Chinese whispers

Chinese whispers

Chinese whispers[1] is one name for a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first. Some players also deliberately alter what is being said in order to guarantee a changed message by the end of it.

The game is often played by children as a party game or in the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumours or gossip spread,[2] or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection.

The game is also known as telephone, grapevine, broken telephone, whisper down the lane, Развален телефон (Bulgarian for broken telephone) gossip, secret message, Le téléphone arabe (French for "Arab phone"), Stille Post (German for "Silent Post"), Gioco del Telefono (Italian for "Telephone Game"), Telefono senza fili (Italian for "Cordless Phone"), Telefone sem fio (Portuguese for "Cordless Phone"), Głuchy telefon (Polish for "deaf telephone"), Зламаний телефон (Ukrainian for "Broken telephone"), Глуви телефони (Serbian for "deaf telephones"), Telefonul fără fir (Romanian for "Cordless Phone"), Испорченный телефон (Russian for "damaged telephone"), Rikkinäinen puhelin (Finnish for "Broken telephone") and pass the message. In the United States, "telephone" is the most common name for the game.[2]

Today, the name "Chinese whispers" may be considered offensive or racist,[3] although it is still commonly used in the United Kingdom.[4][5][6] Historians trace Westerners' use of the word Chinese to denote "confusion" and "incomprehensibility" to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 1600s, and attribute it to Europeans' inability to understand and appreciate China's radically different culture and worldview.[7] Using the phrase "Chinese whispers" suggests a belief that the Chinese language itself is not understandable .[8]


How to play

As many players as possible line up such that they can whisper to their immediate neighbours but not hear any players farther away. The player at the beginning of the line thinks of a phrase, and whispers it as quietly as possible to his or her neighbor. The neighbor then passes on the message to the next player to the best of his or her ability. The passing continues in this fashion until it reaches the player at the end of the line, who calls out the message he or she received.

If the game has been 'successful', the final message will bear little or no resemblance to the original, because of the cumulative effect of mistakes along the line. Deliberately changing the phrase is often considered cheating, but if the starting phrase is poorly chosen, there may be disappointingly little natural change.

One variation known as "operator" allows each listener one chance to ask his or her neighbor for a repetition, as if assistance from the line operator were available by calling that word.


The game has no winner: the entertainment comes from comparing the original and final messages. Intermediate messages may also be compared; some messages will be unrecognizable after only a few steps.

As well as providing amusement, the game can have educational value. It shows how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication. The game has been used in schools to simulate the spread of gossip and supposed harmful effects.[9] It can also be used to teach young children to moderate the volume of their voice,[10] and how to listen attentively;[11] in this case, a game is a success if the message is transmitted accurately with each child "whispering" rather than "shouting". It can also be used for older or adult learners of a foreign language, where the challenge of speaking comprehensibly, and understanding, is more difficult because of the low volume, and hence a greater mastery of the fine points of pronunciation is required.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-04-14 
  2. ^ a b Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. x. ISBN 019286212X. "The form and timing of the tic undoubtedly mutated over the generations, as in the childhood game of Chinese Whispers (Americans call it Telephone)" 
  3. ^ Day, Robert (2004). Working the American Way: How to Communicate Successfully with Americans At Work. How To Books. p. 169. ISBN 185703984X. "You should avoid expressions that contain an implied racist stereotype, such as "Chinese whispers"." 
  4. ^ Marsland, Bruce (1998). Lessons From Nothing: Activities for Language Teaching with Limited Time and Resources. Cambridge University Press. pp. 59. ISBN 0521627656. 
  5. ^ The Chambers Dictionary, 11th Edition. Chambers Publishing. 2008. pp. 286. ISBN 1566081068. 
  6. ^ Levy, Gavin (2005). 112 Acting Games: A Comprehensive Workbook Of Theatre Games for Developing Acting Skills. Meriwether Publishing. pp. 37. ISBN 1566081068. 
  7. ^ Dale, Corinne H. (2004). Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 15-25. ISBN 0791460223. 
  8. ^ Ballaster, Rosalind (2005). Fabulous Orients: fictions of the East in England, 1662–1785. Oxford University Press. pp. 202–3. ISBN 0199267332. "The sinophobic name points to the centuries-old tradition in Europe of representing spoken Chinese as an incomprehensible and unpronounceable combination of sounds." 
  9. ^ Jackman, John; Wendy Wren (1999). "Skills Unit 8: the Chinese princess". Nelson English Bk. 2 Teachers' Resource Book. Nelson Thornes. ISBN 0174246056. "Play 'Chinese Whispers' to demonstrate how word-of-mouth messages or stories quickly become distorted" 
  10. ^ Collins, Margaret (2001). Because We're Worth It: Enhancing Self-esteem in Young Children. Sage. p. 55. ISBN 1873942095. "Explain that speaking quietly can be more effective in communication than shouting, although clarity is important. You could play "Chinese Whispers" to illustrate this!" 
  11. ^ Barrs, Kathie (1994). music works: music education in the classroom with children from five to nine years. Belair. p. 48. ISBN 0-947882-28-6. "Listening skills:...Play Chinese Whispers" 
  12. ^ For example, see Hill, op. cit.; or Morris, Peter; Alan Wesson (2000). Lernpunkt Deutsch.: students' book. Nelson Thornes. p. viii. ISBN 0174402678. "Simple games for practising vocabulary and/or numbers: ... Chinese Whispers: ...the final word is compared with the first to see how similar (or not!) it is." 

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