Why the Tech Industry Should Adopt the Language of Polyamory

If, like me, you pay attention to writers like Dan Savage and generally keep up with pop culture, the concept of should have come to your attention in the past few years. If, like me, you are curious about new ideas, you may have read the books that Dan Savage referred to in his writings, such as Sex at Dawn, The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and More than Two. These books, along with a variety of web sites describe what is happening with the emerging practice of polyamory.

Polyamory, means having many loving relationships at the same time. There are many styles and ways of being a poly person: a solo, a poly couple, a V, triad, W, or a polyfidelitous community. As you would expect with any type of relationship, the form of the relationship does little to change the human condition. Poly relationships, just like any others, are plagued with jealousy, betrayal, power struggles, and longing for more fulfillment. And like all other relationships, they can be fountains of love, happiness, contentment, and joy.

But one hallmark of the poly world is an emphasis on high quality communication and ethics. On the most active forum I’ve found, www.polyamory.com, there are lengthy discussions of all sorts of issues, often brilliantly written. The site is made continually interesting by the participation of a group of poly elders — in the sense of wisdom, not age — who address questions from a variety of points of view. Like any Internet forum, there is some trash talk and obvious trolling at times, but it is a site of enduring quality, much like Slashdot in the tech world.

What’s Tech Got to Do with Poly?

It’s time for the tech world to learn from the discoveries of the poly world about how to describe relationships. Relationships in the tech world are often between companies or groups of companies. Most of the time they are multidimensional. They often mimic the patterns that have developed in the poly world, and the language of the poly word is superior to the language used in the tech world.

I first realized this when I thought about how companies often describe themselves as agnostic with respect to another technology. For example, an analytics company might say they are database agnostic, meaning they support any database.

But this is a clunky adaptation of the word agnostic, which means that you choose not to believe. An agnostic doesn’t believe in this god or that god, but chooses not to express a belief. This is not what the analytics company means to say.

A far better word is to say that the analytics company is polyamorous with respect to databases. They love all databases and want to have a good relationship with every single one of them.

Much of the coverage of the polyamorous world highlights young people who have lots of relationships even while being engaged or married. Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag, is a poly person who has been the focus of some of this coverage. The excitement about the idea of having lots of lovers leads some to the incorrect perception that polyamorous people just sleep around indiscriminately. From what I have read, this is not the case. Poly people seem to be seeking a real sense of connection. In this sense, perhaps the analytics company is not exactly polyamorous. The analytics company probably would have a relationship with any database, while poly people don’t just have relationships with anyone who comes along. So while the fit is not perfect, it is far better than the fit with the world agnostic.

My first recommendation to marketers, who after all, are the ones who name everything about what happens at a company, is to use the word polyamorous to describe your relationship to a technology category where you want to work with all comers.

If you want to have some fun, when someone says they are agnostic about a category ask them, “So you don’t believe in any of that type of technology?” They will protest and respond, “No, we actually believe in all of them. We want to work with them all.” You can then gently explain that what they really mean is that they are polyamorous toward that category.

What Other Words Can the Tech Industry Borrow From Polyamory?

Adopting the world polyamory is just the beginning. The language of polyamory was developed as a specialized terminology to describe new structures for relationships and new feelings that arise in these structures. Here are some of the other terms that might be of use.

New Relationship Energy and Limerence: New Relationship Energy (NRE), a term used in and outside of the poly community, refers to that magical feeling we often have at the beginning of a relationship. Limerence, from the world of psychology but often used in poly discussions, describes the same sort of obsession and overwhelming feelings for another person.

Suggested usage:

  • “You shouldn’t be spending marketing dollars supporting that partner. There is not enough revenue there. I think you are suffering from NRE here.”
  • “Enough with the limerence about the LinkedIn campaign. We have twenty other programs going now. Stop being obsessed.”

Compersion: Compersion is a word invented by the poly community to express the sense of joy and happiness you get when one of your partners is really having a good experience with someone else. It is sort of the opposite of schadenfreude, which means joy at the misfortune of others.

Suggested usage:

  • “I never expected that systems integrator to make that project work with that client. They have always been really hard to work with, but I have to admit I’m feeling a strong jolt of compersion right now.”

Primary and Secondary: Primary and secondary are used to describe the level of priority that different partners have in a poly relationship involving many people. In some relationships one person, the hinge, is in a relationship with two people who are not involved. This is a V, and in this case the non-involved partners can both be primaries or one can be a secondary. Some people in the poly community, particular practitioners of solo polyamory, detest the idea of primary and secondary. Who wants to be a secondary? This group prefers that every relationship grow and evolve on its own terms and not be limited by labels.

Suggested usage:

  • “I am only interested in this deal if we are going to be primaries with respect to the execution. I am not wasting marketing development funds on you if we are going to play secondary to the company you are already working with. We want the best effort you have to offer.”

Poly Relationship Styles: There are many different forms of polyamory and a growing number of terms used to describe them. Solo polyamory refers to someone who seeks out multiple relationships but is not looking to have any of them “go somewhere” or become deeply bonded to the exclusion of others. Polyfidelity refers to a group of people who have committed to being in relationships inside of the community. There are a variety of other terms that may be used to describe poly or open relationships. Whether practitioners of each of these forms are poly is often debated, but such terms include partnered non-monogamy, mono/poly combinations, and swinging, which most people exclude from the realm of poly because it is not focused on continuing relationships.

Suggested usage:

  • “You need to decide if we are going to commit to the partners we have and really make everything work with them. I want to be polyfidelitous here. I want to commit to them and have them commit to us. If we start swinging we are not going to get anything out of the partnerships we are looking for. We will have too many and nothing will happen.”

I understand that the idea of polyamory makes different groups of people uncomfortable. But I don’t think that this will last forever. In the meantime, I think marketers should use the words from the poly dictionary, not only because they say what we are trying to say, but because it’s fun.


Also published on Medium.