The Hearing Loss Whisper Game

Gael Hannan
January 28, 2013

There are some things that people with hearing loss are not particularly good at, generally speaking: taking the minutes at meetings, hearing a pin drop, working as a UN translator, and playing the Whisper Game.

In this game, also known as ‘Telephone’ or ‘Chinese Whispers’, a group of people sits in a circle or around the room. A written message is shown to the first person, who then whispers the words to the person beside them, and it passes similarly along the line.  Out loud, the last person says what he or she heard – usually to shouts of laughter at how much the message has changed from the original written words. What started out as “This year, the Florida weather people are warning us to expect a big snow fall in July” may end up as, “Horrible stuff happens to people who know the government’s secrets.”

I want to say two things about the Whisper Game. The first is that it should tear to shreds the urban myth that says 10% of the population has hearing loss; it’s clear from the Whisper Game that the actual number is around 90%.

Secondly – welcome to my world.

When playing the Whisper Game, ‘hearing’ people are getting a lick of the everyday hearing loss life. What I think I heard may be completely and dramatically different from what was actually said, as illustrated in this exchange with a friend some years ago.

Friend:      Gael, would you like a diet Pepsi?

Me:            Oh no – fleas! That’s terrible.

Friend:     (Pauses.) No, I’m asking if you would like some pop!

Me:            Oh. I thought you said Digby has fleas.

Luckily I indicated what I thought I’d heard; otherwise other friends would  have heard about how poorly Digby the dog was being cared for.

But back to whispering, something that gives hard of hearing people the willies.  Whispering is about intimate secrets just beyond our reach, just beyond our capability. When someone whispers into our ear, their message is instantly compromised. If people whispered at us the same way they talk to us – face to face, with reasonable lip movement and facial expression – we would have a fighting chance of comprehension.

But that’s not how people whisper. They move in close to our ear, their lips out of our sightline. ‘S’ and ‘F’ sound the same and emotions are colorless, because there is no tone of voice or facial expressions to help us out. The puffs of air we feel against our ear tell us nothing – they are just staccato bits of oxygen tickling our pinnas.

Some people, when we tell them we don’t understand whispering, will try whispering harder. This is like speaking loudly to a person who doesn’t understand your language – it doesn’t work.  And if we jerk our neck to face the whisperer, it looks like we’re trying to kiss.  We’re not, but we do worry that you’ll accidentally spit on our hearing aids or cochlear implant.

As a child or teenager with hearing loss, the announcement that we were going to play the Whisper Game immediately panicked me. What nine-year-old child is going to say, “Oh, let’s not play that game; I have hearing loss and it’s difficult to hear whispering. What about something else – anybody fancy five card stud?” Even adults aren’t  that forthcoming – they say something mature like, “I have to go to the loo…so go ahead, don’t wait for me.”

Whispering has no voice. Words are formed the usual way with the tongue, lips and jaw, but instead of vibrating as in regular speech, vocal cords are adducted (move inward) to create audible turbulence, a hissing quality (Wikipedia). An interesting fact: while it uses less air and therefore less effort than  normal speech, whispering tires the vocal cords more quickly. Actors or singers on vocal rest will not whisper for this reason.  Vocal strain is also a good reason not to whisper to people with hearing loss. It’s like banging your head against a brick wall – it gets you nowhere  and can possibly cause damage.

Some family doctors use the whispered voice test to detect possible hearing loss in their patients, so here’s a tip. During your next annual physical, if you feel little gusts of air coming at you from behind, say, “I hear you, doctor, there’s no need to yell.” If it was the doctor doing the whisper test, you just passed and are good for another year.

I love that term audible turbulence, because that’s how whispering can make me feel – anxious, upset and turbulent. Whispering is only 30dB (normal speech is approximately 60dB), so there’s no way I’m going to understand it without relying 100% on speechreading.

I wish I could understand it, because whispering looks intimate and beautiful, but I can’t. So to anyone who feels the urge to whisper in my ear, make us both happy – use your voice and show me the lips.

When You Whisper To Me




If you whisper in my ear,

Or at me, face to face

Your words are as comprehensible,

As those uttered by a snake.


(Worse, actually, because when a snake hisses, its meaning is crystal clear.)


I wish I could hear whispering

It seems intimate, connecting

But when you start whispering to me

It’s an exercise in frustration.


(And, you know, it makes me want to hit you, because I’ve told you this before.)

There are alternatives to whispering

Such as facing me, or speaking low

You could write it down, perhaps

Or, simply put your thoughts on hold.


(Or do us both a favor – go whisper to someone else.)


So, when you start to whisper to me,

Please stop.

  1. I remember the whisper game at summer camp. I always received the incorrect meaning and kids looked at me like I was stupid. My mother worked at as the camp nurse and wanted me to get out of the hot city. If only she had known that I would have been happier spending my summers with my friends in the neighborhood. This is in the late 4o’s when our swimming pool was a sprinkler system in a neighborhood park. The Whisper Game brought back childhood memories.

  2. When I was in Grade one, my teacher would make all of us sit in a circle and play the Whisper Game. She would whisper the secret word to the first person. Of course the whisper circle always went clockwise which meant the secret word was whispered like “sweet nothings” in my “bad” ear. Not that my “good” ear would have mattered much, mind you. And, because I was unsure of what the game was supposed to accomplish, I was always delighted to hear the last person in the circle speak my chosen word out loud. Our teacher had us play this game several times before she finally gave up on it. No one had realized that I was HOH, and it would take another four years before my “affliction” showed. 😉

    1. Actually, your affliction showed. Your adults missed it or dissed it. There are NONE so blind…

  3. Thanks for the laughs. And on a final note “Whispering sweet nothing’s in my ear” is just that. Sweet nothing!
    Ps I’m glad Digby didn’t have fleas!

  4. Hello Gael:

    As always you provide a light touch to what can be a somewhat or always frustrating experience depending on the circumstance. In my case, due to my severe hearing loss, it’s always the latter. I find it especially frustrating when I’m in bed with my wife. I quickly learned to keep my hearing aids on until conversations were finished and sleep beckoned. Otherwise, what were supposed to be sweet whispers ended up being loud messages being broadcast throughout the house, which did have it’s funny moments however. Bye for now!

  5. Leon, I’m newly H-o-H, and still trying to figure out how to have a conversation in bed! LOL The one suggestion I have to maintain intimate conversations is to try to convince people to learn some sign language. I think ASL can be very intimate, as long as there aren’t too many ASL readers in the vicinity. 🙂

  6. Brings back the memory of my panic when I attended a therapy class that was supposed to help me deal with the depression I was suffering that was related to my hearing loss. Wouldn’t you know that the first thing I was asked to do was to close my eyes and listen to the instructor speak. I closed my eyes and cried bitter tears. If only I had been able to advocate for myself I could have maybe spared another HOH the same fate. I became an advocate years later with the help of that wonderful organization CHHA.

  7. Gael – Do you remember when the Hearing Loss Association of America was called Self Help for the Hard of Hearing? The acronym was SHHH. I had an audiologist tell me over and over that I should join the “SHHH”…but I couldn’t hear a word he said. The word “SHHH” sounded too much like a whisper, which I can’t hear! Thank you for your story. It brought back some funny memories.

    Shanna /

  8. I enjoyed this so, so much! I can’t wait to “share” my hard of hearing secret in order to ENJOY the dismayed communicator look! (As opposed to feeling embarasssed & apologetic.) And to see what I get out of listing my disability in “shorthand” as HOH! Do you think anyone will ask what that stands for & how delicately they may pose the question. Or will they take a wild guess – anyone want to put on a new spin on what HOH could mean? lol

  9. Memories are wonderful and some not so wonderful. This game was a nightmare for me from day one. I tried to get out of it in high school…no luck. Kids knew but put with it as well as they could but yes, talk about audible turbulence. That was me. Panic city. Fortunately my husband knows, no whispering! instead, he faces me. and we talk. I dont need to wear any hearing device as I can lipread him….if he talked after I took off my glasses, that s a different story. lol If I cant see, I cant ‘hear’. But thank you Gael, this is another one of your articles that simply has to be shared with my clients so that they too can ‘laugh’ as the foibles of those hearing people when dealing with the HOHs!

    1. I love this. I can’t hear if I can’t see either. If I’m am laying in bed reading without my glasses and my husband comes in, I say “hold on, I need to put my glasses on so I can hear you”. Everyone in my family gets a big kick out of that. I must have the face to face or I am totally lost.

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  11. I’m HoH and I once heard a whisper that was golden to my ears. I had just gotten my first digital hearing aide and was visiting my sister. Her daughter was 3 yrs old, came up and whispered to my ear and then ran off. I was stunned, speachless….I heard every word. That was like gold to me. I’ve never heard a whisper since.

  12. I dreaded the “whisper” or “telephone” game as an interpreter for deaf kids in a hearing camp! How hard is it to interpret nonsensical words that usually were the results! Plus, there is no involvement of the child because it was my interpretation of what I heard and the student just reiterated what I said which I voiced/whispered to the next child.

  13. Similar to others…I tell people “If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you!” They often laugh…

  14. your blog as always took me down memory lane . it is wonderful that you give us the ability to share so many of our experiences and give us the ability to learn from each other.

  15. I remember as a young girl, when we played this game at school, the teachers would let me go into another area and let the child “quietly ” tell me and I would read their lips, I never enjoyed the game, though. To this day my own two children sometimes tend to forget that try can’t whisper to me and I have to remind them that mommy cannot hear them , I need to see their lips. The older they get the better they remember! 🙂

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