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Telephone (Chinese Whispers): History, Origins, Metaphor, Meaning,… 

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

Vintage old telephone with old background
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The Telephone Game is a social interaction game that has been around for a long time. It is a game that is easy to play and requires no physical objects. 

In this article, we will discuss the rules of the game and how to play it. We also look at the game’s history, where and how the game originated, and the best uses and applications for the game. We even throw in a few additional interesting tidbits. Today we’re focusing on The Telephone Game.

It’s believed that the Telephone Game dates back to the late 1870s, just after the invention of the telephone. The game became popular in the UK and the USA in the 20th Century. 

While one variant name of the game (Chinese Whispers) has been considered derogatory to the Chinese nation, it has maintained steady popularity over the years. The game is easy to play and teaches insightful lessons about communication and how it can go wrong.

The Telephone Game seems to be a game that’s not going anywhere any time soon. Some may even call it a timeless game in that generations have played the game, and many more still will. To find out a bit more about the game, read on.

The History and Origin of The Telephone Game

In prior generations, communication has always been a struggle for human beings. The Telephone Game seems to serve as an educational insight into this fact. 

Before the internet and cellphones, communication could take up to weeks to communicate a straightforward message. Once the message reached the end receiver, this message would be down to interpretation, leading to information loss. 

The Telephone Game illustrates that point quite clearly and gives a quick simulation of how information loss can occur, even in the simplest of settings, while all participating players have fun. 

It is not easy to pinpoint the actual year or person to have invented the Telephone Game; however, it is thought that soon after the first telephone was created back in 1876, the game was created too. 

During this time, an invention of this significance would have been the focus of most conversations. It would be no surprise that an enjoyable game based on the telephone’s creation came into circulation. 

Fast forward a few hundred years down the line, and today it is most commonly used as an educational tool to teach kids how messages may differ from person to person and may not always be as accurate as they seem.

The name Chinese Whispers originated in the mid 20th Century in the United Kingdom. Not many people know that this name is derogatory towards the Chinese race, implying that they are difficult to understand.

As such, the game is more commonly referred to as The Telephone Game in modern times. Another common name used is Broken Telephone or even just Telephone.

The Rules of The Telephone Game and How to Play it

The rules of The Telephone Game are relatively basic. Here is a summarized list below: 

  • Players must stand in a line or a circle and ensure they are close enough together to whisper in one another’s ear. 
  • Players must not be too close to each other as only one player should be hearing the whisper at a time. 
  • The person who starts the game must whisper a word or phrase into the person’s ear to their right-hand side and then pass that word or phrase off to the next person on their right and so on until it reaches the last person in line. 
  • Once the last person receives the whisper, they must say it out loud for everyone to hear and then see how much the word or phrase has changed from the first time it was said.
  • The word can’t be repeated throughout the process. It is, therefore, essential for there to be silence in the room while the game is in play.
  • Only the first person should know what the word or phrase is.

There’s not much to understand about the actual gameplay of The Telephone Game. It works as a brilliant ice breaker when groups of strangers are coming together for the first time and is a way to get to know one another in a friendly and intimate environment. 

The Science Behind The Telephone Game

The Telephone Game may be seen as one big metaphor for the breakdown of communication between us. It’s most clearly seen when we attempt to tell stories, have conversations, or even share our own past experiences. 

men having troubled communication
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Recent studies have found that we seem to have a very different version of the memory every time we recall our memories than what actually happened. This may be because every time we tell the story, we may express it differently, with slightly different details that could end up changing the memory to a large extent. 

You may be wondering how this is relevant to The Telephone Game, and the reality is that it is most relevant indeed. The Telephone Game illustrates how easily a message can be distorted from one person to another, even when people are standing right next to each other! The same principle applies on a deeper level when people are having a conversation. 

For example, if you have a conversation with a friend, what you say may mean something entirely different for you than your friend. Even if the person you are speaking to understands each word as you do, then the conversation is still down to interpretation. 

As everyone knows, every person has different ideas about different scenarios or concepts. Thus, it is a fundamental lesson for us to learn at a young age and why it is such a popular game within schools at younger age groups. 

During the times we live through at the moment, it is more and more important to understand the fundamentals behind The Telephone Game. We live in a period where there is an overload of information available to us with just a click of a button.

We need to understand that not everything we read or hear is factual and that there are often breakdowns in transferring information from person to person.

Best Reasons to Play The Telephone Game

Below are some of the reasons and applications for The Telephone Game and where it may be most effective:

  • It acts as a tool that teaches us that slight variances in a message can change the communication’s entire meaning, which may have unnecessary repercussions. Think of pre-war conversations!
  • The game allows younger children to develop their listening skills and practice communicating with their friends in a fun and interactive setting.
  • It can teach kids about the negative impact of gossip and how not everything they hear is entirely correct.
  • It is a memorable way of introducing kids to new words, terms, and phrases as the kids will hear them from their peers. The teacher must repeat the word, term, or phrase in the correct way to ensure the kids are not getting mixed up.
  • It can act as an ice breaker in an environment where the players in the game may not know each other personally. This game encourages interaction, making it easier for groups of people to open up to each other and communicate with ease once the game has reached its conclusion.
  • It creates a sense of teamwork and cooperation. When playing the game with children, it is important to stress that the game aims to ensure that the sentence, word, or phrase remains the same as the first person says. If the children understand this, they will feel a sense of responsibility towards the group, thus creating teamwork and cooperation.

Common Phrases or Sentences to Use in The Telephone Game

telling secret rumor, whispering
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  1. A group of yellow bananas ripened on the table.
  2. Humpty Dumpty did not fall off the wall.
  3. Red roses with thorny stems.
  4. A dog is happiest with a big bone.
  5. I wish I had a pet pigeon.

These are some common phrases used in The Telephone game. There are no limitations to what can be said. However, some specific sentences and words work better for this game. 

For example, younger kids will enjoy it if one of the players’ names is mentioned within the sentence. For older kids, a good idea is to include multiple numbers and tongue twisters, as it will make the game more stimulating and test out their memory ability. 

Conclusion

The Telephone Game is a brilliant game that most probably came from very humble beginnings stemming from the telephone’s invention. Its applications are vast and may be used to educate young children, all the way to being used in corporate environments as an ice breaker to stimulate conversations between adults. 

It is a game that has maintained its importance for hundreds of years and still addresses issues in society today. It is no wonder why it is such a popular game that is known all around the world amongst all age groups.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.