Chinese whispers

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Chinese whispers
Genre(s) Children's games
Players Three or more
Setup time None
Playing time User determined
Random chance Medium
Skill(s) required Speaking, listening

Chinese whispers (or telephone in the United States)[1] is an internationally popular game,[2] in which one person whispers a message to another and so on through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming misheard and altered along the way, part of the fun is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player, usually with amusing or humorous effect. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, the difficult-to-understand mechanism of whispering, and that some players may deliberately alter what is being said to guarantee a changed message by the end of the line.

The game is often played by children as a party game or on the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumours or gossip spread,[1] or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection or even oral traditions.


The game is also known as Russian scandal,[3] whisper down the lane, broken telephone, operator, grapevine, gossip, don't drink the milk, secret message, the messenger game, and pass the message.[1]

Historians trace Westerners' use of the word Chinese to denote "confusion" and "incomprehensibility" to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 17th century, and attribute it to Europeans' inability to understand China's culture and worldview.[4] Using the phrase "Chinese whispers" suggested a belief that the Chinese language itself is not understandable.[5] The more fundamental metonymic use of the name of a foreign language to represent a broader class of situations involving foreign languages or difficulty of understanding a language is also captured in older idioms, such as "It's all Greek to me".

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.[6] It can also be used to teach young children to moderate the volume of their voice,[7] and how to listen attentively;[8] 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.[9]


A variant of Chinese whispers is called rumors. In this version of the game, when players transfer the message, they deliberately change one or two words of the phrase (often to something more humorous than the previous message). Intermediate messages can be compared. What an individual player changes in the message often says something about the player.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 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) 
  2. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-04-14. 
  3. ^ Gryski, Camilla (1998). Let's Play: Traditional Games of Childhood, p.36. Kids Can. ISBN 1550744976.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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 
  7. ^ 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! 
  8. ^ 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 
  9. ^ 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. 

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