I sometimes use online technology when I speak to clients. Something like Skype, I believe, which is secure. But I only use it rarely. It’s similar with the telephone, which I use when I have to.
Screen-based communication and telephone calls offer particular emotional experiences: the odd flatness and disrupted movement of an image of you, or of me, on a screen which somehow seems out of step with your voice that I might even hear more clearly on the telephone; and of course there’s the intensity of the telephone. The intimacy. On the phone I hold you up against me, right up close to my ear, and without the sight of your face I attend to your voice and your breath in a way I never normally would – or could.
The person I speak to on the telephone, or on a screen is never the same person I meet face to face, in the flesh. You meet me, and I meet you mediated by many things, not only what happens in us after we notice each other. On the telephone, on a screen, you and I meet something more of a ghost, much of what I’d say is ‘really you’, and vice versa, apparently lost when I meet you partially reassembled, digitally, at a distance.
When you were a child did you ever speak to someone down a plastic cup telephone, or one made out of cans, connected by string you and your correspondent pulled tight?
All of the time we engage with experiences of people that defy what we understand when someone says: I’m here. None of us ever really knows entirely what’s ‘here’. There is no ‘entirely’, of course, apart from in what I would wish to circumscribe. There is only that I believe you are in front of me, with your undetectable memories, fantasies, and residues of dreams I shall never know; all of the thoughts and feelings you cannot put into words and which are lost to me apart from in whatever I detect when you experience them: maybe the way that you breathe, or your eyelid flickers.
And of course there’s all that happens when you out there become you in me: what happens when I perceive someone. I was recently reminded of this at a screening of a film I particularly loved, only to find the person who had watched it with me hated it: a film happens in me. It was as if we’d been watching different films.
There’s a strange conflict in psychotherapy. As we continue to recognise the importance of working with the whole body, that speech is only one aspect of a relationship, therapists seem to be developing more and more ways of having relationships that are less physical.
Are we making relationships possible for clients who would normally remain isolated and disconnected, or are we creating very particular forms of relationships, the particularities of which we fail to recognise; or even impossible relationships, where virtual contact becomes counter-productive, or limiting, restricting a client from finding ‘real’ contact in the world close to them?