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 Speech, listening

Chinese whispers (or telephone in the United States[1]) is a game played around the world,[2] 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, 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 in 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".

Today, some consider the name Chinese whispers to be offensive.[6][7][8][9]


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.[10] It can also be used to teach young children to moderate the volume of their voice,[11] and how to listen attentively;[12] 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.[13]


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.

Notable games[edit]

In 2012, Philip Minchin, a volunteer working on International Games Day @ your library, ran a global game of Gossip that was played within multiple libraries around the world, with the current version of the phrase being passed from library to library across timezones as each venue completed its round of the game. Over 26 hours, the inaugural game travelled through seven languages and all six inhabited continents, starting in St. Kilda Library, Melbourne, Australia as "Life must be lived as play" (a common paraphrase of a quote from Plato), and ending in Homer, Alaska as "He bites snails." Individual moves were logged and some of their alterations were substantial.[14] The second annual Global Gossip Game, on Saturday November 16, 2013, travelled to all seven continents, as the library of Casey Station in Antarctica participated. This game started as "Play is training for the unexpected", and split into three different forks on the day and one of the libraries spread the game into local schools over the following week, for a total of five endings from that single start: "I love the world", "Zombie", "Clouds travel around the world", "Glow, glow, peanut butter jelly", and "Ian needs help".[15]

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. ^ 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'. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ retrieved December 2013
  10. ^ 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 
  11. ^ 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! 
  12. ^ 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 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ retrieved September 2013
  15. ^ retrieved December 2013

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