to use "women," which is why they say "girls" and "gals" and "ladies" and "females" at times when it isn't appropriate.

I recall my grandmother (born in the 1920s) being faintly scandalized by the idea of actually referring to someone as a "woman," and somewhat equally so by saying "man." She said they were "vulgar" terms, and that people were properly named ladies and gentlemen, or gals and fellas, or boys and girls, depending on age and station. Like a lot of her grammatical peculiarities this was a contextless set of rules that I tried and mostly failed to follow correctly. So I would say "can I" and "women" and so forth and get rapped on the knuckles and feel ashamed and then mostly move along.

It wasn't until I was somewhat older that I realized she felt like both of the terms (but especially woman) basically were a way of saying "person who has had sex/person who has genitalia." It was calling an uncouth level of attention to the fact that someone, I don't know, went through puberty?

I don't know how widely shared this anathema was, because my grandma was a pretty odd duck in a lot of ways, but yeah, there are definitely people out there who are literally afraid to say "women."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:12 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hmmmmmm. Now I wonder what it means that I, the only girl in my work area, used to refer to my Coworkers as "the boys." Oh, and I just noticed I called myself a girl here, which, at my age is probably really weird.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:34 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I work in a university in Australia. The only workers on the campus referred to as boys seem to be the trade types. I think there's a class issue-probably coming from the tradies, themselves, in encouraging a casual collective name that also implies a bit of fun, and a little irresponsibility: boys will be boys. I can't remember the last time i heard the word "gentleman". In a faculty that is has a gender imbalance of more women than men, i can't remember the last time i heard the word "girls" used to refer to a group of colleagues, even the administrative staff. I think they all would bite anyway, if a man tried it.

I chose to stop using the word "lady" when my children were small and i realised i was embedding gendered linguistic values: give the money to the nice lady/man, and i certainly have never felt like a lady, and not like a girl since i left my teens.

Anyond who thinks I'm beanplating, and chooses to go on using a term that i find offensive for reasons eloquently discussed above, that person clearly has no problem with using offensive (to other people) words. I figure they're the kind of person who says nigger or kike or uses gay as a derogatory word. I won't discuss it more than once with a person, i am not an educator, and i couldn't be fucked trying to drag you into the 21st century. My opinion won't matter to you here, but i won't be the only one to make assumptions about you and to choose not to engage.

Women who choose to call themselves girls or ladies confuse me, but it's their prerogative and i don't have a problem with it, just like men who call themselves boys. Not my dog in those fights. I might unintentionally think that you don't have a high opinion of your maturity (in context, hey? Not talking about boy/girls' nights out).

Last thing: lucky I haven't entered a committed relationship since my marriage endes, i have a problem with using the term boyfriend, but lover is weird, and partner implies something else. Manfriend is weird too. There isn't an appropriate word.
posted by b33j at 3:03 AM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm writing this from my sleeping bag at a Girl Scouts outdoor skills competition. I deliberately kept an ear out this weekend and noticed that "ladies!" was definitely the preferred term used by any woman attempting to get the attention of all the judges and committee members. It was always said in good humor (and the men seemed fine with it).
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:22 PM on May 14, 2016

The problem with "lady" or "ladies," to me, is that historically, "being a lady" was something a woman had to learn to do -- a status she had to achieve -- in order to be respected socially. (Or it was a status granted to her automatically through her lineage, and it raised her above other women.)

It all comes back to the fact that there are different, more stringent, culturally ingrained expectations for women, and the fallout of us not meeting those expectations is more or less measurable in a way that it isn't true for men.

I find this line of thinking rather odd. The correspondingly formal and slightly archaic nomenclature for males is "Gentleman", which is a status he had to achieve -- in order to be respected socially. (Or it was a status granted to him automatically through his lineage, and it raised him above other men.)

The expectations vis a vis gender in this case are not all that different.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:54 PM on May 15, 2016

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Sorry OP, but Ask Me really isn't for having a back and forth discussion.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:03 AM on May 16, 2016

I think it comes up a lot in dating contexts because the terms “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” don’t have good replacements. I also use girl/boy with a touch of irony when referring to casual dates because saying I’m seeing a “woman” or a “man” makes it feel more serious/ potentially-going-somewhere than I want to convey. When I say “I met a boy I like” I think it better conveys that I’m not daydreaming about marrying him.

Nthing that “girls” has stuck in general despite its problems because we lack another generally accepted informal term for women, and “women” sounds too formal and/or too pointed a reference to gender. An informal genderless term for a group of people would be great; I use “folks” and “y’all” sometimes but they don’t fit every occasion (I’m in the Northeast). “Guys” is not great but works okay in a mixed-gender group; it’s weird in an all-women group though.
posted by metasarah at 6:39 AM on May 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

If there's any sort of conclusion you can reach from the responses, it's that there is no single term that isn't offensive to someone. That's a pretty disturbing phenomenon in itself, of course, but the problem with that isn't really with the specific terminology.

However, to the actual question, I've never experienced the same prickliness about terminology in real life that you see on Metafilter. I'm in the Southwest, but have time in other regions and with different cultural and socioeconomic groups, and yeah, some people, including me, don't like being called 'girls' (and I don't have an exception for idioms like 'girls' night out' either), but I've never had or witnessed anyone taking disproportionate umbrage at other people's innocent terminology. As long as there's no double standard (e.g., men and girls), and they're not using intentionally offensive terms, in my experience, most people seem to understand that it's a matter of preference and habit.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:24 AM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's definitely a matter of usage and context. But I think problems mostly arise when people (mostly men, but not exclusively) use "girls" and "women" interchangeably without recognizing the nuance that choosing one word over the other can convey. If one is not clued into the circumstances where it is far more appropriate to use "women" over "girls", there can be some real misunderstandings.

Case in point: I volunteered at a sci-fi convention a few years back. T-shirts had been ordered ahead of time to sell to attendees, and I was helping to unload the boxes into the merch booth. One of the other volunteers opened up a box of shirts and started laughing. I asked what was so funny, and he pulled out a "large" t-shirt that might have fit well on a large teddy bear, but probably wasn't going to fit the majority of the women in attendance.

Whoever ordered the shirts was likely someone for whom the terms "girls" and "women" had no discernible difference. Unfortunately, that meant this person ordered 500 shirts in "girls" sizes rather than "women's" sizes.

To answer the question: I probably wouldn't correct someone on "girls" vs "women" in real life unless it was a) in a professional context or b) it came in the form of a sentence from a friend or acquaintance that sounded something like, "Man, why don't girls want to date me?"

However, it is often an important distinction to make, and I'm all for reminding folks that context matters. Offering up a "Hey AskMeFi questioner, you should probably say 'women' not 'girls' in this setting to avoid confusion and inadvertent infantilization" seems like a low key but direct way to remind a person who may genuinely not know any better that those terms are not always interchangeable.
posted by helloimjennsco at 9:39 AM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Agree with the majority about girls: a woman is not a sexy coed, but a grown adult. A "girl" is not to be taken seriously, she's frivolous, she's FUN. But ultimately a child. Grown men do not date girls.

Women can say "girl's night" or "girl, you'll never believe what happened," as expressions or figures of speech, but it's patronizing and infantilizing for a man to do it. Women who use "girls" in earnest are imo trying to seem desirable, soft, non-threatening, playful, and youthful, from what I see in the south. I cringe a little because it seems like only over-50s do this and it's kind of sad. They DO tend to say "boys" as well ("pardon us, boys; we're heading to the little girls' room to powder our noses"). Mom-types use it to feel less dull, heavy, old, and responsible, I think, like "girls night."

I don't get the hate for "lady." Sometimes "ladies" seems creepy, but it's more the tone and delivery for me. I'm 28. I'm a woman, and a lady. To me it means you're respectable, polite, and cultured. Yes, I worked to become a lady, and I'm proud of it. A lady doesn't chew with her mouth open, talk really loudly in restaurants, push past people on the street, or spit in public. She's considerate. She can be assertive but not overbearing. I don't think being opinionated and silly and strange makes me not a lady. I'm usually in jeans, don't wear gloves, don't do my nails, or do difficult things to my hair...I think people use it more than gentleman, but I've heard it plenty. "Ladies and gentleman," "shall we move on, gentlemen?" "gentlemen, please!" "He's a real gentleman." I don't see the insult. In short, ladies and gentlemen can be around others without them being like "wtf, were you raised by wolves?" In the south, we'd say it means you've had "home training."
posted by serenity_now at 3:57 PM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

> Mom-types use it to feel less dull, heavy, old, and responsible

So, as long as we're on the subject of stereotypes applied to women, and the importance of choosing our words carefully....
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:55 AM on May 17, 2016 [13 favorites]

Coming slightly late to this but I had an anecdote that might be useful. I teach graduate school. The course I am teaching is online and is a class in advocacy for libraries, so learning how to change minds, help people, get things done. One of my students is an older hippie type. All of our education stuff happens online. We had this exchange. Now, if part of my job as a teacher is helping people explain things clearly and effectively as students, I felt like I had to do something here. It worked out okay, no harm no foul, but as soon as I saw that "Good girl" I felt like this person did not respect me as a graduate level professor and I felt like I had to respond. And then, if it went poorly I was still stuck with this person for the next six weeks and would have to grade him. It worked out fine, as I was hoping it would, but it's a weird conundrum to be stuck inside. I don't know this guy and I know at least SOME of the people who say stuff like that are being condescending or, at best, unaware of the effect their words can have on people. So, as someone who is trying to teach people to be good advocates, that was a worthwhile lesson, on day one of my advocacy class.
posted by jessamyn at 6:15 PM on May 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Correction from The Seattle Times - June 6, 2016:
"We stand corrected on 1951 story: Engineering grad, 21, wasn’t a ‘girl’ among men

It’s a bit late — 65 years late — but we’re happy to clarify a story this paper ran on Sunday, June 10, 1951.

For all those years the story has gnawed at Luella Armstrong, now 86.

It concerned that year’s graduation coverage at the University of Washington.

Back in those days, stories like that began on Page 1 and continued to big spreads inside that included the name of every graduating senior.

There was a special story about Armstrong inside.

The headline was, “One girl in air engineers graduates with 174 men.”

You can pretty well guess what’s gnawed at Armstrong for more than six decades during her accomplished career in aeronautical engineering with Boeing.

In one paragraph, the story asked Armstrong if her fellow students hit on her:

With all those men, had Miss Armstrong trouble keeping requests for dates in hand? it said. “No,” she answered, blushing and changing the subject.


That same story today would have exploded with the internet commentarial.

Those were different times.

In that story, Armstrong herself says, “ … I was the lone girl … ” But if you are being interviewed and that term is used, and those are the times, that’s how you answer, she says.

Armstrong, of Lake Forest Park — personal computer in room, laptop in the living room — can tell you about those times".
posted by Feisty at 11:21 AM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

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