|Players||Three or more|
|Playing time||User determined|
|Skill(s) required||Speaking, listening|
Chinese whispers (Commonwealth English) or telephone (North American English) is an internationally popular children's game  in which players form a line, 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, or, more generally, for the unreliability of human recollection or even oral traditions.
As the game is popular among children worldwide, it is also known under various other names depending on locality, such as Russian scandal, whisper down the lane, broken telephone (in Poland), operator, grapevine, gossip, don't drink the milk, secret message, the messenger game, and pass the message, among others. In France, it is called téléphone arabe (Arabic telephone) or téléphone sans fil (wireless telephone). In Malaysia, this game is commonly referred to as telefon rosak, in Israel as telefon shavur (טלפון שבור) and in Greece as spazmeno tilefono (σπασμένο τηλέφωνο) which all translate to "broken telephone". In the United States, the game is known under the name telephone – which in this use is never shortened to the colloquial and more common word phone.
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. Using the phrase "Chinese whispers" suggested a belief that the Chinese language itself is not understandable. Additionally, Chinese people have historically been stereotyped by Westerners as secretive or inscrutable. 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. 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.
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.[according to whom?] There is a second derivative variant, no less popular than Rumors, known as Mahjong Secrets (UK), or, more commonly, 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.
The pen-and-paper game Telephone Pictionary (also known as Eat Poop You Cat) is played by alternately writing and illustrating captions, the paper being folded so that each player can only see the previous participant's contribution. Commercial boardgame versions Telestrations and Cranium Scribblish were both released in 2009. The game has also been implemented online at Broken Picture Telephone, Drawception and other sites.
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. The game has been played in the conlang community.
Another variant of Chinese whispers is shown on Ellen's Game of Games under the name of Say Whaaaat?. However, the differences is that the four players will be wearing earmuffs; therefore the players have to read their lips.
- Pavement radio
- Snowball effect
- Generation loss
- Exquisite corpse
- 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)
- "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-04-14. Cite journal requires
- Gryski, Camilla (1998). Let's Play: Traditional Games of Childhood, p.36. Kids Can. ISBN 1550744976.
- Téléphone arabe, Retrieved 25 July 2018[circular reference]
- 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.
- Young, Linda W. L. (1994-05-26). Crosstalk and Culture in Sino-American Communication. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521416191.
- 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.
- Jones, Myfanwy (4 November 2010). "Parlour Games for Modern Families". Penguin Adult – via Google Books.
- "Eat Poop You Cat: A silly, fun, and free party game". annarbor.com. Retrieved 17 March 2018.
- Broken Picture Telephone, an online game based on Chinese Whispers; recently re-activated
- 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
- 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