The Difference between Gossip and Communication? Meaning

I am amazed by what a child's birthday party game can teach about communication. I played telephone with two groups of 22 young adults this week. In short order, we learned the difference between communication and hearsay.

I told each group I would read the line of a poem to one student, who would pass it on to the next and on and on until it made its way around the room. The last student to hear the line would write it on the board.

I read 20th-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, "First Fig": "My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But, ah, my friends and, oh, my foes--/It gives a lovely light!"

With one group, the first line became "I love n a z i s." The other: "BBQ on the beach." I told my class the first response is supremely ironic because Millay wrote a book of poems as WWII heated up with the express purpose of pressuring the US into involvement in that war against the Nazis.

"What does the first line tell us?" I asked the students in the second group after I shared with them the actual line of the poem. "We like to party!" one young man replied. "So did Millay," I said. "In fact, that's part of the point of this poem, so some of its spirit survived in a very strange way."

Though both groups of kids worked hard to communicate each line accurately, accuracy fell by the wayside almost immediately. Students who forgot the line upon hearing it tried their best to paraphrase, to communicate something and not break the line. Students who couldn't believe what they were hearing nevertheless passed words along.

The result of all these good intentions and sincere effort: gibberish.

The lessons: always go back to the source for accurate information; corroborate everything you hear; gossip can spread rapidly and take on undeserved authority; if information is new, a listener will likely need to hear it more than once to understand it.

Another lesson for me: Most 19-year-olds don't know how to play telephone. So I'm an old lady--but old enough to know the far-reaching effects of gossip!


  1. Beautiful post! I could relate to your story. When I was young we played the same relay game of whispering a sentence to the next person & so on. It was hilarious at the end. It was completely different fr. the original sentence. Had seen the break-up of many friends and families because of gossiping and mis-communication. I have a profound hearing loss so I avoid gossiping on the phone. I may not hear it right. I connect more often via e-mail which is more accurate.


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