Waking Up Your Speaking on the Phone
How should I speak on the phone?
I watched a very animated woman on her mobile phone on the train a few days ago. She was gesticulating with her hands and her voice. We could all hear her. She was completely unaware of her sound volume and of others on the train watching her. She was the loudest and most animated person in our carriage. And yet, of all of us, she appeared to me to be this: the most asleep of us all. She seemed to be locked into a conversation. Her voice tones in her responses to the other person on the phone sounded forced, cliched and robotic. It felt like she was playing a part and that she had no idea she was doing so. I felt: she has this type of conversation a lot. It might vary in content, but the responses are a repetition, not free and she’s kind of sleeping through it. Perhaps every day. When she stopped the call, she looked a bit bemused and drained. It was a sleep that doesn’t refresh. Actually, during and after she looked a bit like a zombie.
A very simple exercise is this: when answering the phone to someone you know, take a brief moment – either whilst the phone is ringing if you recognise the number, or in the few moments of greeting – to picture the person you are talking to’s face. Just hold it there, briefly in your imagination (it won’t help if their picture automatically comes up on the phone screen!) and then begin your conversation. If it is a long call try to occasionally reconnect in your imagination with that picture. The aim is to stay awake to whom you are actually speaking. Speaking only to a disembodied voice dulls the consciousness to the physical reality of the other human soul. It plunges you into disembodied content. Picturing the person creates a little act of conscious will and will keep you a little more awake during the conversation. At the end of the call, after saying goodbye, pause for a moment, look at the phone, and then call the image of the person you have been speaking to into your imagination once more. When you next see that person physically you might also want to bring that image to mind and to see how accurate or distorted it was, correcting the image in your mind gently.
A small variation on this is also to imagine the person’s mannerisms. Also it can help to remain anchored in physicality to share with each other exactly where you are physically during the conversation. “I’m sitting in a noisy cafe surrounded by garish yellow wallpaper” or “I’m on a rather crowded train so it isn’t private as we are talking”. Physical descriptions also contribute towards staying “awake” during a mobile call. They root the disembodied nature of the medium back into the very physical reality of location.
Now, let me appear to contradict myself with a different exercise. Again, you can try this on a voice call on your phone with someone you know, or even someone you don’t. In this exercise, there’s no need to call forth an image of the other person at all. Here we try to enter with attention into the quality of their voice. Listen to their voice as they are speaking and simply enjoy the quality of it, becoming a kind of sensing mechanism for it. Enter with interest in the tone and the clarity, and let the “gestures” in the way they are speaking work upon you. The idea is to move beyond just the content and allow quality to work upon you. Remember that this quality is being rendered digitally in ones and zeros so it is your own inner activity that is allowing you to experience the quality of it – you are the person putting the ones and zeros together and creating the sound picture that has meaning for you, especially if you stay conscious in your attention to, not just the words, but also the people speaking them.
You might find the quality of the voice calls forth responses in your own emotional landscape. Even pictures might arise in you, even urges to “react”. Try not to lose the meaning of the content of what the other person is saying. It can be a real skill and require a bit of will power on your part to be able to both hear AND listen at the same time. I believe that one of the real secrets of staying awake when using digitally based audio tools such as phones involves being able to gently and calmly but consistently listen and hear at the same time – to take in content and also to experience the human behind the content, simplified into ones and zeros, the binary constructed world of digital media. Hearing only the words can become a technical, cold thing, and our emotional responses and will impulses then come after the fact, often diluted and confused as they overlap with the words we have heard (people often talk and type quickly when using digital media). Being able to allow both content and deeper emotion and intention to work upon us in the same way as music can do when we are listening to it, allows us to stay aware and conscious on much deeper levels, closer to our own will force. We then respond more openly and freely to what we are hearing. We can also enjoy the fuller range and depth of the communication.
As you develop your practice of this exercise you might also try bringing your attention to bear on your own voice. How do you sound in relation to this person you are speaking with? Is it different to other conversations? Is it revealing anything about your current emotional state, your level of alertness or tiredness? Again you might only do this for a few seconds, just to create a moment of detachment and self-aware “awakeness”.
Often what you gain in efficiency using digital technologies you lose in deeper quality. You enter the word of either-or, of ones and zeros, often dressed in complex ways up as quality (like a pixelated photo compared to the infinity of watercolour brush strokes) but you lose pure improvisational spontaneity and a more telling freedom that comes from either-and, from gorgeous messiness, from fuzzy logic and creativity born of experience rather than stimulus-response. Don’t trade speed for richness. Don’t exchange ones and zeros for infinity. You can enjoy both.