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.