Chinese Whispers: Offensive or Not?



photo credit: Secrets (license)

We have a TEFL teaching activity on our site called Chinese Whispers or Telephone.

Some say it’s a demeaning and offensive title, if not outright racist. Others say it’s fine and that it’s ridiculous to question it.

So opinion is divided which means, of course, that we need to ask the question outright and try and find an answer for sure: Is the name Chinese Whispers offensive or not?

Take our poll and let us know…

What’s in a name?

The game is generally called Telephone in the US and Chinese Whispers in the UK. There are a bunch of other names for it as well including: broken telephone, operator, grapevine, gossip, don’t drink the milk, secret message, and so on. In China they apparently call it geese to geese and in France it’s Arab phone.

If you don’t know the game, it involves passing a message along a line of people and seeing if the original message can get through without being garbled or misunderstood.

A couple of hundred years ago in the UK the game was known as Russian Scandal or Russian Gossip. This changed over time till by the mid 20th century it was almost exclusively known as Chinese Whispers.

Various people have suggested a whole slew of different etymologies for the game. Some are patently ridiculous and fanciful, but to my mind the most likely is the association of Chinese as being an incomprehensible language to Western ears.

Some people, however, have a different interpretation. They believe that it comes from a perception of Chinese people as chaotic and incomprehensible; the first Western visitors to Japan in the 1600s brought back tales of Chinese people being noisy, the country chaotic and the language incomprehensible and Chinese was used as an adjective to reflect this. But it wasn’t just a Western perception; in Japan, for example, Chinese order still means chaos.

Offensive Poll

So it seems that whether you consider it offensive or not depends on where you believe the name comes from.

If you think it is simply because Chinese sounds incomprehensible to most people then it isn’t racist or offensive. It works in the same way as “double Dutch” or “it’s all Greek to me”.

But if you think it relates to Chinese being thought of as chaotic and unorganized then perhaps it is offensive as it implies a negative national stereotype.

[yop_poll id=”10″]

Useful Links

Telephone – Chinese Whispers‏‎ – the activity itself

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  1. Scott McGill

    Isn’t is because you cannot whisper in chinese properly, as in there are four meanings for one word that are denoted by the articulation that is put into pronunciation – something you cannot do when whispering. Doesn’t seem racist if you look at it like that.

    • Pete West

      Thank you for your contribution.

  2. Vitomir Arnovich

    Any time you use an ethnic or national adjective to describe something that is not a part of that ethnic or national culture, it is racist, per se, particularly when that something has a negative connotation.

    “Mexican Food” is fine, because it is part of Mexican culture. “Mexican Standoff” is not. It is racist.

    “Chinese Whispers” is not in any way part of Chinese culture (nor Russian, nor Arab, for that matter). Using “Chinese” as an adjective to signify “incomprehensibility” is absolutely racist, and you really should use another term for your activity.

    Incidentally, “Double Dutch” comes from a large group of terms originally coined to disparage speakers of Dutch or German, including “Dutch Bargain”, “Dutch Comfort”, “Dutch Courage”, and “Dutch Treat”, and is equally racist.

    “It’s all Greek to me” emphasizes the speaker’s lack of knowledge of Greek, particularly of the non-Latin Greek alphabet, but does not actually disparage Greek identity or culture, and can probably be given a pass. It is certainly not in the same class of terms as the others mentioned.

  3. Mandy

    should be rumour mill or grapevine