Most people have played it in their childhood: ‘Chinese whispers’. One person whispers a message to another, this person to next and so on. The last player then has to announce the message to the entire group. Errors develop through the passing, and the message in the end is an entirely different and makes everyone laugh. But if the game is not a game anymore but reality, it makes one cry.

Chinese people are often said to be rather reserved when it comes to talk about problems to the person in question directly, which occasionally leads to problems in interpersonal communication and relationships. But above all, it seems that they hold back when it comes to criticize people who are present. I experienced, that this is normally done behind people’s backs. Of course my Chinese parents sometimes call their two sons fat or lazy (they are not!), but all of them, the sons and parents never really blow off some steam in front of each other.

This sometimes leads to unnecessary frustrations, when person A suddenly does not talk to person B anymore, and person B is totally confused because they do not know why person A does not want to talk to them anymore. And ‘You should know why I do not talk to you by yourself!’ does not save any problem. Naturally, Chinese people who do not want to confront others with problems are basically a stereotype, and China is a big country with more than a billion citizens, and just as many different personalities. But my Chinese family can be counted to the sort which holds back, which is why I, as an open and outgoing person, encounter cross-cultural communicative difficulties every once in a while.

This is one of the stories where the children’s game ‘Chinese whispers’ probably got its name from: Once upon a time… this year’s May, my Chinese mom went to visit her family in Hong Kong like every year. Before she took off, I asked her to send me a postcard with a Chinese dragon on it. One week later, I found an envelope addressed to me in my postbox. I opened the envelope all excited to see which card she decided on to send to me. She actually got me more than one, and I happily took one card after another out of the envelope. When I thought I already fetched all of them, surprisingly, I found a little note written in Cantonese. Because of my poor limited Chinese skills, I could not make out the full meaning of the message. I could read my little Panda’s name. I showed him the message and he was as perplexed as me as he also is not fluent in reading Cantonese anymore. Together, and with the help of my Taiwanese friend, we could decode most of the message: he should tell his big Panda brother, what she was angry about. Something he should not do with their aunt in Hong Kong anymore… what he actually never did, but the aunt told the mom he did, but he did not. And she complained about her husband too, just to complete the whole family quartett.

Long story short: me, little Panda, big Panda and big Panda’s girlfriend are still confused about a little piece of paper I got some time ago. It had a short message on it, saying that I should tell little Panda what he should tell big Panda. About a story that never happened. And without my Taiwanese friend’s help we would not know until now what is written on that note. And of course Chinese mom did and does not want to talk about the whole affair until today.


Did someone ever have a similar experience? Does your Chinese family like to play these games too?

The children’s game ‘Chinese whispers’ is called ‘Chinese’ for a reason
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3 thoughts on “The children’s game ‘Chinese whispers’ is called ‘Chinese’ for a reason

  • July 16, 2015 at 19:36

    Ha, I have seen a lot of this with my Chinese-American husband, but it usually involves telling one child to tell another sibling to call home. It’s usually in the form of an English voice mail or phone call, as opposed to Cantonese (too bad, because if the messages were in Cantonese, I could just ignore them).

    In the U.S., this game is called “Telephone.”

    • July 16, 2015 at 20:01

      My Chinese mom sends me Cantonese messages on my phone. As I speak Japanese I can read them, but I answer her in German.
      I know that the game is called ‘telephone’ in the US. And it is called ‘Stille Post’ (silent mail) in German. But when I found the British name ‘Chinese whispers’ it made me laugh so hard that I had to use it for my post. 😀

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