The words that we use

Learn about why the words that we use matter so much

Words in themselves are meaningless. They are vibrations caused by puffs of air coming out of our lungs. However, because of context, words are powerful.

It's easy to know how you intend your words to come across, but it's difficult to know how others perceive your words. What we say is strongly tempered by our experiences in life, our cultural norms, and our primary natural language. At Exercism, we believe it's better to choose words that are clear and unambiguous across cultures and, where possible, across natural languages. This means being careful when using metaphors, acronyms or phrases that might only be understandable to someone from a specific background or with specific knowledge. It also means being open to learning about how people from different cultures might misunderstand your intentions, and changing the words you use accordingly.

One example is that within Exercism we ask people not to use the word "guys". While in many places the word "guys" can refer to a group of people irrespective of gender, in many other places it explicitly means "men". So, regardless of the intention of the speaker, a person from that cultural background hearing the word "guys" understands the speaker to be only addressing men and, if they are not male, feels excluded. In tech, where men are in the strong majority, this adds yet another sense of negativity and exclusion to everyone else.

At first, many people find this rule to be pedantic or irrational, as they are clear in their intentions to not exclude anyone. However, when guided by the principle of communicating in a way that is clear and unambiguous, and driven by the desire to be kind to others in the community, it becomes clear that the word "guys" does not necessarily convey the intended meaning to everyone, and so they choose to use clearer words.


Our co-founder, Jeremy, is from the UK, where the British dictionary explicitly states that "guys" is a gender neutral word. In real life, he commonly addresses groups of women using the word "guys". However, in an international setting such as conferences, or within a multi-national platform such as Exercism, he would choose to use a clearer word such as "folks" (or occasionally y'all when he's feeling particularly Texan). As such, there is no judgement about whether the word "guys" should mean one thing or another or is good or bad, purely that the usage of the word should change with context.

You don't know what you don't know

Just as it is important to say the right things, it is equally important to understand that people who cause offense might have had no intention to do so. Cultural differences mean that people often say things that would be clear to them and their friends to mean one thing, but mean something entirely different to you. Language barriers mean that non-native speakers may use words that don't translate as well as they hope. In those situations, give the person the benefit of the doubt. It is always best to presume that someone is acting with the intentions of being clear and kind, and that they are unaware of how their words will affect others. It's easy to not know something will cause offense and accidentally say the wrong thing.

The important thing is not the mistake, it is the learning and the change that comes from it. So if someone says something that you feel is offensive, and you feel comfortable doing so, feel free to tell them. And if someone tells you you've said something that is offensive to them, believe them, edit your message to remove or change the relevant text, and embrace the experience of learning more about that other culture, and extending your communication skills to not cause offense in future.

The beauty of Exercism is about making mistakes and learning from them. Exercism is brilliant at helping with that through mentoring, but it's also brilliant at introducing you to new ideas and information through our huge multinational community. Embrace it!