In her novel Dreams of Speaking (2005 Age Book of the Year Award), Gail Jones introduces us to Mr Sakamoto, a Japanese survivor of Hiroshima. Intelligent and urbane, he’s also an expert on Alexander Graham Bell, the pioneering engineer credited with inventing the telephone.
Mr Sakamoto’s fascination with Bell began with his own personal experiences of the phone and, from the narrative, it’s clear that the deeply personal interactions that Sakamoto enjoyed over the wires actually kept him sane during some of the darker moments of his life.
Without giving away what is a wonderful story, Ms Jones engages the reader with aspects of that priceless medium of human contact, the voice. But, in this case, it’s not the voice heard face-to-face that fascinates. It’s the voice on the other end of the phone. When whispered, murmured, and sighed, Mr Sakamoto suggests that words on the phone take on subtle nuances and inflections of shared confidentialities that wouldn’t occur face-to-face.
Today, satellites and fibre optics are replacing copper cable, and mobiles and VoIP are replacing the traditional dial phone. What remains, however, is the physical separation of conversationalists, a void waiting to be filled by the vibrating elements of speech and the rich and personal timbres of the voice.
I find face-to-face and phone discussions each have their own merits. But the phone does dispense with many of the constraints we must observe in a physical encounter, particularly between strangers. There is no body language to distract from the way something is said, no background noises to blur or conceal a nuance, no social behaviours or appearances to misjudge, and every reason to deeply engage one’s senses in an effort to fully comprehend the message in the voice.
Sometimes my work involves encouraging a client to think through an experience, to relive it, and ride a few bumps in the process. In those extremely sensitive moments, the phone is a tangible thing to hang onto. And not so much as a grip of abject terror, but more of a support as the emotions flow and ebb with the memories.
On the phone, comfortable, respectful, or reflective silences become part of a deeper conversation. One can almost hear the client’s thought processes, and it feels perfectly natural and unobtrusive to respond with ah, or hmm, just to let them know I’m there. Even the hum from the ether seems perfectly in tune with the moment.