Clotaire Rapaille, The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to by ycPLCf


									Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review      1

Clotaire Rapaille, The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why

People Around The World Live and Buy as They Do. New York: Broadway

Books. 2006. 214 pages. Paper. $14.00.

         There is a question we must ask when we think about Clotaire

Rapaille’s latest book, The Culture Code. Is he the best French observer of

American culture since De Tocqueville or is he some kind of a super-slick

snake-oil salesman who has charmed, and maybe hoodwinked, the heads of

some of the biggest corporations in the United States and elsewhere? On the

back cover, Warren Bennis has written a blurb describing the book as

“astonishing.” He writes that it is “filled with profound insights and ideas that

have enormous consequences for today’s organizations. If you want to

understand customers, constituencies and crowds, this book is required

reading.” That’s very high praise from a distinguished scholar. But blurbs

are not necessarily the most accurate description of a book’s contents or


         The cover of the paperback is most instructive. There is a photograph

of the world, with a large keyhole on it and a key that, we must assume, helps

“unlock” secrets of interest to us all. That key is what Rapaille calls a

“culture code,” which he defines as “the unconscious meaning we apply to

any given thing—a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country—via the

culture in which we are raised.” (5). There are, he suggests, three variations

on the unconscious: Freud’s individual unconscious, which guides

individuals; Jung’s collective unconscious, which guides all human beings;
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and that one that is of most interest and utility to Rapaille, a cultural

unconscious, that is based on cultures, and more distinctly, generally on

national cultures.

        He explains that “there is an American mind, just as there is a French

mind, an English mind, a Kurdish mind, and a Latvian mind. Every culture

has its own mind-set, and that mind-set teaches us about who we are in

profound ways.” (27) It is these mind-sets that generate the codes, the action

principles based on each distinctive cultural unconscious.

        Rapaille explains that traditional surveys and other means of gauging

public opinion are not helpful. He offers five principles that guide his

research. First, “You can’t believe what people say.” This is because, he

explains, people often give you answers to questions that they think you want

and because “most people don’t know why they do the things they do.” (14).

He says he adopts the role of “the professional stranger” who needs help from

people to find out why they do what they do. His second principle is that

“Emotion is the energy required to learn anything.” (17) Emotions, he argues,

are the keys to learning and to being imprinted. Most of this imprinting is

done while we are children, which is when we absorb the important codes in

our cultures.

        His third principle is “the structure, not the content, is the message,”

(19) and he mentions the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss in this regard. Thus,

when Clotaire examines statements written by participants in his discovery

sessions, he is looking for structural phenomena, or themes. For example, in

doing research for Chrysler, he discovered that common to the statements was

the sense that automobiles play a major role in giving Americans their

identity. This leads to his fourth principle which is that “There is a window in
Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review        3

time for imprinting and the meaning of the imprint varies from one culture to

another.” (21) For most people, the imprinting of things that are most central

to our lives is done by the time they reach the age of seven. For Rapaille, as

for Freud, the child is the father of the man.

        His fifth principle is that “to access the meaning of an imprint with a

particular culture, you must learn the code for that imprint.” (24) And that is

the key to approach—decoding cultures for their unconscious imperatives,

which explain why they consume and live as they do. He offers an interesting

example of different codes. The French, he says, code cheese as “alive,” and

thus store it at room temperature in a cloche. Americans, on the other hand,

code cheese as “dead,” and place it in plastic and in “a morgue also known as

a refrigerator.” (25.)

        Rapaille has developed a methodology for finding the codes that

interest him, and his employers, for his work has mostly involved finding

ways for corporations to sell products to people. He brings “discovery

groups” of people—variations of focus groups, it would seem--together for

three hours. In the first hour, he takes on the persona of the “stranger” and

pretending he knows nothing about the product being investigated, asks

people in the group to help him understand the product. In the second hour, he

has the people in the group sit on the floor and cut up magazines to make a

collage of words about the product, hoping it will provide him with more

clues about the product. In the third hour, he has the members of the group lie

on the floor, with their heads on pillows, while he plays soothing music. This

is to induce them to reach a tranquil stage just before sleep, when they can

return, in theory, to the first imprints that were made about the product being

considered. He asks the discovery group members to recall their first memory
Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review      4

of the product and the emotions they felt about it. They are asked to write

comments about these emotions that Rapaille uses to discern the codes that

are relevant to the product being investigated.

        As he writes, “If I could get to the source of these imprints—if I could

somehow ‘decode’ elements of culture to discover the emotions and meanings

attached to them—I would learn a great deal about human behavior and how

it varies across the planet. This set me on the course of my life’s work. I

went off in search of the Codes hidden with the unconscious of every

culture.” (10). Though we have a common humanity, he writes, people really

are different in terms of their national cultures and culture codes are the

means by which he can understand these differences.

        By explaining how these codes work, he believes he can achieve his

goal of helping liberate people. “My primary intent is to liberate those who

read this book. There is remarkable freedom gained in understanding why

you act the way you do This freedom will affect every part of your life, from

the relationships you have, to your feelings about your possessions and the

things you do, to the attitudes you have about America’s place in the world.”

(11) These codes have utility for corporations that want to find ways to

market their products but they also can help us deal with personal and social

problems. So while The Culture Code is written from a marketer’s

perspective, understanding cultural codes also has implications for politics,

social relationships and many other aspects of life.

        In the book we find Rapaille discussing any number of social and

cultural matters, such as obesity, health, food, alcohol, seduction, shopping,

and the American presidency. He does so, generally from a comparative

perspective focusing on different national cultural codings. Thus, in dealing
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with a subject, such as what dinner “means” to Americans, he also discusses

dining in other countries, such as England, France, and Japan. In his search

for culture codes, he relies exclusively, it seems, on written statements from

the people who participate in his “discovery” sessions. He typically quotes

from a number of statements and then derives his codes from these


        Let me offer one typical example of his work. Chapter eight in his

book, “More is More: The Codes for Food and Alcohol,” describes codings

for food in America, France, and Italy. He has six quotations from his

discovery sessions about food. The first one reads, in part:

        I try to make a nice dinner for my family at least twice a week,

        but we don’t set down together all that often. The rest of the week

        we’re eating on the fly….a forty-one-year-old woman. (144)

The last selection has an interesting comment:

        I can’t tell you what I ate at most of the fancy restaurants I’ve been to,

        but I can tell you what we talked about. Eating was never that

        important to me. Sometimes people have to remind to eat and I really

        only do it to keep going. a thirty-three-year-old woman. (145)

Rapaille points out that not all of the stories he solicited from people during

his discovery sessions are like this, and recognizes that American has a large

number of “food aficionados” or “foodies” whose dining practices are similar

to European ones. But the message he got from the stories people in his

discovery group wrote about was that our bodies are machines and food is

what we need to keep the machine running. Thus, he asserts:

        “The American Culture-Code for food is FUEL.” (146)
Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review     6

        Thus, he explains, Americans tend to end a meal saying “I’m full”

while French people end a meal by saying “That was delicious.” In America,

he suggests, food is connected with love (tied to our earliest memories of

being fed by our mothers) and is seen as a kind of “safe sex,” and while we

have negative feelings about sex in our national unconscious, we feel positive

about taking food into our bodies for pleasure.

        He recognizes that all cultures are full of tensions, caused by

conflicting archetypes. Thus, American culture is torn between those of

freedom and prohibition. In France, he says, the tension is between freedom

and privilege. And there are, he adds, similar conflicts in all cultures. He

offers an example of this matter in his chapter on the codes for beauty and fat.

In America, where he asserts the unconscious code for sex is violence, women

have to deal with the axis between beauty and provocativeness, and the

pendulum swings from one extreme to another.

        When it comes to obesity, he has an interesting insight. He was

invited to a symposium at Tufts university on obesity and noticed that a third

of people at the symposium were obese and the other two-thirds were

overweight. (That would mean that he was the only person there who was not

obese or overweight.) He describes how most of the lecturers talked about the

importance of education in fighting obesity yet the people at the symposium

were both educated and overweight and obese. Since approximately half of

the people in America are overweight or obese, there has to be a cultural

reason behind this, he argues. He quotes a number of people at his discovery

session on the matter and concluded that the thread running through them was

that people who were overweight unconsciously saw their being overweight

or obese as functional, as a means of distancing themselves from others.
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Being fat was on the opposite pole from connection, which led him to offer

his code for obesity:

        The Code for fat in American is CHECKING OUT. (69)

        He explains how this works: “Getting fat is the most common

available unconscious way to check out of the rat race, to adopt a strong

identity (as an overweight person) without having to fight for it, to move from

active to passive. Being fat allows us to know who we are (fat), why this has

happened (the overabundance of food “forced” on us), who is responsible

(McDonald’s…) and what our identity is (a victim). Fat allows us to use

commonly accepted alibis to regress to childhood.” (69) These two examples

offer a representative sampling of the kind of topics Rapaille deals with and

the nature of the insights he offers.

        Much of the book deals with marketing campaigns he was involved

with and his discussion of his successes in marketing Folger’s coffee, helping

sell Jeeps--“The code for Jeeps in America is HORSE” (2)--and launching the

PT Cruise would suggest that he’s on to something and that his insights have

proved valuable to the many corporations that have him on retainer.

        So what are we to make of this book?

        The Culture Code was written for the popular market and is very

accessible, stylistically speaking. The book is almost data free, though

Clotaire does offer statistics here and there, some of which are quite startling.

He writes that is has been reported that “the average American spends six

minutes eating dinner.” (144) I’d be interested in knowing who reported it and

how this figure was determined.

        Rapaille doesn’t offer quotations from authorities and experts to

support his contentions, except for two that are found at the beginning of his
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book. One is from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword about

our lack of knowledge of other cultures and the other is from Robert Wright’s

The Moral Animal which reads “We are all puppets, and our best hope for

even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.” (vii)

He doesn’t mention or discuss work by other great decoders, such as Roland

Barthes, who decoded and demystified French culture in his Mythologies and

Japanese culture in his Empire of Signs or Ernest Dichter, who is generally

considered to the be the father of motivational research in the United States.

There’s no bibliography in the book of sources that people reading the book

would find useful.

        All Rapaille’s decodings, it would seem, are derived from the

discovery sessions he holds and his interpretations of the writings of people

attending these sessions. We have no way of knowing how representative the

material he quotes from the discovery sessions is or how representative the

people attending his discovery sessions are.

        He does augment his decodings with discussions of codings in other

cultures, which helps Americans gain a better perspective on their cultural

practices and beliefs. Having been raised in France and then coming over to

America and adopting the role of the “stranger” has provided him with the

ability to offer some really fascinating perceptions and interpretations of

American culture. He has extremely interesting things to say about other

cultures, as well.

        Despite its lack of scholarly material, and its focus on marketing

products, The Culture Code is a book that represents an important

contribution to understanding how cultures work their ways on people. The

book should be seen an attempt to answer the questions raised by Ruth
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Benedict’s quotation that begins the book. She asked what is was that makes

Japan a nation of Japanese, The United States a nation of Americans, France a

nation of Frenchmen (we would add French women nowadays), and Russia a

nation of Russians. Rapaille’s answer is that it is the codes that shape each of

the cultures and the individuals who grow up in each culture and he offers

some intriguing and suggestive insights into how people arrive at their

national-cultural identities.

        Let me answer the question posed at the beginning of this review.

Although The Culture Code is written for the general public and lacks

scholarly apparatus, it is a fascinating book and one that has insights that may

actually be quite important and useful for social scientists and those involved

with policy making in a number of areas. I don’t think Clotaire Rapaille is a

snake-oil salesman, but if I were a manufacturer of snake-oil, he’d be the first

person I would contact to find out how to market it.

Arthur Asa Berger is the author of Bloom’s Morning: Coffee, Comforters and

the Secret Meaning of Everyday Life and Shop ‘Til You Drop: Consumer

Behavior and American Culture.

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