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 value. 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; Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review 2 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 Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review 5 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 statements. 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. Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review 7 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 Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review 8 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 Arthur Asa Berger The Culture Code Review 9 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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