Chinese Whispers

I am sure all of us have played the game of Chinese Whispers at some point in our life. You sit in a circle, whisper something into the ear of the person sitting next to you, who passes it on to the next person and so on so forth, till it is revealed, and sounds nothing like what you said originally. So “I am a popstar” may become “Wondrous monster” or something equally inane.

The game is a lot of fun, but is also a potent allegory on communication in real life.

Think about it. Aren’t we are always playing Chinese Whispers?

We use a tool called Language to communicate with each other and ourselves. Yet, my understanding and usage of Language would be subtly different from someone else’s even though we use the same Language – creating the delta of communication.

In real life, Chinese Whispers is manifested on multiple levels. At the micro level I can think of two. The most basic and trivial is limited to single words. As an example, consider the use of the word ‘smart’. As a kid, I thought ‘smart’ was a synonym for good looking as against intelligent. And I think a lot of us Indians still think that way. So later when I did realise what the real meaning of the word was (initiated by the amused smiles of people who knew the correct usage), there were some teething troubles in terms realigning the semantics of the word in my head. However, at this level it is easy to resolve as it is a single word. The second level is about thoughts expressed via a combination of words. A couple of (gender-biased because I can’t come up with any other right now) examples, think of phrases like “Can I have a cup of coffee”, or “Where is this relationship going?”.

However, the most potent manifestation of this effect is at the macro level, when the deltas get compounded exactly the way it happens in the game. As an example, this whole Chinese Whispers thing came to me because of the following incident: my project manager at my previous company told a colleague of mine about something that I had said. Somehow this colleague mentioned it me, and though I don’t remember what it was, I remember saying something like “When did I say this?”, or even if I had I definitely didn’t mean it that way. But whatever I would say or do now, would not change the understanding which my manager has or this colleague has of my words. Whose fault is it? No one’s.

Look at the number of agents which compound the delta, not just in this case, but also in general,
1. Multiple agents of communication (i.e. multiple people). Error introduced when the words were understood and when the words were retold
2. Memory – one of man’s biggest enemies. You say past is constant. No. Past changes because memory is fragile. I don’t remember what I said two months back to any one person. That person, remembers ‘something’ that I said, but not the whole.
3. Fiction – one of man’s biggest indulgences. Who wants to boring? All of has the tendency to overstate or understate facts. Fill in holes where facts fail us. Some of us create entirely fictional accounts of other person’s lives just to entertain (I am extremely guilty of this – and I have seemed to pass on this habit to some of my friends – Amarjeet Kumar are you listening? – and now the joke’s on me).

Thus we live in a world busy whispering the Chinese way and can do nothing about it.

Post Script
A couple of interesting things


In the movie Before Sunrise (Repeat Quotient:10) , there is the following exchange between Julie Delphi(Céline) and Ethan Hawke (Jesse)
Céline: Have you ever heard that as couples get older, they lose their ability to hear each other?
Jesse: No.
Céline: Well, supposedly, men lose the ability to hear higher-pitched sounds, and women eventually lose hearing in the low end. I guess they sort of nullify each other, or something.
Jesse: I guess. Nature’s way of allowing couples to grow old together without killing each other.

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