Why “Gossip” and not “Whispers”

Unfortunately, one of Gossip’s best-known alternative names is “Chinese Whispers”. The word “unfortunately” applies because apparently this name was chosen not because the Chinese invented the game (it’s not clear who did), but because non-Chinese-speaking Westerners used “Chinese” as a synonym for “incomprehensible”.

The obvious unfairness (and equally pertinently for a library, boneheaded stupidity) of disparaging a language simply because you happen to be ignorant of it means that this is not a meme we want to perpetuate.

To be fair, other cultures also routinely use “random language we don’t speak” as a shorthand for “incomprehensible” in this way, but the fact that racism is common in many cultures is no justification for continuing even a relatively harmless manifestation ourselves. Moreover, although the vast majority of people using the name wouldn’t dream of doing so in any hostile fashion, it’s not as though mockery of foreign languages in this way never threatens to turn genuinely nasty, and it’s not as though such incidents come with clear warning labels ahead of time.

Thus, while we acknowledge that the name has been used in the past, and that almost nobody who uses it now does so with any hostile or disrespectful intent, we are advocating against continuing to use it into the future when better, more descriptive alternatives exist without all this baggage.

However, we’ve included this consideration of the question because you should be conscious of it: given the open nature of the library it’s possible you may encounter both people who use the name to refer to the game without knowing the history, and others who are only too aware of it. There’s no reason to assume people who use the name are doing so with racist intent (unless they give other evidence of this), and you should avoid imputing any such malice wherever possible. But if people object to the name, they are not wrong to do so.

Thus, in order to avoid situations where people who are entirely innocent of bad intentions towards each other get into pointless arguments, it’s best to use one of the many other names for the game – and we liked “Gossip”, because of the little parable on information theory the name implies.

5 Responses to Why “Gossip” and not “Whispers”

  1. yabwee says:

    Please stop trying to sanitize the world through political correctness. I’ve lived in China for 5 years and can assure you that nobody here cares what this game is called.

    • ftffg says:

      Hi! I’m not trying to sanitize anything, I’m just being polite.

      The fact that some people somewhere don’t regard the term as racist (or perhaps think it is but don’t care) doesn’t mean others don’t, and the whole point of the Global Gossip Game is that anyone anywhere in the world can participate (and yes, we have had Chinese players before, in China and elsewhere). Why would I intentionally use a term that some people find alienating when a perfectly workable alternative exists? (Indeed, I consider “Gossip” the superior name for the game, since it more correctly identifies the universal social problem of information degradation.)

      I do wonder why some people are so opposed to these sorts of basic manners as to feel the need to chastise those who seek to practice them. Who is sanitizing the world here? The people taking a moment to publicly reflect on the way language can unintentionally be alienating, or the people taking a comparable moment to use emotive language to try and shut such conversations down?

      But in any case if you think that there is a more descriptive name for this world-travelling game that specifically includes “Chinese Whispers”, feel free to suggest it. It’s highly unlikely that I would change a perfectly good name which now has two years of recognition with an international audience, but I’m happy to keep an open mind.

      Any further non-constructive comments on this or any other topic, however, will be blocked or deleted. This isn’t an open forum. It’s a functional blog used to run an event.

  2. Hugh says:

    You say “apparently” the game Chinese Whispers arose from derogatory attitudes to the Chinese language(s) so it must be discarded and abjured. What is your reference?
    In the fifties when I played the game it was thought to simulate the gossip in a Chinese Emperor’s court. What is wrong with that?
    How precious we have become with our precious political correctness

    • ftffg says:

      Hi! First, I’m not advocating that the game be discarded or abjured. I run an international game of it every year. Let’s assume that was a typo for “name”, not that you didn’t actually bother to read even a single other page or post.

      Second, this is not academia and I don’t need to cite everything. (If it were, personal anecdote would hardly be an adequate counter-source.) There are plenty of references supporting the origins of – and more to the point, existence of the unpleasant associations with – the phrase. Further, it’s a folk game; the name may have multiple origins, its meaning may have shifted over time, and it may be taken to refer to different things by different people. The fact that there are alternative connotations doesn’t mean that racist associations don’t exist (and given the pressing need you felt to propose a correction, I have to wonder whether you think that only Chinese imperial courts featured gossip; personally, given that’s not the case, I’d rather call it what it is rather than pretend it’s only an issue in some exotic milieu that has no bearing on modern life). For some people who have endured racist gibes accompanying worse setbacks, the echoes of past abuse can be jarring and alienating, which runs against the spirit of the game. Given this, see my answer to yabwee below.

      Third, I don’t see how raising potential problems with the name is “precious”. I’m openly discussing something that could come up for some people who run the game. It’s a little uncomfortable, but I’m not shying away from it – surely that’s the opposite of “precious”? In fact, if you’ll forgive me saying so, the only people who appear to be “precious” about what can or can’t be discussed on the internet are you and the like-minded person below.

  3. Pingback: Global Gossip Game 2013 – the rules | Global Gossip Game

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