With the advent of “Woke Culture”, I have become increasingly more aware of old terms and phrases that we commonly use that may no longer be acceptable.

Firstly to give context, this all came about during a multidisciplinary staff meeting where I heard of an unfortunate breakdown in communication being described as “Chinese Whispers.” Had this been two or three years ago I probably wouldn’t even have batted a single eyelid. However, hearing this phrase now has made me feel slightly uncomfortable. So much so that I had to look up its formal meaning, and research the origin of the phrase, which would allow me to determine its appropriateness and whether it is now contraindicated.

According to Collin’s dictionary “Chinese Whispers” is:

  1. A game in which a message is passed on, in a whisper, by each of a number of people, so that the final version of the message is often radically changed from the original. – A game many of us has played as children, myself included.
  2. Any situation where information is passed on in turn by a number of people, often becoming distorted in the process – as used in the context of the MDT meeting to describe a breakdown in communication.

After a quick Google search I found that the phrase stems from a sinophobic idea from the 1800s that Chinese people spoke in a way that was deliberately unintelligible. It associates the Chinese language with “confusion” and “incomprehensibility”. I was really disturbed by this and it has really made me rethink my own choice of idioms and phrases, and where our common phrases originate.

But how do we balance this with freedom of speech? Our fears of being prosecuted by the political-correctness police, which evidently I have now become a part of. Do we now have to constantly tread on eggshells? Reform the English language? Or can we just be more considerate and choose our words more wisely. Perhaps someone will produce a charter of inappropriate phrases with their approved and politically-correct alternatives for the workplace. Be it during a casual conversation with colleagues or in a professional context I believe that the time for self-reflecting on our choice of language and phrases to be especially important.

Phrases similar to “Chinese Whispers” with equally racist undertones are “double Dutch” or “it’s all Greek to me.” Another phrase with a disturbing and dark origin that I recently became aware of is “the rule of thumb.” But I will leave the googling to you, and let you to decide if its use is still indicated.

Article by Andrew Cheung, Member of the Pharmacy Forum NI Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Working Group | Hospital Pharmacist, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust