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Madonna and pro social behaviour

December 13, 2010 2 comments

The discussion of Madonna Louise Ciccone’s pro social behaviour

in the context of effective use of communication skills and relationship theories

Dovidio J et al (1995) discuss and describe the term pro social behaviour as the voluntary act of helping an individual or a society. As discussed by Dovidio there are numerous definitions, however the focus of pro social behaviour in this essay will be on the voluntary action in relation to communication skills.

Madonna Louise Ciccone known by the public and media, as the one name star sensation, “Madonna” is well-known all over the world for her pro social behaviour in helping people, and in 2006 setting up the organisation ‘Raising Malawi’. The online video interview for the American channel CNN, Interview about Malawi (2009) available at <> (2009), will be used to analyse Madonna’s effective use of communication skills and relationship theories. The subject of the interview, ‘Raising Malawi’ is the example of Madonna’s pro social behaviour which will be studied. Identifying and analysing Madonna’s effective use of communication skills and relationship theories, in relation to pro social behaviour, will assess how important these qualities are in relation to the success of ‘Raising Malawi’. The essay will analyse Madonna’s use of verbal messages, self disclosure, types of listening, non verbal communication, concepts of ‘the self’ and relationship theories. For a balanced analysis, opposing viewpoints of Madonna’s ‘pro social behaviour’ of adopting children from Malawi and other celebrities pro social behaviour will be discussed and analysed.

The interview format comprises of questions and answers between the interviewer, Alina Cho, and interviewee Madonna. Littlejohn (2002) discusses face threatening acts (FTA); positive, negative and politeness. Alina uses a face threatening act to begin the interview, “So, you’re Madonna.” This instantly attacks Madonna’s positive face and politeness- as Littlejohn (2002) describes the need and desire to be liked. The subject and purpose of the interview on Malawi, is Madonna’s opportunity to talk and explain about the charity and to evidently gain further support from the public for the charity. However, the immediate FTA is an obstacle for Madonna’s communication skills as it is directly attacking Madonna’s ‘face’ and the sarcastic interviewee tone creates a division of status between Cho and Madonna. O’Keefe (1988, quoted by Littlejohn, 2002, pg 111) discusses message design logics in three areas; expressive, conventional and rhetoric. Madonna’s response uses communication known as conventional logic. Madonna replies using positive politeness, “No, I’m not.” The use of defensive humour cancels out the aggression created by Cho. O’Keefe describes this logic similar to the conventions of a game; as rules are always present and in this situation they are used to define the verbal communication. The communication response from Madonna is appropriate, polite and is based on rules known by everyone. She has been a celebrity for the past three decades and is familiar with following codes and conventions with interviews such as the question and answer format, styles of different interviewers .e.t.c. Madonna’s first verbal response present her communication skills as effective, logical and planned due to her polite response to a FTA which creates a composed image of Madonna and therefore representing her charity, ‘Raising Malawi’ as organised and structured.

Madonna’s logical listening skills are effective as her responses present herself in a positive way. Cho asks probing questions about how Madonna deals with the large scale of problems in Malawi, “Do you ever get overwhelmed by…?” the probing questions seek to provoke exclusive intimate feelings from Madonna. Madonna uses discriminative listening to be able to filter Cho’s question and responds in a neutral manner, “Sometimes, it just, it stops you dead in your tracks and you think, ‘Oh, my god. I can’t do this,” her response does not portray her in weak manner as she speaks in a narrative tone creating an independent image of herself. The stage beforehand, discriminative listening, described by Coakley (1993) as the receptive stage in which a person uses auditory and visual cues in order to separate and determine what information is important and therefore to respond with effective communication, is how Madonna listened. To maintain control of the interview Madonna filtered what the interviewee was asking and responded appropriately; adhering as mentioned before, to conventional logic.

Madonna uses her non verbal communication skills (NVC) to gain support for ‘Raising Malawi’. This is evident in several different areas; the body (kinesics), the face, the eyes, in paralanguage and silence, and lastly in spatial messages.

Kinesics and the face

Madonna’s kinesics are used to communicate her feelings and emotions towards her pro social behaviour with ‘Raising Malawi’. Devito (2009, page 130) created a table which devises the five types of body movements; emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors. A few of these interpersonal communication devices are used by Madonna in the interview.

Madonna uses an emblem by touching her heart when verbally communicating about her assets as a human being. The action presents Madonna as earnest as it is a surprised body action when the focus of the interview changes to her attributes as a person and not on her philanthropy. The action of touching her heart area on her body could also be seen as an ‘adaptor’ used to reassure and add comfort during an interview. Madonna’s facial communication helps support her verbal communication when talking about ‘Raising Malawi’ as during the interview she smiles frequently and naturally and not forcefully as this would connote deception which would be associated with the charity.

A study of facial emotions and smiling by Gladstone & Parker, 2002; Woodzicka & LaFrance, 2005; Kluger, 2005 (Devito, 2009, pg 132) found that people would be liked more if they smiled naturally, than to people who pretended to smile or to those who did not smile. Therefore, Madonna is communicating through smiling when it naturally occurs. This presents her as honest and trustworthy and therefore the viewer subconsciously appreciates her pro social behaviour and impact in Malawi.

Eye communication

The use of eye communication connotes to the viewer that Madonna’s help; ‘Raising Malawi’ is in good faith and is trustworthy pro social behaviour. Kleinke, (1986, in Hargie, 1996) defines eye contact is an important aspect of Western culture and interpersonal communication. During the CNN interview Madonna maintains a high level of eye contact to adhere to this cultural norm. Eye contact creates a relationship between the viewer and Madonna, as suggested by Axtell (1994, in Devito, 2009) it is viewed as an expression of honesty; which Madonna needs to ensure as she is promoting her charity.

Theorist Erving Goffman (1967, in Devito, 2009) refers to avoiding eye contact or changing your glance to other people as civil inattention. Subsequently, Madonna avoids all eye contact when verbally discussing the controversy about adopting children from Malawi with her eyes glancing upwards and remaining closed for an estimated two to three seconds. This tactic of communication during the interview is used to create her own personal private proximity. The proximity is needed for the sensitive topic and avoiding eye contact with Cho means Madonna can express herself without the feeling of the cameras or interviewee intruding.

Paralanguage and silence

A person with a faster speech rate is more likely to have an advantage in communicating information as defined by MacLachlan (1979). Madonna communicates at a fast rate with her paralanguage, her tone and volume remain consistent throughout the interview. The silences that occur in the interview are due to sensitive subjects about adoption and the improbable reality that Madonna cannot help every child in Malawi. The silences relate to the spiral of science theory discussed by Devito (2009, pg141) in which the silences are the chance for the speaker to calculate a response.  Madonna’s use of silences is effective as it suggests to viewers that this communication technique is being used as she is a thoughtful individual consequently gaining support for ‘Raising Malawi’.

Spatial messages

Madonna’s interview is in public territories, with the location of the studio being owned by the organisation CNN. This unfamiliar setting affects Madonna’s proto language; she remains upright and self composed; appropriate for the interview. Her body language and stance communicates to a viewer that she is confident, and therefore the confidence and attitude is associated with the ‘Raising Malawi’ organisation.

The limited time of the interview means the focus of the questions are on Madonna’s purpose, ethics and plans for Malawi. Lustig and Koester (2006) discuss how European Americans place emphasis within their communication on the future. Madonna constantly expresses the desire and drive for future plans for Malawi through verbal messages about a girl’s school in Malawi and NVC touching her heart and smiling which communicates a positive outlook to the future. The future orientated presence and attitude of Madonna promotes her charity in a positive way as it is discussed as an achievable and positive goal.

The concept of ‘the self’ and self disclosure are communication skills used by Madonna to promote ‘Raising Malawi’.

Concept of the ‘self’

Madonna describes herself “like a cockroach” in her approach to charity work and her resilient nature. The description about her goes against the consistency theory discussed by McBroom and Reed (1992, in Devito, 2009) in which descriptions are partnerships and equal. However, Madonna is a female icon who’s perceived and presents herself differently to how she behaves. For example Madonna has been known as controversial, she describes herself as a cockroach and she matches a dollar for every dollar donated. This is effective use of communication skills as she is going against the consistency theory which presents her as fun and unpredictable, and to some viewers this is an admirable quality.

Self disclosure

Madonna self discloses information about herself during the interview to inform and educate viewers about the ‘Raising Malawi’ charity. In addition the self disclosed information gives an insight into Madonna’s personality,

“Sometimes, it just, it stops you dead in your tracks and you think, ‘Oh, my god. I can’t do this,’ but then I see the success rate. I talk to the people in Malawi whose lives have been changed and that just helps me and keeps me going.”

Madonna presents herself as trustworthy and honest with her emotions, whilst at the same time remaining autonomous. As discussed by Berger and Bell (1988, in Burleson, 2003), self presentation is the communication skill technique to be liked by people. Therefore, Madonna presents herself as self reliant and an individualist with a masculine culture. Devito (2009) discusses, a masculine culture emphasises success and confronting issues. Madonna uses self disclosure with a masculine approach to appear as a role model and icon for other females. This is effective communication as it gains support for her as an individual and ‘Raising Malawi’.

Relationship theories and pro social behaviour

Devito (2009) discusses three pairs of opposing motives in relationship dialectics; autonomy and connection, closedness and openness, and novelty and predictability.    Relationship dialectics theory can be applied to Madonna and her pro social behaviour in ‘Raising Malawi’. The relationship partnership is Madonna and the public. Casmir (1994) discusses two relationship dialectics; autonomy and connection (page 176) the opposing attributes of being an individual and being close to someone sharing a bond. This relates to Madonna’s as through verbal and NVC skills, she adopts a masculine culture. In the aspect of relationship theories, she remains an independent individual (autonomy) as she remains composed and calm. This is evident when Cho asks a probing question, “It seems that a lot of the things I do end up being controversial even when I don’t mean them to be” she replies confidently and does not express any weak emotions. The interview begins emphasising her individualist nature, “You’re Madonna…. No I’m not” her reply signifies her need to be regarded as a person not through her ‘star’ name. In contrast, Madonna’s self disclosure “I would love to take them all home” allows viewers to gain an insight into her feelings and good intentions for the children in Malawi.

The openness and closedness can be applied to Madonna’s relationship between herself and Cho. The openness is within the self disclosure of emotions within the interview, “I talk to the people in Malawi whose lives have been changed and that just helps me and keeps me going”, this self disclosure of feelings and experiences from Madonna, that viewers did not previously know, helps viewers respond positively to her work in ‘Raising Malawi’.

Novelty and predictability dialectics create trust between the viewer and Madonna. Madonna creates novelty by describing herself as a “cockroach”. This is analysed as a FTA to herself; as the connotations of a cockroach is negative and considered by some people as vermin. Therefore the negative self labelling has a reverse psychological effect on the viewer. The unexpected phrase is received positively by viewers as it is humorous. The predictability is through Madonna’s verbal communication, “We found and met a lot of people who were sick and dying of HIV, with no medical help” the comfort is created by reminding the viewers of information and facts that they know. The existing knowledge being reinforced makes viewers respond positively to Madonna’s pro social behaviour as they feel at advantage being able to recognise the good act and they feel their status is equal to Madonna’s as both positions are knowledgeable.

Social penetration devised by Altman and Taylor (1973, in Berry, 1997) argues that the more intimate relationships become the more information is disclosed. When applied to the CNN interview the later into the interview the more information is disclosed. The revelation of information is separated into two parts: breadth and depth The last disclosure from Madonna is repeated by Cho and is the most exclusive information, “I’m embarrassed to tell you this, I don’t even know where Malawi is” Cho explains the reasons behind ‘Raising Malawi’; a woman phoned Madonna for help in Malawi knowing Madonna is famous and has the status and ability to reach thousands of people. The interview is social penetration. The breadth has been established; the reasoning behind Madonna’s pro social behaviour then the depth is then the reaction to the phone call; with Madonna travelling to Malawi setting up the charity. The breadth of the relationship cannot be explored further due to the interview having a time limit and one main focus. These factors affect the social penetration of the situation and therefore limit the full ability to critique Madonna’s pro social behaviour alongside relationship theories. However, it can be noted that Madonna limits her use of communication skills due to the time limit of the interview and therefore uses the most effective skills for the interview situation.

The social exchange theory can be identified with Madonna’s pledge for her pro social behaviour, “Match my dollar” every dollar that is donated Madonna will match. In reference to the social exchange theory Chadwick-Jones et al (1976, in Devito, 2009) stated that you develop relationships to therefore maximise your profits: profits= rewards – costs. Madonna’s pro social behaviour goes against this theory. Her money is the costs in the equation as she is matching every dollar donated which is therefore to gain as much support as possible for ‘Raising Malawi’. The profit of this relationship with Madonna, and the media and the public, benefits Malawi as the country has gained publicity. This relationship theory shows how Madonna gains support for her pro social behaviour through her verbal communication to the public.

However, some people believe that the social exchange theory shows that Madonna is profiting from her pro social behaviour, creating the charity, ‘Raising Malawi’ as it has gained her publicity stunts. This is discussed on websites, <> where people are discussing Madonna’s actions of adopting a child from Malawi as selfish and to gain attention from the newspapers. In the media industry, celebrity adoption stories are reported.. A theory discussed by Charng and Piliavin (1990) evaluates observational learning of pro social behaviour. The theories investigated are upon children but can be applied to the current media world. The studies have proven how positive examples are viewed and then copied by children and therefore these copied actions can set new standards for behaviour. When applied to pro social behaviour amongst celebrities, some people feel it is copycat celebrity culture to be in the limelight performing charitable actions <> this forum discusses adoption as pro social behaviour actions copied by different celebrities.

When applied with the social exchange theory, it can be evaluated that a celebrity icon gains profit from publicity across all channels of communication (television, magazine, radio .e.t.c) as they are being positively portrayed. The observational study also focuses on the length of time (exposure) the child has to charitable acts, and the longer length of time meant the child learnt the appropriate standard quicker. Similarly celebrities view each other and then they can use this to set a standard for themselves and what pro social behaviour they should undertake to gain publicity.

The term pro social behaviour is frequently associated with the term altruism, “It is often seen as a specific kind of helping with some additional characteristics that concern the helper’s intentions and benefits” Dovidio (1995, pg18). This concept discusses the motivation and thoughts behind charitable actions and is an ongoing discussion with celebrities in what their motives are with philanthropy and whether they gain from the action.


After analysing and evaluating Madonna’s communication skills in relevance to relationship theories it is evident that Madonna uses effective communication skills and relationships to promote her philanthropy act of setting up and continuously donating to the ‘Raising Malawi’ charity. Madonna’s effective and positive use of verbal messages, listening techniques, kinesics, self disclosure and paralinguistic’s promote her pro social behaviour in the CNN interview. The relationship theories establish the ways in which Madonna’s relationship with the public is created; openness and closedness, predictability and novelty and autonomy and connection. The convention of the interview assists the social penetration theory as Madonna discloses more to Cho and the public. The social exchange theory, alongside Madonna’s verbal messages of matching a dollar for every dollar donated proves Madonna’s pro social behaviour of ‘Raising Malawi’ is selfless and should be received positively.



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Charng, H-W. & Piliavin, J. A. (1990) Altruism: A review of recent theory and research [online] Vol. 16 Available from – JSTOR: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 16 (1990), pp. 27-65 [28 April 2010]

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CNN (2009) Interview about Malawi. [Online Video] 23 December 2009. Available from – [Accessed 24 April 2010]

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Telegraph. (2006) Should Madonna Adopt An African Child? [online] Available from – [Accessed 28 April 2010]


Cheryl Cole and Piers Morgan

Cheryl Cole gave an exclusive interview with Piers Morgan, 23rd October, discussing her Malaria ordeal, recent divorce and her rise to fame :

Cheryl Cole emphasised how she had been avoiding any interviews with journalists until now, as she did not want to discuss her personal life with the media, it was not a “soap”. Probing questions from Piers about Cheryl’s marriage with Ashley Cole and the traumatic experience of malaria caused upset. The majority of the interview saw Cheryl fighting back the tears and speaking highly of everyone, including Ashley Cole. “Part of me will always love him”.

Cheryl Cole also offered an ‘exclusive’ interview for Guardian readers, but a similar article could also be read in The Sun newspaper.

So what do we take from this exclusive interview? Was it a one-off, exclusive interview, to try to bury all of the rumours that the public have read over the past few years about Cheryl Cole and Ashley, about malaria and about her rise to fame? Was it the chance for Cheryl to share her experience of surviving malaria. Had her new-found health urged her to face the media once and for all. The last suggestion is for the cynics amongst us,  or is it simply a coincidence that Cheryl Cole has a new album being released on 1st November 2010?

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