Em Flynn, Hess Sakal and Jack Dawkins, 2013 (Updated July 2023)
This is intended to be a replacement and expansion of the earlier ‘Plural Etiquette’ and ‘Rules of Engagement’ articles published in 2007.
Getting to know a plural system can mean unlearning certain social habits and picking up new ones. We understand that it can be difficult to get used to, so we’ve written this guide for newbies. We can’t pretend to speak for other groups, but this is what works for us. Your mileage may vary, based on your own experience and comfort level – we expect that other medium-sized, highly individualised systems will benefit the most from this article.
Important things to keep in mind
We understand that people make mistakes, especially after a system comes out. Most of the time, people get things right after a few reminders. If they don’t, it’s time for us to re-evaluate the relationship.
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, of course. If someone thinks that your question is inappropriate, they’ll just tell you. It’s better to ask than to cause offence!
Use the names people prefer.
We all have our own names that are distinct both from the system name and our government name. If you need to get hold of someone, just use their name as you would with anyone else.
If you need to know who’s around, just ask! We’ll usually let you know anyway. In person, you may hear our voices change if we’re talking to you in private. Online, we usually sign our comments or mark our responses in texts and DMs.
Here are some blunders, at least from our perspective:
- Constantly using our government name even though you’ve known we were plural for years and we’ve interacted with you as separate people. Our government name is like a username – it’s a convenience for people who don’t know we’re plural. If you do know we’re plural, use our system name if you’re interacting with us in private. When you insist on using our government name, you imply that the front persona is the ‘real one’, and that we don’t really exist as individuals. Even if it’s an oversight, it can raise suspicion.
- Refusing to use individual names at all. Some systems are OK 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’re like us and have more than one person around at a time.
(Admittedly, it’s rare for us to correct these blunders for people we know offline. Online, though, we will probably say something.)
You should also use the pronouns (he, she, they, etc) individuals prefer. We use they collectively, but each system member uses different pronouns to refer to themselves. Most of us are men, so ‘he’ is the most likely one. Em (they) and Lilly (she) are exceptions.
Respect system members’ individuality.
We are not interchangeable. 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. Although there are some areas where most of us do agree (we’d never vote Republican, for example), 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 Jack, you need to resolve it with him, not with Hess, Lilly or Richard. If you have a problem with something Lilly said, talk to her about it, not Jamie or Yavari.
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. At the same time, though, it’s rude to act as though the rest of us don’t exist. Sometimes the situation can be more complicated, though. Yavari used to go by the name we were using in singlet mode at the time. When we came out as plural, people thought that he was the only one of us they knew, even though a lot of us had interacted with them before we uncloseted. They eventually did get it, but we had to make it really clear to them that they were interacting with a composite. Even if you did know only 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 have a lingering belief that the first person they spoke to in the group is the ‘real one’. If you were talking to any of us for an extended period of time, you’d be convinced that they were the ‘real one’. It’s especially frustrating when people call on the apparent ‘real one’ because they expect them to be more reasonable than the other system-members. We suspect that’s because they see us as imaginary characters, outgrowths of the ‘real one’, or entities that should neither be seen nor heard. We are all the real ones.
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 people, system members, group members or headmates. Insiders is all right, but we don’t typically use it. We’ll be understanding if you’re new to plurality and use words such as alters, but if you keep doing it, we’ll tell you to stop. This is not an indictment on systems who do use words like alters, but it’s not our preference.
Don’t treat us as though we’re two-dimensional aspects.
We’re not personality archetypes; we’re fully realised people. There’s no scared little, Fifi the Slut, protector or persecutor. (And definitely no Evil Demon Alters™.)
Don’t treat us like role-play characters.
We’re not role-playing. Most people understand that we’re not role-playing after having talked to us, but there is a stereotype of plural systems as live-action role-players taking their stories to the next level.