At the end of taping a recent segment on GBH’s “Talking Politics,” host Adam Reilly apologized for referring to me and my co-panelist, political consultant Jesse Mermell, as “you guys” during our discussion.
Since I routinely use that expression myself with men and women, I told him I was fine with it — just, please, “don’t call us ladies.” “Or girls,” added Mermell.
In 2023, a person’s choice of words can be perilous. Consider the story of Vito Perrone, who says a job offer to become superintendent of the Easthampton Public Schools was rescinded after he wrote an e-mail in which he addressed the School Committee chairwoman and another female colleague as “ladies.”
The whole truth is probably more complicated than that, since the vote to hire Perrone was 4-3 and his e-mail included a request for some contract changes involving salary, vacation, and sick days. But in an interview with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Perrone said that Cynthia Kwiecinski, the School Committee chair, said the use of “ladies” as a salutation was a microaggression and the fact that he didn’t know that as an educator was a problem.
The chilling effect such thinking can have on language and life is scary. While I agree the use of “ladies” can sound patronizing, I think it’s extreme to call it a microaggression. But even if you are so inclined, should one microaggression cancel out everything else that’s worthwhile about a person?
Perrone has 29 years of experience as an educator. The superintendent’s job in Easthampton represented a joyous homecoming for him, since he had previously worked there as a principal and football coach. He left to become principal of West Springfield High School and has been serving as interim superintendent in that school system. He must have said and done enough to convince a majority of Easthampton School Committee members he was the right person for this job. And then an e-mail with the salutation “ladies” changes that? He has since apologized for using an expression that was taken as an insult.
People say stupid things, often when their guard is down or they are trying to be funny. That seems to be the case with renowned chef Ming Tsai. During a conversation with fellow chef Irene Li, before a sold-out crowd at WBUR’s CitySpace, Tsai said, “Did you roofie me? You should have. I roofied you.” Given the meaning of roofie — to spike a drink with drugs to incapacitate the drinker so you can prey upon them sexually — and the recent spate of that happening in Boston, this criminal practice is nothing to joke about. Tsai also seemed to downplay the need for a #MeToo reckoning in Boston restaurants, saying “bad boys get the press.” Six weeks after those remarks, Li posted an Instagram video that featured them, leading Tsai to apologize.
Of course what Tsai said to Li — especially in connection with spiking drinks — is far more offensive than what Perrone wrote. Yet I think it’s better to take both as teachable moments rather than reputation-shattering ones. Unless there’s an established pattern of sexist language and behavior, a single incident should not turn a person into a pariah.
Meanwhile, expressions like “you guys” creep into everyday language and, over time, become offensive, at least to some people. As Reilly explained to me, “Earlier this year I got an e-mail from a viewer who was frustrated by my use of ‘guys’ to address two or more women. I’d always thought of it as an innocuous, gender-neutral term, but she made the case that it’s both deeply gendered and offensive. Since then I’ve been working hard, on and off camera, to kick the ‘guys’ habit — but I still slip up sometimes despite my best efforts.”
Some of the outrage over language seems to break down along generational lines. Baby boomers like me have put up with so many insults over the years that maybe we are numb to them. Or maybe experience has taught us that not every man who refers to women as “ladies” is an unredeemable sexist pig.
As Perrone told the Gazette, “I wish, in the moment, we had a different conversation about my use of ‘ladies’ as a greeting and used it as something we could grow from instead of it just being a closed door, no negotiation, no acceptance of an apology.” However, in the aftermath of this controversy, all he can do is cling to the public support he has received, saying “it affirms things to me as a professional, as a leader, that people recognize the positive in me.”
How sad. A lifetime in education and a sense of self-worth have been undercut by a word in an e-mail.
What do you guys think about that?