This took place a few years ago, but continues to plague me in an odd, unresolvable way…
The scene: I’m in the disabled washroom at a live performance space called the Theatre Centre because my herniated discs occasionally make it incredibly painful to go up and down the stairs to the regular washrooms and the elevator must be run by a staff member. The disabled washroom is accessed through a storage area off the lobby and the door has one of those open slatted sections on the lower half, either for ventilation or communication in emergencies or both.
While I’m in there I hear people enter the storage room. It sounds like they’re gathering some extra chairs. There are two female voices and what sounds like an older man. There was an older man working the door as a volunteer when I came in so I assume it’s the same guy.
They talk about how many chairs they need, general small talk about the performance, etc.
Older man: Have you girls worked here long?
Both women together: We’re WOMEN not GIRLS.
Older man: Oh, uh, sorry.
More talk about the chairs and where they should go. Old dude slips and refers to the women as “girls” again.
Woman 1, in a very annoyed, condescending tone: You know, that’s really rude.
Woman 2: We’re women, not girls.
Old dude apologizes profusely again and they all exit.
Now. Here’s the thing, if the man in question is the guy I had pegged earlier, he’s likely in his 70s. Maybe doing some volunteer work to get out of the house. He’s wearing a baseball hat and a t-shirt and jeans, and doesn’t really seem to fit in/feel comfortable in the space with trendy Queen West theatre-going types. The two women, if I’ve identified them correctly among the staff and volunteers, look to be in their early-to-mid-30s, and at a glance, I would mark them as well-educated, feminist, and artistic.
While I completely get that it is not cool to call women girls, I believe that we need to cut older people some slack. How we use the English language is changing at warp speed and most of us tend to stick with the usage that was common when we came of age. As an example, my grandmother is still utterly confused by the term “people of colour” given that she grew up using the term “coloured people/person” only in her 40s to be told to call those same people “black”, and now to switch to “people of colour”. Despite attempts by family members to explain the difference between coloured people and people of colour, it just doesn’t jive for her.
For an older man in his 70s, who likely has daughters, nieces, or granddaughters, any woman younger than him is going to be thought of as a “girl”. If he has daughters, he undoubtedly thinks of them as his “girls”. And it’s going to be hard for him to think otherwise. From the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” file, it really is harder to learn new things, especially language, as we get older.
If the man had been a contemporary of these women, and the usage of “girls” was meant to be diminutive or condescending, then they’d be absolutely right to call him on it. But in this case I think they were out of line. Those women seemed much more interested in being offended, showing their wokeness and voicing their hurt than they did in trying to understand why he might have chosen that word to address them. Or that he meant nothing by it. Or that it might even have been a gesture of respect or acceptance because they remind him of his daughters or granddaughters, for instance.
This is not to say that seniors always get a pass — if they’re genuinely being jerks, they deserve to be told off. But intelligent, “woke” young people need to make more of an effort to understand the perspective and point of view of others before jumping to offence or to correct a person’s language usage when they’re speaking in a way that they’ve always understood to be acceptable. At minimum, I think a better explanation of why “girls” was unacceptable to them was owed to the man, and I hope there was a further conversation that I didn’t hear where they kindly explained to him their offence at the usage, and made the effort to understand his choice of words.