What Does Chinese Whispers Mean?

Chinese Whispers Meaning

Definition: Gossip that has been inaccurately transmitted from person to person; the telephone game; a game for repeating the same thing until it changes.

Origin of Chinese Whispers

The rules for the game Chinese whispers (or the telephone game) are simple. A group of people gather in a circle or in a line. The first person thinks of a sentence and whispers it into the ear of the person next to him or her.

The person who just heard the sentence whispers it to the next person. This continues until it reaches the last person.

The last person says the sentence that he or she heard out loud. Usually, this is funny because after so many people have whispered the sentence, it has morphed into something different than when it started.

This game has many other names, but the name Chinese whispers appears to have started in the mid-1900s in the United Kingdom. Before that it was called Russian Scandal or Russian Gossip.

It is unclear why the name change occurred.

In the United States, this game is usually called telephone.

Examples of Chinese Whispers

Chinese whispers definitionHere is an example of two family members using the expression while having dinner.

Grandmother: I’m planning a party for the children at my church. Do you have any ideas for fun activities that I should have them participate in?

Granddaughter: Well, it’s probably a good idea to have a mix of active and non-active games, so they can spend some energy and then relax.

Grandmother: That’s a good idea. What games do you suggest?

Granddaughter: For an active game they could play tag, or if there’s not enough room for them all to run around, they could play hide-and-seek. Then to rest after that they could play Chinese whispers.

Grandmother: Oh, you loved that game when you were younger!

Granddaughter: Yeah, I think it’s always a popular choice. And it will keep them from being too loud!

what is a Chinese whisperThe second dialogue shows a daughter and her father discussing some challenges the daughter is having at school.

Father: How’s school going?

Daughter: I hate it. I told a new friend a secret, and it was an awful idea. It turned out she wasn’t a friend;  she was a horrible person.

Father: Did she share your secret with other people?

Daughter: She says she only told one other person, but the whole school spread rumors of it. It’s like a giant game of Chinese whispers. So now, all the other students are sharing my secret, but it’s changed, and now it seems much worse! I wish I could drop out of school.

More Examples

This excerpt is about how people told and retold a joke so many times that some people believed it was serious.

  • How did a spoof article about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un being the sexiest man alive end up as a real news item in China? Turns out it was a case of telephone, or Chinese whispers, in the digital age. –USA Today

This excerpt is about a woman embroiled in a controversy over using a song but not explaining it was about white people lynching African Americans.

  • This is “a phenomena of our times that we live in, with Twitter and social media and everybody commenting,” she said. “It’s very tricky. You can say something and be damned for it or not say something and be damned for that, and the Chinese whispers and the whole kind of whispering thing that goes on, it kind of shut me up.” –New York Daily News

Summary

The phrase Chinese whispers is a popular children’s game that involves sharing one idea from person to person through whispering.

The goal is to keep the original statement unchanged, but because of the nature of the game, it usually morphs significantly.