The Etiquette of Unexpected Encounters

There was a story shared…somewhere on the internet, I don’t remember where. Someone’s sister called them up freaking out. Insisting they had to cancel the wedding because the sister had seen the poster’s fiance kissing someone else.

This particular story had a happy ending–the poster laughed it off and told their sister “we’re poly.” But the story also illustrates the way unexpectedly running into members of our polycules (or members of our polycules families) in public can be a social minefield.

Types of Unexpected Encounters

There are three types of unexpected encounters:

  • Running into one of your poly partners unexpectedly (with or without other poly partners.)
  • Running into one of your poly partners when you or they are with someone who is not part of your polycule.
  • Running into a family member or friend of one of your poly partners while you are with a different member of your polycule.

We’ll be looking at each of these in turn. First, here are a few things that applies in all three situations.

Know if People are Out of Not

Whether or not a poly partner is out has a huge impact on the etiquette of unexpected encounters. B3eing in the closet makes unexpected encounters both a lot more complicated and potentially damaging. Being out means they may be awkward, but probably won’t be any worse than that.

Know How Members of your Polycule Feel about Public Displays of Affection (PDA)s

Whether or not your partner is out, giving them a big hug and kiss if you bump into them in the supermarket may not make their day. There are a lot of reasons folks may want to avoid PDAs, from general discomfort to fear of outing themselves. What their reason for liking or not liking PDAs is doesn’t matter–what matters is that you respect their preference.

Know Their “Public” Name and Gender

People can be in the closet about more than their relationships. You need to know how they present themselves in public and how they want to be addressed when away from safe spaces.

If You Need to Assume…

If you run into someone and don’t know any of these things, play it safe. Assume they aren’t out. Assume they don’t like PDAs. If possible, quietly check what name and gender they are using at the moment. If it isn’t possible, speak generically, “Hey it’s good to see you!” until they are able to clue you in.

Next week we’ll look at the etiquette for bumping into your poly partners (and other members of your polycule) when you least expect it.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Introducing Your Polyamory Partners and Metamours

Introductions are fairly universal. You bring person A over to Person B and you say “Person B, I’d like to introduce Person A” or some variation on that theme. In a social situation, it can be good to add something about the person. “Person A is a big Star Trek fan.” Try to make this something that will give the two something to talk about.


When introducing someone it is “proper” to give both their full name and their title or relationship with you. So a “proper” introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Francene Brook. Fran, this is my mother, Wanda Stiles.

Keep in mind, however, that poly etiquette is based not on propriety, but on honesty and respect. Not everyone likes their given name, not everyone wants their family name to be known, and many people have chosen names they prefer to use. Part of respect is introducing people by the names they want to be known by. So a poly introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Fran. Fran, this is my mother, Mrs. S.

In formal situations, for instance at a work event, you are better off giving everyone’s full name. Having your boss think you are being disrespectful generally goes under the category of a Bad Thing. However, you can still respect people’s name preference by saying something like:

Mr. Jones, this is my partner Francene Brook. She goes by Fran.

Describing Relationships

It’s usually a good idea to include relationships in you introductions so people know what kind of social situation you are in. Your mother’s interactions with your boss are going to be very different from your mother’s interactions with your poly partners. For one thing, your mother probably won’t be tempted to show your baby pictures to someone from work. (Or you can hope anyway.)

Not giving people an idea of the relationships involved can lead to awkward social situations. It is slightly more respectful to include those relationships to help people avoid that awkwardness. However, you should not feel like you need to give a relationship with everyone you introduce. There is nothing wrong with saying:

Mom, this is Fran. Fran, this is Mrs. S.

If you do describe your relationships, try to use terms that the people you are introducing identify as. Your mother is probably comfortable being introduced as your mother. But Fran may prefer to identify as your girlfriend, you SO, you fiance, or your friend.

Similarly, Steve, who is dating Fran, may prefer to be introduced as your metamour, Fran’s OSO, Fran’s boyfriend, a friend, or something else.

Order of Introductions

If you are introducing several people from your polycule the formal approach would be to introduce them in order of entwinement:

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. She’s another stitch witch. And this is Fran’s boyfriend Steve. He’s the one to talk to if you want to know about film production. Fran, Steve, this is my mother Mrs. S.

If everyone is equally entwined or in informal situations, just go from left to right (or right to left, depending on which direction your language reads in.)

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. Next to Fran is her boyfriend, Steve. And on the other side of Steve is my partner Nick.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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The First Rule of Polyamory Etiquette: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Next week we’ll start on tips and guidelines for dealing with specific situations. For now, I want to address an important point that is more important than anything else I will say about etiquette.

When it comes to social situations involving your poly partners, or their poly partners, don’t be afraid to ask.

  • “How would you like me to introduce you to people?”
  • “How do you feel about PDAs?”
  • “I know you’re partly in the closet. If I run into you around town is it okay for me to say hi?”

If you know there are situations you are likely to run into, ask ahead of time. You won’t be able to prepare for everything, but be prepared for what you can. It will make life easier and seriously reduce your social stress quotient.

The Building Blocks of Polyamory Etiquette

As I said last week, etiquette is basically the customary way people interact. While etiquette experts can lay down “rules” for the socially inept, these “rules” change all the time as culture and society change.

All customs are based on some part of the culture they spring from. This includes etiquette. In the US today, the key concept is equality. Basic everyday etiquette is built around the idea that everyone is equal. This is why in the movie Titanic we liked Molly Brown, who doesn’t look down on Jack. Unfortunately (in my opinion), this focus on equality has evolved into a need for same-ness. Drawing attention to another person’s differences is among the heights of rudeness–a custom which baffles many immigrants and international visitors.

According to pop culture, propriety was the key to etiquette in Victorian England. Anything could be done as long as it was done properly. A similar concept from Japan is on or face. In the shogunates of Japan all interactions were built around not damaging each others face.

If polyamory has a culture (and we certainly seem to be developing a sub-culture of our own) then I would say the key concepts are honesty and respect. These will be the building blocks of poly etiquette. In all situations, the question we try to answer is “How do I negotiate this social interaction with honesty and respect for all involved?”

Poly Etiquette in the Closet

The wider society we live in forces many of us to be “in the closet” about our relationships. As many poly folk have found over the years, keeping our relationships secret is in direct conflict with the open and honest values enshrined in polyamory. While the ideal of poly etiquette may be based on honesty, sometimes ideals need to be set aside for the protection of ourselves or others. When honesty is not possible, we must fall back on respect. Respect for the wishes of our poly partners, respect for the people we are dealing with, and respect most of all for ourselves.

Some would say that lying is inherently disrespectful to all involved. There is some truth in that. But needing to lie to someone does not prevent us from respecting them as a person.

Until society changes so it is safe for all poly folk to be open about our relationships, we will not always be able to be honest with those around us. We can still be honest whenever honesty won’t endanger ourselves or others, and we can still be respectful of the people we interact with.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

The Polyamory Etiquette Guide

Time for a new topic*, and this one is a doozy. We’re going to be talking about polyamory etiquette. Basic courtesy is always in fashion, but a lot of the cultural customs go flying out the window when you introduce new types of relationships. And etiquette is basically cultural customs for dealing with other people. For some reason, Emily Post never covered etiquette for non-monogamy. I’m going to attempt to fill her shoes.

Why Do We Need a Polyamory Etiquette Guide?

For folks who are socially adept, a lot of what I’ll be covering here will be obvious or easy to figure out on your own. I’m not socially adept, which is one reason I loved etiquette guides growing up. Clearly detailed instructions for every imaginable social situation so I didn’t need to worry about making a fool out of myself before I even said “Hello.” Unfortunately, etiquette guides had fallen out of fashion in the US. Most of what I read was 30-50 years out of date.

For those of us who struggle with social situations questions like “How do I introduce my partner’s other partner to my partners?” or (I ran into this one recently) “Who in my family is this invitation meant to include?” can be difficult to deal with–especially when the situation comes at us on the fly.

Why Is Someone Who Admits to Being Social Inept Writing an Etiquette Guide?

Folks who are socially adept don’t think about what they do. They learned the rules on a subconscious level. After a couple of decades studying the rules of social interactions, I can explain how that shit works better than people who handle social situations 10 times better than I do. And as the folks I met at Poly Living last month can attest, I’ve done a fairly good job of putting my learning into practice. New social situations still throw me, but give me some time to think it through later, and I’ll figure it out.

There Are No Rules

This blog series is intended as a guide, not a rulebook. Take what works for you, ignore what doesn’t, and share your own variations in the comments.

I usually try to keep my writing as universally applicable as possible. Unfortunately, this topic will of necessity be very US-centric. Etiquette is, as I said before, a custom, and customs vary insanely both between countries and within countries.

*As promised, I will be picking up mental illness again soon. Safe Sex and STIs will be wrapping up in the next few weeks. After that, I’ll be slotting Polyamory and Mental Illness in on Sundays.

Polyamory Etiquette Blog Posts

The Building Blocks of Polyamory Etiquette
The First Rule of Polyamory Etiquette: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Introducing Your Polyamory Partners and Metamours
The Etiquette of Unexpected Encounters
href=”” target=”_blank”>Etiquette for Polyamory Partners and Children
Running into a Poly Partner in Public

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