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The Culture Code

By Murray Bourne, 23 Jun 2007

by Clotaire Rapaille Random House 2006

CUlture Code

Summary Review

Rapaille has an interesting take on the way different cultures view themselves − and others. He believes that there are strong codes that are imprinted early in life, and these cultural codes impact on the way we respond to events, what we buy and what we do. Nothing much new so far, but some of his conclusions are amusing and thought-provoking.

For example, he describes how Americans "kill" their cheese. The culture code for cheese in America is "Dead". The cheese is pasteurised, it is stored in a refrigerator, it is wrapped up in plastic and it tastes bland. On the other hand, the code for cheese in France is "Alive". Cheese there is kept at room temperature, has a strong aroma and a strong taste.

Such observations have implications for marketing, presentation and predictability of success - commercial success and the sale of ideas in different cultures.

The book is a compilation of the market research carried out by the author over many years. From the blurb:

Clotaire Rapaille reveals for the first time the techniques he has used to improve profitability and practices for dozens of Fortune 100 companies. His groundbreaking revelations shed light not just on business but on the way every human being acts and lives around the world.

There are many stereotypes presented in the book, but to be fair, he only has so many pages to capture the essence of each topic. Another criticism I have is that his observations on Japanese culture are not quite right (for example, when referring to arranged marriages, he says "few have anything to do with romance"). Perhaps he hasn't been there for many years.

The US as Adolescent

I became more involved in this book when he started to talk about Europe being a "mature" culture (slow to react, considered, wise, experienced), while the US is "adolescent" (is volatile, acts without thinking, does not take advice from elders).

A theme that pervades the book is the confusion that people from other countries feel about the US. If they are "so stupid", why are they so successful? A hint for an answer comes in the following conclusion:

The American Culture Code for America is DREAM.


The US code for love is "False expectation, for seduction it is "Manipulation", for sex it is "Violence", for beauty we have "Man's salvation" and for fat it is "Checking out". His reasoning for these conclusions (including quotes from his pillow sessions) is actually quite sound.

Method for Determining the Codes

Consistent with other research methodology that I have been reading lately (like Jakob Nielsen's Web usability studies), Rapaille strongly believes that surveys are useless. Why? Because people answer with what they think the researcher wants to hear. There are too many "filters" going on. His approach to obtaining cultural data:

Principle 1: You can't believe what people say.
Principle 2: Emotion is the energy required to learn something.
Principle 3: The structure, not the content, is the message.
Principle 4: There is a window in time for imprinting, and the meaning of the imprint varies from one culture to another.
Principle 5: To access the meaning of an imprint within a particular culture, you must learn the code for that imprint.

He describes the sessions that he uses to get his "authentic" data, culminating in a session where subjects lie on the floor, surrounded by pillows, talking about first memories of an event, an emotion or a concept.

The Author's Confused Cultural Identity

The author is French, and it was unsettling in the early parts of the book when he kept referring to "we" when talking about Americans. What seemed to be going on was a repudiation of his roots. It was probably unsettling because I have been living out of my own country for 14 years, and "we" as a term of cultural affinity becomes more nebulous as the years go on.

Once he explains why he went to America to live, and what it has meant since, all became clear.


This book is well worth a read. You get an interesting take on all sorts of projects that the author has worked on, including views on alcohol, the popularity of the PT Cruiser, Japanese whaling, the Bush campaign, money and the world's current disdain for the war in Iraq.

Cultural understanding is in short supply right now. This book goes some way in helping to bridge the gap.

See the 2 Comments below.

2 Comments on “The Culture Code”

  1. coleman yee says:

    I found the book quite interesting in that it gives a fresh perspective on how to view and understand culture and cultural issues. But I wouldn't forget the pinch of salt, given his research techniques which seem to use some form of hypnosis (although he doesn't say so).

  2. Murray says:

    He uses a 3-hour session:

    Hour 1: He takes on the role of a visitor from another planet and asks the members of the group to describe the object (or concept) of interest.

    Hour 2: Then the group cuts out words from magazines and makes a collage about the object. In the process, they tell stories about their understanding of it.

    Hour 3: He puts on calming music and gets them in a relaxed state. Then he takes them "on a journey back from their adulthood, past their teenage years, to a time when they were very young." They then have to recall their earliest memory of the object.

    Yep - sounds a lot like hypnosis. But is that such a bad thing? From Scientific Lie Detection (link no longer available):

    It is far more common to see hypnosis used in the pre-indictment state of criminal justice, where the police have yet to zero in on a suspect. Eyewitnesses are often involved here. The most popular methods involve past-memory regression and memory enhancement. The first method is usually designed to 'unblock' something that is preventing the eyewitness from remembering, and the second method is designed to better 'see' some detail, such as a license plate number. The second method is more controversial than the first, and is reminiscent of the psychic technique of 'clairvoyance'.

    Rapaille's point is that people never answer honestly when asked a question in a focus group. It is only when they talk about earliest memories and stories that they are likely to reveal what they are really thinking.

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