The Telephone Game as Urban Legend Paradigm
Groucho Marx believed that “if you want a reporter to print a joke right, you have to tell it to him wrong.” To gain such wisdom, the Grouch must have played “telephone,” a party game that demonstrates with the speed of an insult how rumors start.
Here’s how it works. One person whispers a message into another person’s ear, then the second person whispers the message as he heard it into a third person’s ear, and so forth. With each transfer, the message can be whispered only once. The longer the chain or the louder the party, the more the message is bound to go awry. By the time the last person announces to the others what he’s heard, the original words have usually become hopelessly mangled.
If language is so precise, what has happened? Plenty, and it all illustrates how gossip works. A player might misunderstand the message and pass it along dutifully but erroneously; or she might hear it accurately but slur it while repeating it. A player might deliberately change the message as he hands it off, compromising both the truth and the game itself.
Conversely, if it’s a common saying, a subsequent player might recognize it and change it back. Usually, though, “telephone” screws up even the most innocent message, and gets big laughs by the time the circuit finishes.
As with many games, “telephone” has a real-life counterpart. The original message is exactly that: an observation, a comment, a fact begun or discovered by someone, and then conveyed in conversation. The person who hears it may or may not remember it fully, so she passes along as much as she remembers—whether it’s accurate or not.
Someone with an agenda may intentionally alter a story; another may simply forget a part and fabricate something to fill in the blanks. The only defense against either occurrence is a corrective intervention, the modern counterpart of which is a letter to the editor or a press conference.
Unless you happen to be one of those people who has no interest in gossip—in which case the only thing to do is hang up the phone—you would probably rather heed the famous advice of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
REALITY CHECK: Playground Myths
“A guy slapped a girl so hard on the back that her falsies came out. The second time I heard this (maybe 5th grade), the doofus who told me the story said that her ‘false teeth’ came out. I had to correct him. And then explain to him what falsies were, precocious brat that I was.”
—submitted by Stan Levin, Maryland
“There is a famous (or infamous) story of the man who picks up a girl at a bar (or dance club). Later, at home, he awakens, with no sign of the lady still present. He goes into his bathroom to brush his teeth, and on the mirror, scrawled in blood-red lipstick, is the note: 'Welcome to the world of AIDS' or alternately 'Thanks for the sex, you now have AIDS.’”
—submitted by David Chapman, New Jersey