Chinese whispers (or telephone in the United States) is 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. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, and that some players may 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, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection.
The game is also known as operator, grapevine, broken telephone, whisper down the lane, gossip, secret message, the messenger game and pass the message.
Today, the name "Chinese whispers" is said by some to be considered offensive or racist. 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. Using the phrase "Chinese whispers" suggested a belief that the Chinese language itself is not understandable.
First, as many players as possible line up such that they can whisper to their immediate neighbors but not hear players any further away. A phrase will be told by the judges and the first player whispers it as quietly as possible to their neighbor. The neighbor then passes on the message to the next player to the best of their ability. The passing continues in this fashion until it reaches the player at the end of the line, who says to the judges the message he or she received.
The game has no winner: the entertainment comes from comparing the original and final messages. Intermediate messages may also be compared; some messages will become 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 its supposed harmful effects. It can also be used to teach young children to moderate the volume of their voice, and how to listen attentively; 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.
See also 
- Epistemology, the study of the properties of knowledge and truth
- Mondegreen, misheard poetry or song lyrics
- Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-04-14
- Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. x. ISBN 0-19-286212-X. "The form and timing of the tic undoubtedly mutated over the generations, as in the childhood game of Chinese Whispers (Americans call it Telephone)"
- Day, Robert (2004). Working the American Way: How to Communicate Successfully with Americans At Work. How To Books. p. 169. ISBN 1-85703-984-X. "You should avoid expressions that contain an implied racist stereotype, such as "Chinese whispers"."
- Marsland, Bruce (1998). Lessons from Nothing: Activities for Language Teaching with Limited Time and Resources. Cambridge University Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-521-62765-6.
- Levy, Gavin (2005). 112 Acting Games: A Comprehensive Workbook Of Theatre Games for Developing Acting Skills. Meriwether Publishing. p. 37. ISBN 1-56608-106-8.
- Dale, Corinne H. (2004). Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 15–25. ISBN 0-7914-6022-3.
- Ballaster, Rosalind (2005). Fabulous Orients: fictions of the East in England, 1662–1785. Oxford University Press. pp. 202–3. ISBN 0-19-926733-2. "The sinophobic name points to the centuries-old tradition in Europe of representing spoken Chinese as an incomprehensible and unpronounceable combination of sounds."
- Jackman, John; Wendy Wren (1999). "Skills Unit 8: the Chinese princess". Nelson English Bk. 2 Teachers' Resource Book. Nelson Thornes. ISBN 0-17-424605-6. "Play 'Chinese Whispers' to demonstrate how word-of-mouth messages or stories quickly become distorted"
- Collins, Margaret (2001). Because We're Worth It: Enhancing Self-esteem in Young Children. Sage. p. 55. ISBN 1-873942-09-5. "Explain that speaking quietly can be more effective in communication than shouting, although clarity is important. You could play "Chinese Whispers" to illustrate this!"
- 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"
- For example, see Hill, op. cit.; or Morris, Peter; Alan Wesson (2000). Lernpunkt Deutsch.: students' book. Nelson Thornes. p. viii. ISBN 0-17-440267-8. "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."
- Broken Picture Telephone, an online game based on Chinese Whispers; not currently active.
- Drawception, another online game which uses the concept.
- Chinese Whispers, explains the game and offers some examples.
- Gossip, Rumors, and the Two-Part Telephone Game