On Refining Protocols

Our contract is almost due to be revisited, and I have a long list of notes on all the little things that have been changed verbally since the last revisit to edit in.  (The contract is meant to be a current understanding and communication tool upon revisits, not something unchangeable when Mistress wishes it.  Most of the benefit of the contract is I think honestly in the talking and drafting of those revisits; it’s not directly referenced often, action items incorporated into other systems.)  I noted how many of my notes weren’t new concepts entirely so much as refining of pre-existing ones.

For example, the set response protocol to permission grants and denials.  (Good in its simplicity for so many examples of protocol concepts—and yet, how much refining it needs…)  Thank you, Mistress.  Fine and good.  We’d already had a note in the contract about it not being necessary if the time needed to complete the action I’d asked permission for would be less than the time needed to say the phrase, smoothing out a potential longer interruption to conversation for a quick action (say, stretching my legs from my kneeling position while we’re chatting).  So not required, but allowed if it wouldn’t be disruptive.  Another note said to respond based on intention, not phrasing.  Mistress starts a decent number of orders every day with the phrase you may.  She’s not informing me I have permission to do the thing, she’s telling me to do it.  So I would use the set response to orders, not permissions.  Yes, Mistress.

We ran into two more mild conundrums around the same basic protocol.  

One: favors.  Something in asking a question along the lines of would you help me with this, please or may I borrow this, please invoked the same response to at least an affirmative answer, and sometimes a negative one.  It wasn’t really a permission.  Perhaps a privilege.  But intrinsically I felt like it fell under that protocol.  Nothing wrong with giving that answer even if it wasn’t, but knowing if it was required seemed like an important clarification, so I didn’t get lax on it as a nicety rather than a protocol.  

Two: restating permissions.  The general idea of: do I respond with this protocol to only the first permission grant, or every time it’s reiterated?  If it was a reminder of a standing permission or restricting rule, a confirmation one way or the other of a mildly questionable permission, a summary of multiple permissions recently given, does it count?  If it wasn’t news, was it truly a grant/denial, or was it a statement?  Again it intrinsically felt like it fell under this protocol, and again there was nothing wrong with answering it as such, but an important clarification on the requirement versus nicety issue.

So it was interesting to see how much more thought out each protocol becomes with time, even ones that sound so simple at their core.  I wrote a post on protocol once that I titled “The More Natural-Seeming the Dance, the More Thought-Out the Choreography”.  And I stand by that metaphor.  Strangely, the more elaborate our protocol is to explain, the smoother it looks (and feels to integrate) in practice.

“It’s interesting,” said a friend one afternoon, sitting in our living room at the time.  What we used as a living room then was an extension on the original house, and the kitchen had a wide doorway and an open window into the living room that used to be an actual window and exterior sliding door, leading to the rooms being highly connected.  Mistress was doing something in the kitchen.  I’d been in there with her and asked permission to go into the living room to sit down on the couch, which she’d granted, and I did.  Speaking from somewhat different rooms now, she said something poetic about me being free to wander around, at which point I said that I couldn’t really go that far, not beyond the living room or the kitchen.  

“Well, I guess not,” she agreed.  The explanation being that because after I’d asked permission to leave her presence in the kitchen, she’d engaged with me while I was in the living room, tying me back to being in her presence and therefore having the need for permission to leave, but now including the living room in that.  If she had been absorbed in what she was doing in the kitchen, not talking to me, the rooms would’ve been separate enough I would’ve been able to wander the house and sit on the furniture in the living room without permission.  But as she was engaged with me again, I would need permission to leave even if this was where I had initially asked permission to leave to.  Additionally, if I stood up, I’d need permission to sit back down again, unless she left further than the kitchen, or had been unengaged for some time.

“It’s interesting.” 

As a writer, I know that frequently (but not always) it is the more carefully planned scenes of interaction that have the best flow (or the type of flow you want at least, for a conversation between purposefully awkward characters), and that my impulsive 2 AM scribbles rarely progress as smoothly (or intended) as they did in my head, daydream montages skipping crucial transitions. Yes, there’s such a thing as over-planning, but I tend to think the author overexposed to their own work has a lower threshold for that than the actual reader.

In protocol, it might mean that writing out a protocol and the conditions and alternatives and whatnot might make it look like overkill even to me, but it feels natural and right in the moment, and writing it all out doesn’t leave me torn between a reasonable instinct and what’s in the contract. It is being the writer and the reader both, to be a part of clarifying conversations—if I don’t have the final say—and to live the results. It adds a deliberateness to the way we live our lives.

And in the end, I think carefully refining even a simple-sounding protocol is worthwhile. Rather than making it more complicated and mind-consuming in practice, it actually means you have to dedicate less thought to everyday protocols that are meant to be an augmentation of a dynamic, not a distraction from the moment. Rather than ponder if you’re making the right choice on something with it right then, you can rest assured that the decision was made in advance, and direct your attention to the human in front of you instead of semantics.

A lot of the refining happens when I run into such a question to ponder, and in the moment I err safely towards the letter of the contract (unless I feel like the spirit of it would really override it for Mistress in that situation). Frequently it passes without notice. Later, though, I usually find a time to ask about it and we clarify those conditions or conundrums. The first time I heard the phrase predicament protocol, at a class, I knew immediately what was meant. Sometimes when I do err towards the letter of the contract, Mistress notes it as odd, then notes it as a rule she technically set, and that’s how the conversation on conditions happens to make it smoother next time.

Our protocols are a corrigible list really, and the fulfillment of living those protocols gets to also include the fascination with making them as close to just right as we can.

Honorifics: A Fascination

I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with honorifics.

Maybe it’s my inner slave, maybe it’s my inner linguistics nerd, but I have.

Both of my parents actively disliked them.  If a cashier called my dad sir, he was known to say, “Nah, it’s man, bro, or dude.”  (And while a fairly masculine guy, he always had long hair, so he got called ma’am by plenty of people who only got a split second glance.) My mom just said it made her feel old but other than assuring excessive users that it wasn’t necessary, didn’t protest.  In any case, it didn’t come from my family.

I therefore called adults sir or ma’am sparingly, feeling awkward if I wasn’t sure if they held the same opinions as my parents, or on the other end of the spectrum, were going to be offended if I didn’t.  I must admit I got some kind of kick out of using the honorifics, though.

In eighth grade, I had just started at a new school and chosen to be an office aide during my elective period.  It was a busier and sometimes more chaotic role than I think I’d initially pictured, but it was a blast.

It was the second, maybe third week of school, and I’d just finished running some errands around the campus for one of the office administrators, of the sort whose official title no one’s ever sure of, but they sure do seem to cover a lot of areas.

I returned to his office to confirm, “Anything else I can do for you, sir?”

And he gave me this blank, jaw-half-open stare.

I just kind of stared back at him.  Had I forgotten some obvious other task he’d already assigned or something?

“Did you just call me sir?” he asked, sounding incredulous.

“… Yes…” I said, the ‘s’ a little too drawn out as I tried to decide if saying sir again was a good idea, deciding against it.

“I’ve worked at this school for twenty-five years and no one has ever called me sir.  That’s amazing.”  He seemed to snap out of his daze a bit.  “No, I don’t need anything else, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”  He smiled and I left.

Twenty-five years.  Don’t get me wrong, based on my experience with the sort of kids at that school, I believed it.  Still, it really went to show how that tiny gesture of respect made a huge difference to him.

I went through many kinds of schools (public, private, magnet, finally writing my own homeschooling curriculum, getting it approved by the school district, and graduating a year early). A private school I’d attended often had teachers addressed not as Ms. or Mr. (Last Name) but as Morah or Moreh (Last Name), the Hebrew word for “teacher”, and which language a teacher preferred often said something about their views on what they were there to teach. A favorite teacher of mine was a rabbi who was thus addressed as Rabbi (Last Name), and became offended when purposefully addressed by some other students as Mr. or Moreh, saying he “didn’t go to rabbinical school for nothing”. The titles obviously meant things to people, slightly different things, but they often held meaning.

So when I found honorifics and titles as a thing in kink, it tugged at me.

Mistress and I had talked about it very early on; she wanted to know my thoughts.  I determined that in my mind, Miss felt too diminutive to be my go-to for her.  Ma’am was fine, but very generic, something I could call many people by.  Mistress felt appropriately respectful, more personalized, and clearly had heavier M/s connotations.  She agreed.  That’s the title and honorific we went with, because it works for us.  Here meaning I use it both to refer to her, “(My) Mistress and I went to the store,” and to address her, “Yes, Mistress.”

In kink, of course, many people have thoughts on honorifics and titles in all kinds of directions.  But as said, my fascination with them started before I even had the right words for the feelings I would later know were a desire for slavery.

I think because even in the vanilla world, they do hold importance to many.  Almost funny how easily they set a tone, how one use of sir could endear a school administrator and one use of ma’am could have my mom wondering at her age.

As a writer, I latched onto that importance when I wrote fiction.  I’ve never written much erotica, so it was vanilla contexts in which I wrote honorific usage. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I thought about how they transcended times or universes.  Their usage in military and government settings amongst dystopian societies’ revolutions and wars; their usage in the office workplace of a grim future, with all kinds of power games being played on many orders of magnitude.

How telling they were.  One word could flip a reader’s perception when introducing a relationship between characters; in the right context, a certain usage of them could be enough to tell you who was speaking without dialogue tags; usage spread amongst characters could quickly indicate a more formal setting.

So when I found kink in the real world, my grasp of how telling, along with important, they could be came with me.

They seem fairly simple, but can be such a key thing in a dynamic.  I suppose my fascination has not faded.

Higher Protocol Levels: The More Natural-Seeming the Dance, the More Thought-Out the Choreography

Here’s the thing I see about the higher levels of protocol.

I think it’s a fairly common fantasy. Bits of it show in kink-associated things that are so common they’re practically a stereotype—kneeling, honorifics. It is featured in many of the works of fiction credited with drawing people into the real BDSM world. Assorted protocol questions abound on any power exchange forum.

Enjoying the idea of it is something I rarely see called odd in the kink world.

On the flip side…

When someone talks about wanting to actually live it in real life, they tend to get heavily questioned, warned “but reality is different” and “how can you just hang out with your partner that way” and phrases like “sub frenzy” tend to get thrown around, especially if they have already begun to pursue this desire. People who have already been living it for a long time are pointed to as special exceptions.

And granted, I think that a lot of people who talk about wanting higher protocol in real life do tend to balk when they’re actually exposed to it. Frankly though, I think that’s true about a lot things in power exchange. The classic example looks more like wanting to explore masochism and realizing “oh, whips really hurt in real life” and calling it quits on that idea after one testing stroke. But honestly, I see that less often than I see the same principle applied to things associated more with power exchange. I’ve seen more people do a 180 after real life exposure to washing dishes or actually being unequal than I have after their back meets a bullwhip.

In any case, one meets a lot of various forms of pushback when they say they want higher protocol (and protocol levels are admittedly extremely subjective).

A version of this that I’ve experienced (and it’s not unique to protocol necessarily) is mentioning a part of it in my relationship, and the first question back is very often, “And how long have you been doing this?”

There’s generally a lot of surprise at my answers.

This leads me to believe that sticking to higher levels of protocol is viewed with skepticism. No one is surprised when I say it’s something we’ve done, but they are surprised when it’s something that’s stuck over time. They expect it’ll be a short-lived venture. Something a lot of people try, few keep doing. The way many view New Year’s diets. Nothing surprising on January 1st, a lot more surprising on February 1st.

I think what helped us stick with things was keeping realism in mind without letting realism turn into cynicism. We were willing to problem solve, and unwilling to instantly drop big ideas.

An example: two of our longer-standing protocols were about my responses to things. Orders were answered with “Yes, Mistress” and granted permissions were answered with “Thank you, Mistress”.

I realized that problems with this actually happening that often were ongoing, and also that Mistress had never noticed. So I brought them up at our weekly check-in recently, along with one thing I thought may have been impacting it.

Mistress says things that are, as far as intention goes, orders, but are phrased like permissions. “You may get me coffee,” as she hands me her coffee cup, is an order. But the sentence starts with “you may”. So I asked—should I respond based on her phrasing, or her intention? In some examples, answering “Yes, Mistress” to something that starts with “you may” seems not quite right, but she’s definitely giving an order.

She told me to respond based on her intention, and we kind of pondered times with more rapid-fire orders, and I pointed out that some permissions were for things that didn’t take very long to complete, either. Sometimes responding was just impractical on the level that in the time for me to respond, I could have already done the task.

I came up with an idea, which she approved: if I can in some way complete the order or thing I’ve been given permission to do faster than I can respond, I don’t have to respond. This eliminated a lot of problem areas, as I was already a lot better at responding to more time-significant orders or permissions.

As an example, a different protocol is that when I’m in Mistress’ presence and not standing for some reason, I kneel on the floor next to her with my knees apart and my hands behind my back, and I have to ask permission if I want to sit on the furniture or, more commonly, assume a more comfortable position on the floor. This means that most of the time I’m conscious and in the same room as her for longer than my leg circulation lasts while kneeling, I ask her if I can shift positions on the floor. I can shift my weight faster than I can say, “Thank you, Mistress” and it disrupts the conversation for a shorter period of time. Similarly, if I respond “Yes, Mistress” every time she tells me to shift position during an impact scene, there are times I probably can’t do it fast enough.

I was thinking about choreography at one point in relation to theater, and how in some cases, the more you want it to look like the characters are authentically improvising, the more careful the choreography has to be. And in writing—sometimes, the better the script, the less the lines sound like they’re from a script.

I think the same goes for protocol sometimes: the more natural you want it to feel or seem, the more thoroughly it has to be thought out.

And how you want it to feel can be an important consideration.

There are different types, not just levels, of protocol—leather, Gor, pets, etc. How does the Master want to feel, how do they want the slave to feel? Should the slave feel lovingly valued, humbly degraded, cheerfully useful? How do they both react to styles, levels, and specifics of protocol? One person’s source of humiliation is another’s source of pride, and vice versa. I would say our M/s protocol style is mostly based around my feeling deferential and subservient, her feeling respected and important.

The examples I gave above, for instance, indicate those feelings through my kneeling on the floor (physically below her, a classic posture of submission), honorifics (a typical gesture of respect and indication of status), thanking her for permissions (rather than anything implying an assumption of them being granted), etc. Another example would be that I need to obtain her permission before I leave her presence—an acknowledgement that my time is not my own.

Protocol needs to be carefully crafted to create the right emotions—like choreography. I do think that “realism without cynicism” is key. Continuous problem solving and dedication to improvement rarely hurt in any department—but in protocol they are truly essential.