Playing Telephone

Did you ever play Telephone as a kid? The game where you sit in a circle or line, and one person whispers a phrase to be passed along, neighbor to neighbor, until the end of the line is reached? The person at the very end repeats the phrase as he or she has heard it, and everyone giggles at the way the phrase has transformed along the line. Whispering is not the best means of communication, and we all interpret things in our own way when we can’t hear accurately, passing phrases along to be interpreted anew. Hilarity ensues.


As massage therapists, we play telephone quite a bit. It’s not usually funny, but sometimes it is great fun. Other times, it can get a little messy.

Let’s start with the fun: Hands on! We learn techniques in school, and then we get out into the world and find our groove. Formerly differentiated petrissage techniques merge into one another, effleurage swoops into new and more graceful curves, sometimes friction moves in a shape that is neither strictly cross-fiber nor exactly circular. The moves we were taught become our own, and new ones grow from them, and we fall into flow. Or we take our own weary selves for massage and steal the therapists’ best moves  feel things that are new and different and work them into our own sessions. Sometimes, we’re not sure what the technique looked like or how it was accomplished, so we interpret and approximate as best we can, usually with subtle changes. Maybe we even use our new technique when giving a massage to a fellow therapist to be absorbed and re-interpreted all over again. At the end of the telephone line, we have many massage therapists practicing personal, unique massage, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Less beautiful is when we play Telephone when we talk about massage. We learn so much in school about anatomy, neurology, and pathology. If we don’t peruse our notes from time to time or find other ways to brush up on information, it can get muddled. We are only human, and we may drop key pieces over time, filling in the blanks with our own explanations, and we might even misspeak from time to time. Have you ever had a conversation with a client about a particular muscle or pathology where you found yourself floundering? I have. It’s not pretty. Luckily, there’s something we can do about this.

There is one more rule in the simple game of telephone. When you are the one receiving the message, about to pass it on, you can call “Operator” and have the phrase repeated. When you’re playing Telephone with children, the rules vary on the number of times you’re allowed to ask for clarification. In life, you can ask as many times as you want, however frequently you desire. When you take a continuing ed classes to review techniques, refine body mechanics, or add new skills to your repertoire, you are calling the Operator. When you review information that’s become hazy over time or keep an eye out for new research, that’s calling the Operator, too, and can keep you from sounding hazy yourself.

Playing Telephone keeps massage therapy vibrant and diverse and personal. Calling the operator from time to time can keep us all fresh and engaging. Lately, my Operator has come in the form of PubMed, old handbooks from massage school (thrown over in favor of the internet for years, but books have felt more direct for me lately), hand scrawled notes from continuing ed classes, and The Massage Therapy Foundation website. Who’s your go-to Operator these days?


Megan Spence is a Licensed Massage Therapist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She is continually astonished by just how much she loves her work. You can read more about Megan’s adventures in massage and various other things body-related at Bodywork Brooklyn.

3 thoughts on “Playing Telephone

  1. Yes I have definitely floundered too when a client asks a question that I haven’t got the answer too!

    I now have lots of my massage books in my treatment room, so when I get asked I admit that I don’t know the answer but I know a book that does – books are so much better than the internet at looking professional :)

    I will also check out the massage therapy foundation site too, thank you

  2. I like to review my massage notes from school. Also if I get a client with an issue that I haven’t worked on a lot I use YouTube to search out legitimate massage educators to find treatment protocols.
    I keep up to date on the latest scientific sound articles on massage.

  3. Oh I love this, thank you. Both acknowledging the beauty of evolving technique (including picked up from other therapists), and the potential pitfalls of memory and mangled-by-time explanations.

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