Fast Company

The Man Behind the Culture Code

While anthropologist, Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, is out there preaching the gospel of indelible cultural imprints, some critics argue that his methods stereotype cultures. In this in-depth interview, we uncover the culture code as well as some of its criticisms.

While it seems we're living in a time of homogenized cultures -- a Gapified, Starbuckian world of creepy familiarity -- Dr. Clotaire Rapaille is out there preaching the gospel of indelible cultural imprints. Rapaille, a French-born anthropologist, believes that culture is destiny, and that we are conditioned by early archetypes that shape and sculpt our "reference systems." So a French child and an American child see the world through vastly different optics -- such as Barbie versus Brie. And they always will. So why in the world would a company's marketing plan target them in the same way?

Rapaile's new book The Culture Code demonstrates how code can explain national behavior, and the marketing consequences that spiral out of it.

Do Jerry Falwell and Chris Rock share the same cultural code?

Absolutely, although they would think I'm crazy for saying it. And that dichotomy is a unique expression of the AMERICAN CODE. You see, a cultural code is not a simple box. It is a complex system -- what I call a "reference system. " It is imprinted at an early age, and contains within itself many tensions. So can we say that we are the land of the free, and at the same time be the land of prohibition and political correctness? Absolutely.

We seem to be sprinting towards homogenization. MTV and Starbucks everywhere. Immigration is churning the social architecture. Globalized companies are spreading consistent values that are country-agnostic. Are cultural codes getting weaker in a so-called flat world?

We are not speaking of countries, or nations, which are obsolete concepts, but of cultures. In that context, cultures are becoming more and more aware of their uniqueness, and are ready to fight and die to protect and preserve them. And when some die in the service of that culture, their deaths have a special meaning, which in and of itself is also a cultural imprint.

The Kurds, who are dispersed in several countries, still preserve their culture, as do the Shia and the Sunnis. Quebec is going to fight again to become independent. The French are actually (and unfortunately) more French than ever.

The Japanese will return to being a military power, following their code, and despite half a century of pacificism. The Russians have snapped back to their code, which combines elements of a Tsarist structure and deeply seated religious beliefs. Culture-codes are enormously resilient, capable of surviving incredibly hard times. In fact, the more they are attacked, the stronger they become as they wait patiently for their time to come back.

People have said that your codes are cultural stereotypes. Can a complex country like the U.S. really be reduced to a bumper sticker?

Reference systems are a complex construct of tensions. The code is a simple way to access this system. But if you just look at the code without knowing the system, it looks like a cliché, or a stereotype. A better way to think of a cultural archetype is as an empty structure, a magnetic field that organizes new content, for generation after generation. A "stereotype" is just an expression of the cultural archetype.

For me, the question is not about the validity of these stereotypes, but about their very existence. They cannot be denied. They cannot be ignored. We should use the culture code to understand them. So we need to ask: Where are they coming from, what do they reveal about the collective unconscious that puts them to use?

America, you maintain, is an adolescent culture. Isn't that a post-1960s phenomenon? The so--called "Greatest Generation" who marched off to World War II wasn't wearing backwards baseball caps and refusing to grow up.

Oscar Wilde said that Americans are obsessed with their youth, and he was right. We have been obsessed by it for about 300 years now, way before botox existed. What changes is the temporary expression of the code, but not the code itself. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s has been followed but the “say no to sex” boomerang. This is the tension I speak of.

So like adolescents in general were are obsessed by sex. But that doesn't mean we have a sexual culture. We're like impulsive adolescents; we never read instructions. Of course not all of us. I am describing what the culture code offers to people in order for them to function and be accepted in a given culture.

Hold on. Aren't there many dimensions of American life that are far from adolescent? Take our love of self-help and our fixation on germs. Adolescents reject touchy-feely self-improvement and see themselves as immortal.

Yes, of course, adolescents are complex. One day they are invincible, the next day they are depressed and want to kill themselves. For the same reason, we cannot understand the sleeping giant, without the superman archetype.

So these adolescent tensions stay with us as we get older. We have a long-term perspective when it comes to principles -- we believe our Constitutional principles are self-evident, universal, and valid forever and ever. Contrast this with our fascination for the "now time," the quick fix, the easy solution, the microwave metabolism. Both sides are, again, part of the American code. We have the oldest written constitution still operating in the world but we are obsessed by short-term results. Up and down all the time, that is the adolescent mind driven by hormones.

You say that cultures move at glacial speeds. Would you tell that to a 70-year-old black woman or gay man who lived through the difficult years of the 1950s? They're living in a radically re-structured world.

The times have changed but the tensions haven't. Here, it's between our obsession with new (new world, new man, New York, New Orleans, etc) and at the same time creating a place where we can be as rigid and conservative as we choose. We are not tolerant. We just created a new world where all the intolerant people can live together.

"America has never produced a world class classical composer," you opine in your book. Is Aaron Copeland chopped liver?

Sorry but nobody will ever compare Copeland with Mozart. Most of the people around the world have no idea of who this guy is, but they all know Mozart.

Do companies have Codes? How about religions?

Yes. We have done the code for General Electric, Procter and Gamble, and General Motors. I've never tackled religions, but they definitely have deep and resonant codes.

Are there some cultural codes that pre-determine a nation for wealth and success? Or is it the other way around...does economic success shape the Code?

Of course it does. Max Weber is the cultural North Star on this question. Quebec is a good example of a code working against prosperity; it's a Catholic culture unable to lift its people out of submission and poverty. Confucianism, on the other hand values success. See Joel Kotkin's books about tribes, identity, and resultant success. Look at the Jews after the Diaspora; the Chinese, Indians and Brits. Their success is based on some basic code elements that they share: tight family structures, a belief in education, and a flexible but powerful network.

Adam Hanft is a nationally-known authority on consumer marketing, business strategy and social trends. He and Clotaire Rapaille have worked with some of the same companies.

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5 Comments

  • Eben Carlson

    Homoginization is just part of growth. When consistency is no longer rare, ideosyncracy and decentralization will be valued and spread. It already is in many places/cases.

    And it won't be hard to implement it institutionally or as a corporate culture. Just a matter of letting go.

    The main stumbling block is that all our cultural goods--all our content--is socialized. Has a fixed price.

    Which, as anyone with an economic degree understands, massively retards growth.

    Would you expect anything but frozen burgers and greasy fries if all food was $.99? Or magic soles if all shoes were $14.95?

    Cultural content is probably the MOST price dependent thing and we're completely blind to the fact that most of our consumers--our citizens--go without a decent movie most weekends.

    We think going without--movies, music, magazines--is part of growing up.

    Not for lack of funds, or lack of demand--but to maintain some ancient notion of studio control and a democracy.

    This is why the music industry is collapsing. And as other mediums go digital fixed prices for content will be impossible to maintain across the board.

    Once we have varied content pricing, we'll have the cultures--and the cultural jobs--we've always dreamed about.

    Premium global cultures.

    You heard it here first.

    www.whiteg.com

    And, by the way, cultures don't move slowly. From uptight suburbanites afraid of the bomb to ripped jean wearing hipsters in just 40 years--and speeding up all the time. That's very rapid.

    We're still adolescent, but we're still under universal law--which means we're growing.

    Post-modernism, like quantum theory, suggests that our universe should be shrinking. In fact, it's expanding. And doing so at an ever increasing rate of speed.

    So much for Chicken Little.

  • Phil

    I was intrigued by the negative aspect of stereotypes brought up by the questioner. Stereotyping is a natural method of processing by our brain. When we evaluate anything, our brain learns to identify it, process it and quickly move it out of short-term memory to our subconscious. The when it is seen, heard or felt again...it is quickly resurrected. The brain thus creates "mental macros". That is how the brain can function and help us make sense of the world. That is stereotyping.

    In our modern world we have found a way to turn a natural brain process into something "bad". If you want to stop a discussion, accuse someone of stereotyping. That way we don`t have to talk about a subject. That is why we cannot work through a lot of problems because we would rather villify a process than understand each other. Let`s just call each other names, start fights and polarize our relationships. Doesn`t that sound childish or adolescent. Hummm, didn`t he say adolescence was part of the American culture code?