Chinese whispers

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Chinese whispers / Telephone
GenresChildren's games
PlayersThree or more
Setup timeNone
Playing timeUser determined
Random chanceMedium
Skills requiredSpeaking, listening

Chinese whispers (some Commonwealth English) or telephone (American English and Canadian English)[1] is an internationally popular children's game.[2] It is also called transmission chain experiments in the context of cultural evolution research, and is primarily used to identify the type of information that is more easily passed on from one person to another.[3]

Players form a line or circle, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it to the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they heard to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment 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, and the difficult-to-understand mechanism of whispering.

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 typical human recollection.


U.K. and Australian usage[edit]

In the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, the game is typically called "Chinese whispers"; in the U.K., this is documented from 1964.[4][5]

Various reasons have been suggested for naming the game after the Chinese, but there is no concrete explanation.[6] One suggested reason is a widespread British fascination with Chinese culture in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Enlightenment.[citation needed] Another theory posits that the game's name stems from the supposed confused messages created when a message was passed verbally from tower to tower along the Great Wall of China.[6]

Usage of the term has been defended as being similar to other expressions such as "It's all Greek to me" and "Double Dutch".[7]

Historians who focus on Western use of the word Chinese as denoting "confusion" and "incomprehensibility" look to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 17th century, attributing it to a supposed inability on the part of Europeans to understand China's culture and worldview.[8] In this view, using the phrase "Chinese whispers" is taken as evidence of a belief that the Chinese language itself is not understandable.[9] Yunte Huang, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has said that: "Indicating inaccurately transmitted information, the expression 'Chinese Whispers' carries with it a sense of paranoia caused by espionage, counterespionage, Red Scare, and other war games, real or imaginary, cold or hot."[10]

Alternative names[edit]

As the game is popular among children worldwide, it is also known under various other names depending on locality, such as Russian scandal,[11] whisper down the lane, broken telephone, operator, grapevine, gossip, secret message, the messenger game, and pass the message, among others.[1] In Turkey, this game is called kulaktan kulağa, which means from (one) ear to (another) ear. In France, it is called téléphone arabe (Arabic telephone) or téléphone sans fil (wireless telephone).[12] In Germany the game is known as Stille Post (Quiet mail). In Malaysia, this game is commonly referred to as telefon rosak, in Israel as telefon shavur (טלפון שבור), in Finland rikkinäinen puhelin, and in Greece as halasmeno tilefono (χαλασμένο τηλέφωνο) which all translate to "broken telephone". In Poland it is called głuchy telefon, meaning deaf telephone. In Medici-era Florence it was called the "game of the ear".[13]

The game has also been known in English as Russian Scandal, Russian Gossip and Russian Telephone.[10]

In North America, the game is known under the name telephone.[14] Alternative names used in the United States include Broken Telephone, Gossip, and Rumors.[15]


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 possible harmful effects.[16] It can also be used to teach young children to moderate the volume of their voice,[17] and how to listen attentively;[18] 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.[19]


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. There is a second derivative variant, no less popular than Rumors, known as Mahjong Secrets (UK), or Broken Telephone (US), where the objective is to receive the message from the whisperer and whisper to the next participant the first word or phrase that comes to mind in association with what was heard. At the end, the final phrase is compared to the first in front of all participants.

A game of Eat Poop You Cat, starting with "Only the good die young" and ending with "The three vikings visit Christ".

The pen-and-paper game Telephone Pictionary (also known as Eat Poop You Cat[20]) is played by alternately writing and illustrating captions, the paper being folded so that each player can only see the previous participant's contribution.[21] The game was first implemented online by Broken Picture Telephone in early 2007.[22] Following the success of Broken Picture Telephone,[23] commercial boardgame versions Telestrations[20] and Cranium Scribblish were released two years later in 2009. Drawception, and other websites, also arrived in 2009.

A translation relay is a variant in which the first player produces a text in a given language, together with a basic guide to understanding, which includes a lexicon, an interlinear gloss, possibly a list of grammatical morphemes, comments on the meaning of difficult words, etc. (everything except an actual translation). The text is passed on to the following player, who tries to make sense of it and casts it into his/her language of choice, then repeating the procedure, and so on. Each player only knows the translation done by his immediate predecessor, but customarily the relay master or mistress collects all of them. The relay ends when the last player returns the translation to the beginning player.

Another variant of Chinese whispers is shown on Ellen's Game of Games under the name of Say Whaaat?. However, the difference is that the four players will be wearing earmuffs; therefore the players have to read their lips.

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. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ "The multiple roles of cultural transmission experiments in understanding human cultural evolution," Alex Mesoudi and Andrew Whiten, 363 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. pp.3633489–3501 2008
  4. ^ Martin, Gary. "Phrase Finder: Chinese Whispers". Phrase Finder. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  5. ^ Strahan, Lachlan (June 1992). "'THE LUCK OF A CHINAMAN': IMAGES OF THE CHINESE IN POPULAR AUSTRALIAN SAYINGS" (PDF). East Asian History. Institute of Advanced Studies Australian National University (3): 71. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  6. ^ a b Chu, Ben (2013). Chinese Whispers Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong. Orion. p. Introduction. ISBN 9780297868460. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  7. ^ "MasterChef contestant under fire for using old saying 'Chinese whispers'". Starts at 60. 3 June 2018. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  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.
  9. ^ 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 supposedly sinophobic name points to what is claimed to be a centuries-old tradition in Europe of representing spoken Chinese as an incomprehensible and unpronounceable combination of sounds.
  10. ^ a b Huang, Yunte (Spring 2015). "Chinese Whispers". Verge: Studies in Global Asias. 1 (1): 66–69. doi:10.5749/vergstudglobasia.1.1.0066. JSTOR 10.5749/vergstudglobasia.1.1.0066. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  11. ^ Gryski, Camilla (1998). Let's Play: Traditional Games of Childhood, p.36. Kids Can. ISBN 1550744976.
  12. ^ "Le téléphone arabe : règle du jeu, origine, variantes et idées de phrase". Jeux et Compagnie (in French). 2011-11-13. Archived from the original on 2012-09-29. Retrieved 2021-04-20. Arabic telephone, or the wireless telephone, consists of having a sentence created by the first player and then recited aloud by the last player after circulating rapidly by word of mouth through a line of players. The interest of the game is to compare the final version of the sentence with its initial version. Indeed, with the possible errors of articulation, pronunciation, confusions between words and sounds, the final sentence can be completely different from the initial one.
  13. ^ Murphy, Caroline P. (2008). Murder of a Medici Princess. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 157. ISBN 9780199839896. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  14. ^ Jonsson, Emelie; Carroll, Joseph; Clasen, Mathias (2020). Evolutionary Perspectives on Imaginative Culture. p. 284. ISBN 9783030461904. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  15. ^ Hitchcock, Robert K.; Lovis, William A. (31 December 2011). Information and Its Role in Hunter-Gatherer Bands. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press. p. 11. ISBN 9781938770203. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ 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!
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ a b "Eat Poop You Cat: A silly, fun, and free party game". Retrieved 17 March 2018.
  21. ^ Jones, Myfanwy (4 November 2010). Parlour Games for Modern Families. Penguin Adult. ISBN 9781846143472 – via Google Books.
  22. ^ "Nektan Slots Games & Other Communication Games - Broken Picture Telephone". Archived from the original on 2021-05-16. Retrieved 2020-09-19.
  23. ^ "Best of Casual Gameplay 2009 - Simple Idea Results (browser games) - Jay is games". Retrieved 2020-09-19.

External links[edit]

  • Broken Picture Telephone, an online game based on Chinese Whispers; recently re-activated
  • Global Gossip Game, a game of gossip that passes from library to library around the world on International Games Day at local libraries
  • The Misemotions Game, a variation of Chinese Whispers where participants have to properly convey emotions instead of text messages