Chinese whispers, Arab phone (from the French: "Le téléphone arabe"), Russian Scandal, Stille Post (Silent Post) or Telephone is a game in which each successive participant secretly whispers to the next a phrase or sentence whispered to them by the preceding participant. Cumulative errors from mishearing often result in the sentence heard by the last player differing greatly and amusingly from the one uttered by the first. It is most 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 of rumours or gossip.
The game has many other names, including the telephone game, Broken Telephone, Crazy Telephone, operator, grapevine, whisper down the lane and Pass It Down. In the United States, "Telephone" is the most common name for the game. The name "Chinese whispers" reflects the former stereotype in Europe of the Chinese language as being incomprehensible. It is little-used in the United States and may be considered offensive. It remains the common British name for the game.
How to play
As many players as possible line up such that they can whisper to their immediate neighbours but not hear any players farther away. The player at the beginning of the line thinks of a phrase, and whispers it as quietly as possible to her/his neighbour. The neighbour then passes on the message to the next player to the best of his or her ability. The passing continues in this fashion until it reaches the player at the end of the line, who calls out the message he or she received.
If the game has been 'successful', the final message will bear little or no resemblance to the original, because of the cumulative effect of mistakes along the line. Deliberately changing the phrase is often considered cheating, but if the starting phrase is poorly chosen, there may be disappointingly little natural change.
One variation known as "operator" allows each listener one chance to ask his or her neighbour for a repetition, as if assistance from the line operator were available by calling that word.
The game has no winner: the entertainment comes from comparing the original and final messages. Intermediate messages may also be compared; some messages will be unrecognizable after only a few steps. The world record
for the largest game involved 614 people organized by stage magician Mac King
, on January 6
at Harrah's Casino
in Las Vegas
. King started by whispering "Mac King is a comedy magic genius." King predicted the final outcome would be "Macaroni cantaloupe knows the future," and was off by only one word.
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 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.
Examples of sequences
The following is excerpted from the movie Johnny Dangerously:
- Lil: Get this to Johnny on the grapevine: Vermin is going to kill Johnny's brother at the Savoy Theater tomorrow night. Got it?
- Polly: Got it.
- Polly: Vermin is going to kill Johnny's brother at the savoy theater pass it on.
- Prisoner: Vermin is going to kill Johnny's brother at the Savoy Theater tonight. Pass it on.
- Prisoner: Vermin is going to kill Johnny's mother at the Savoy Theater tonight. Pass it on.
- Prisoner: Vermin's mother is going to kill Johnny tonight at the Savoy Theater. Pass it on.
- Prisoner: [gibberish]
- Prisoner: There's a message on the grapevine, Johnny.
- Johnny: Yeah, what is it?
- Prisoner: Johnny and the Mothers are playin' "Stompin' At The Savoy" in Vermont tonight.
- Johnny: Vermin's going to kill my brother at the Savoy Theater tonight?
- Prisoner: I didn't say that.
- Johnny: No, but I know this grapevine.
From the April 16, 1995 episode of The Simpsons, The PTA Disbands (2F19):
- Bart: Now for Operation Strike-Make-Go-Longer. [To a teacher.] You know, I heard Skinner say the teachers will crack any minute. [The teachers whisper this forward through the line.]
- Hippie Teacher: [to Edna] Skinner said the teachers will crack any minute purple monkey dishwasher!
- Edna: Well! We'll show him, especially for that "purple monkey dishwasher" remark!
From the January 8, 2006 comic strip Zits:
- [Frame 1]
- Mom: [on phone] Sara? It's Connie, Jeremy's mom.
- Sara: Oh, hi!
- [Frame 2]
- Mom: [on phone] Jeremy must have turned his cell phone off. Can you give him a message?
- Sara: Sure!
- [Frame 3]
- Sara: [on phone] D'ijon? Sara. Tell Jeremy that his mom locked her keys in the car, so he should get a ride home with Hector.
- D'ijon: Got it.
- [Frame 4]
- D'ijon: [on phone] Zuma? D'ijon. Give Jeremy this message.
- Zuma: 'K.
- [Frame 5]
- Zuma: [on phone] Thanks Brittany.
- Brittany: No problem. I'll pass it on.
- [Frame 6]
- Brittany: [on phone] Pierce, I have a message for Jeremy.
- Pierce: Go.
- [Frame 7]
- Pierce: Give Hector a ride home. Your mom locked her cheese in a jar.
- [Frame 8]
- Pierce: ...Or something like that.
- Jeremy: [thinking] And she wonders why I screen her calls...
An apocryphal example from World War I of a message being sent down the trench line is Send reinforcements, we're going to advance which became Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance (three and fourpence is three shillings and four pence in old British money).