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.

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 a lot of surprise when my answer is anything longer than a few months. With our protocols shifting over time, the length of time I answer may be longer or shorter, but the majority of our general principles now go back almost a year and a half.

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 area, 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 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 (hands still behind my back). 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.