“My voice just echoes off these walls…” – Nine Inch Nails, Echoplex
I’ve always been fascinated by sound and remember very clearly the first time I used headphones to listen to music. It was on a Walkman which my Dad had lent me, and I remember being surprised at how loud and clear the music was to me, but that no one else could hear it. My own private world of sound! Ever since then whenever I travel anywhere, I usually have earbuds in my ears either listening to music or a podcast. Recently I have been listening to a podcast from Radiotopia’s Showcase series called Ways of Hearing, initially released in 2017, which is all about our relationship with sound in a digital world. It got me thinking about my relationship with sound, and more specifically how I hear other people, and how they hear me.
Walking around Brighton with my earphones in, listening to a podcast about the ways in which we hear, I was struck by the impact of being in a public space with my own inner sounds blocking out the sounds of the city – something which the podcast itself explores. When listening to our own music or podcasts in public spaces, are we really occupying those spaces? The nature of space certainly seems to change when the sound is blocked out – I cannot hear other people talking, their footsteps or traffic approaching. Aren’t I somehow disconnected from the space around me? Am I deliberately blocking it out by seeking refuge in my own inner world of sound? Why do I feel the need to do this? What is the impact on my relationship with other people and the world if I cant hear them, and if they cant hear me? With the internet and social media, it has never been so easy to project your ‘voice’ great distances for a global audience, but then with the proliferation of voices, who is listening? Social media often seems like an echo chamber, each of us following the voices we already agree with, blocking those we disagree with. Who’s going to read this blog? Can anyone hear me? When we do interact with each other it’s often in small fragments of conversation, or in bursts. A text message conversation happens in spurts and starts, pausing while we interact with the world in front of us. It feels like conversations, along with public space, have been privatised and digitalised – we react with silent emoji that are supposed to stand in for sounds.
But I still exist in this physical, noisy world, and I speak to people face to face as part of my work as a counsellor – it is ‘talking therapy’ after all. Putting aside the potential impact of the digitalisation and privatisation of sound, it can also be difficult to hear people even when we speak in person, in a counselling room, with few distractions. Someone says “I suffer”, and I nod. Do I understand? What do they mean by “suffer”? I nod and think of my own experience of suffering, and perhaps there is a shared understanding between us, or perhaps not. For one assignment during my counselling training we had to record and transcribe a 10 minute session with a client. Transcribing the work was a very valuable experience, as I realised how much of the session I had not initially heard. There were some whole phrases I had not heard, but nor had I picked up on some changes in tone of voice, the changing speed, the occasional gaps of silence between us, or the absence of silence. I realised, and am still realising, that there is so much to hear.
When I say “love” – the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain, through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying… and they say yes they understand, but how do I know? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead – you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed, it’s unspeakable. – Waking Life (2001), dir. Richard Linklater
How do you hear me? This blog has no sound, it’s just shapes on a computer or phone screen. Is there a ‘voice’ in your head reading this? Whose voice is that? We can use our eyes to ‘hear’, especially when our ears cannot. This is a great video by Rachel Kolb about using one sense (sight) in the place of another (hearing). I recommend reading this accompanying article too. Her struggle in knowing whether or not to lip-read and ‘accept the conventions of the hearing world’ in order to function in a system which does not care about deaf people, makes me think more broadly about how far people are willing to go to be understood. If the world, or certain people, are not willing to communicate with you then why make the effort to communicate with them? I do not know what it is like to occupy the world with impaired hearing or a complete absence of sound. I do know something of what it’s like not to hear someone properly, and for others not to hear me, and how impactful that can be on relationships. I think part of counselling is exploring how we speak to ourselves, and how we are listening (if at all). I know this can have a wonderful effect on how we hear and are heard by others.