Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication

Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication

Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication

Meanings in Madagascar: Cases of Intercultural Communication


Most analyses of interpersonal communication ignore the relationship between communication and culture. When intercultural communication takes place, the interlocutors may have very different conceptions of what is being discussed, since meaning in any culture results from lifelong learning within that culture. Such concepts as worldviews, cultural beliefs, and decision-making processes are unique to each culture, and affect each culture's interpretation of meaning. To illustrate problems with communication and culture, Dahl focuses on the cultures of Madagascar and the Western World. He suggests many ways in which the Malagasy's worldview and values are different from the Westerner's, and how these differences affect communication. A "meaning matrix" is included to assist in interpretations of everyday cases.


Tsy mba olona ny vazaha, fa zanahary tsy omby lanitra [The foreigners are not people, but gods for whom there has been no room in heaven (old saying)]

When Madagascar received its name from the thirteenth-century Venetian explorer, Marco Polo--250 years before any European had placed foot on the island--probably the name itself was a misinterpretation. He was told imaginative stories by Arab sailors of this marvelous island, where a giant bird "Roc" could airlift elephants and drop them on sailing ships--probably another miscommunication between Malagasy, Arabs, and Europeans. Actually, the "elephant bird" (Aepiornis) did exist at the time, but it could not fly.

There are different cultures present in Madagascar. Officially there are 18 indigenous Malagasy ethnic groups (see map), as well as foreigners from the Comoro Islands, Indians, Chinese, French, British, North Americans, and Norwegians, to mention only some of the more important groups. However, all Malagasy speak the same language, with only dialectal differences, which is an exceptional fact in an African context and a consequence of the relative late immigration from South-East Asia, from about AD 700 on (O. C. Dahl, 1951, 1991).

Following the tradition of Marco Polo, Westerners still misinterpret the Malagasy, drawing imaginative conclusions from small elements of facts. And vice versa, the Malagasy also have problems in interpreting Westerners, both what they say and what they do. While the main focus in this study is the Western-

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