Rules of Engagement: Plural Etiquette

by Em Flynn, Hess Sakal and Kerry Dawkins, 2013

This is intended to be a replacement and expansion of the earlier ‘Plural Etiquette’ and ‘Rules of Engagement’ articles published in 2007.

Introduction
So, you’ve finally met an actual plural group somewhere, and you want to learn how to relate to them? We can’t pretend to speak for other groups, but we will speak from our own experiences as someone in a plural group. Most of this article was inspired by things that have happened to us in the past. This is written from our perspective, and will probably be most helpful for systems who are structured similarly to ours (highly individualised, medium-sized systems). Your mileage may vary, based on your own experience and comfort level. This may not fit some other systems, like medians or those who are more comfortable with their public face.

Important things to keep in mind
Sometimes people make mistakes by accident, especially after a system comes out. These things happen, and it takes some getting used to. Most of the time, if people make mistakes, they don’t intend to cause trouble. That’s been the case in our experience. However, if people repeatedly offend you, it’s probably time to bring it up with them before the relationship gets too tense. Choose your battles wisely. Sometimes the right answer is to keep prompting people. Sometimes it’s best to just take things in your stride. Sometimes the relationship gets toxic enough that you just might have to pull back on it. Use your best judgement.

If you’re curious, just ask. 
If you’re new to a particular concept, you’re bound to have questions. People here understand that, and are willing to answer questions, within reason. If someone thinks your question is inappropriate, they’ll just tell you. Better to ask than to cause offence!

Use the names people prefer. 
To me, this is basic respect. Unfortunately, there are people who just can’t get this.

All of us have individual names. If you know who you’re talking to and need to address an individual, use their name. It can be pretty obvious stuff when dealing with nonplurals, but this sometimes seems to confuse newbies. If you want to know specifically who is around, just ask. We’ll give you indicators, but if you have a hard time identifying those indicators (our primary in-person cues are auditory, and online, we tend to sign comments or mark our text in instant messages), we will be glad to clarify.

Here are some obvious blunders, at least from our perspective:

  • Writing private emails addressed to the name on our ID after you’ve known they were plural for years. If you want to address our entire system, use our system name. Using the name on our ID when you don’t have to implies that you don’t actually regard us as people, and we find it really annoying, bordering on offensive, if you know we’re plural and aren’t trying to keep up appearances in public. Even if it’s an oversight, it can raise suspicion.
  • Insisting on using the name on our ID because you’re ‘addressing us collectively’. (If you want to use a collective name, use our system name if you’re not sure who’s out.)
  • Refusing to use individual names at all. Some systems are okay with using the system name as a general catch-all. We’re fine with people using ours (or saying stuff like ‘hey guys’) if they’re not sure who’s around. Sometimes that’s hard, especially when you function like us and have more than one person around at a given time.

Doing any of these things will probably annoy people here, at the very least. We’ll correct you the first couple times you make one of these mistakes, but admittedly, it will try our patience.

Relatedly, you should also use the pronouns (he, she, they, etc) individuals prefer. Collectively, we use the ‘they’ pronoun. Individuals have their own pronoun preferences.

Respect system members’ individuality. 
While a lot of us have close relationships, we’re not the same person. Don’t act as though we have identical interests, opinions or ways of doing things. We’re separate people, and we’d prefer if you honoured that. It makes us kind of uncomfortable when people conflate us all as though we’re ‘really’ the same person. (Acting as though we have the same opinions is especially frustrating. While there are some areas where most of us do agree – for instance, we are highly unlikely to vote for conservative candidates – there are many more where we disagree.)

This applies to conflicts too, especially if you happen to have a dispute with one or two individual people in a system. If you’re upset with Kerry, take it up with them, not with Hess, not with Richard, not with Em. If you have a problem with something Darwin said, tell her, don’t start in on James or Yavari or whoever. While we do have some shared responsibility, for the most part, we’d prefer to be treated as individuals if someone specifically upset you.

If you met someone in a system first, don’t marginalise other members of the system. 
You don’t have to be best friends with everyone within a system. They’re different people, and it’d be silly to expect that. There are some folks who get along better with some people than others. At the same time, though, it’s not exactly polite to act as though those other people don’t exist. Sometimes the situation can be more complicated, though. For us, we had a system member who went by the same name we were all collectively going by to nonplurals. When we came out as plural, some people thought that they ‘only knew him’ and were more hesitant to talk to other people in the system, even though they had spoken to them before we came out. They eventually did get it, but we had to make it really clear to them. It’s kind of rude to assume that you should not speak to anyone else in the system besides the person you thought you talked to, because in many cases, plurals will present as a singlet under a particular name, and you may have been dealing with a composite. That’s what happened with us. Even if you did only know one person in the group, isn’t it polite to at least be friendly and civil to your friend’s family members or housemates if they were in a separate body?

Don’t ask for ‘the real one’.
This often occurs when people who knew someone in a group before they revealed that they were a group, and often, they still have some lingering belief that the first person they spoke to in the group is the ‘real one’, or that that person is the only one you know. That’s quite untrue. I mean, if you were talking to any of us for an extended period of time, you’d be convinced that they were the real one, not just the one that you were talking to. Even more frustrating is when people ask to talk to the first one they talked to because they assume that that person will be more reasonable than the other people. I guess that’s because they see us as just imaginary characters, or products of the ‘original person’s’ delusions, or are just subsidiary ‘alternate personalities’.

Also, there’s no ‘real person with the body name’ lurking behind all of us. There’s just, well, us.

Use our preferred terms. If you’re not sure, ask! 
We do not use the words ‘alter’, ‘personality’, ‘part’, ‘persona’, ‘fragment’ or ‘ego state’. We prefer ‘person/people’, ‘system/group member’ or ‘headmate’. Newbies more familiar with classic medicalised terms may use these words, and people here tend to be patient about it if they’re just finding out about it, but if you repeatedly call us alters or something, we’ll call you out on it. This is not an indictment of systems who do use terms like ‘alters’; there are groups we’re friendly with who use terms like this, but it’s just not our preference.

Don’t treat us as though we’re one-dimensional ‘aspects’. 
We’re people, not one-dimensional fragments. We don’t represent certain ‘aspects of personality’; we’re fully realised people, with their own complications and facets. There’s no ‘scared little’, ‘sex alter’, ‘protector alter’ or ‘persecutor alter’. (And definitely no Evil Demon Alter™.)

Don’t treat us like roleplay characters. 
We’re not roleplaying. While most people  understand that we’re not roleplaying characters after having met us, there is a stereotype that plural systems that don’t ascribe to the classic medical model are all roleplayers taking it to the next level.