culture code

Summary of

The Culture Code

An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do

Clotaire Rapaille







The core idea of this pleasant, accessible book is easy to grasp: Culturally specific codes shape people’s understandings, behaviors and emotional responses. French-born psychoanalyst and marketing maven Clotaire Rapaille brings a useful perspective shaped by his experiences as a U.S. immigrant to his discussion of what he calls “Culture Codes.” His methods for tapping into these codes are straightforward. However, some of his conclusions lead to fairly sweeping, general claims about overall national cultures. His explanations of coded cultural instincts and actions are still interesting, particularly when he delves specifically into American, French, English, German, Japanese and other societies. getAbstract suggests his book to those interested in cultural differences and those responsible for tailoring marketing concepts to reach specific national audiences around the world.

In this summary, you will learn

What “Culture Codes” are;

How they shape people’s responses, associations and feelings; and

How culture codes vary across nations.


A “Culture Code” is the unconscious meaning people apply to any given thing – a car, a type of food, even a country – via the culture in which they are raised.

The culture codes that you grew up with determine your actions and emotional responses.

Early imprinting creates this code, which shapes your understanding of the world.

People cite rational reasons for their actions, but their codes explain their real reasons.

Your brain has three parts: rational, emotional and reptilian, the part focused on survival and reproduction. The reptilian brain allows people to gain access to deeper meaning, and to say what they really mean

Often, paired binaries at the opposite ends of a spectrum shape a culture’s codes, i.e., in America freedom is balanced by prohibition. In France, prohibition is balanced by privilege.

Americans unconsciously fixate on adolescence and youthful ideals, with a focus on the “now,” a need to challenge authority, and openness to change and second chances. An older culture like Britain’s sees youth as temporary foolishness.

In America, movement and mobility are highly prized, and food is treated as fuel.

America’s code for work is identity: your job is who you are.

Although a product will have a different “code” in each culture, it is essential that a brand or product maintain a sense of where it comes when it goes out in the world.


Learning from Your Culture

The “Culture Code” is a combination of imprints shared by an entire culture. The cultural codes that people grow up with shape their responses to all kinds of objects, from cars to toys and ideas, from love to violence. Individuals may not be aware of the “imprint” of their culture, but it powerfully dominates their perceptions, and unconsciously guides their actions, decisions and emotional responses. An individual’s silent cultural code is second only to the genetic code in determining his or her actions and decisions. It governs how people handle essential human behaviors like eating, working and falling in love, and it affects their response to sales messages. When deciphering culture codes, marketers should be aware of five determining factors:

“You can’t believe what people say”– Many marketers ask focus groups what they, as consumers, want. However, such studies can be misleading because people can explain only what they think they want. They can share their rational desires without realizing that when the time comes to make a choice, their cultural coding will shape their decisions. Although marketers shouldn’t entirely disregard what people say, a traditional focus group is not the way to learn what consumers really want. For that, marketers need to reach customers’ unconscious selves, perhaps through dream journals or extended sessions of guided association in which people progressively relax and let their true inner responses emerge.

Emotion drives learning – Real learning requires intense emotion. Because feelings are so much more powerful in very young children, people absorb most of their core cultural patterns by age seven. Emotionally intense experiences that occur at that age or younger continue to have a particularly striking impact.

When people speak, heed “the structure, not the content” – Whether you play a song on a piano or a guitar, the melody is the same. That’s the song’s structure. Thus, when you’re trying to figure out the associations people have with specific products, don’t be distracted if one talks about a Ford and another talks about an Audi. Instead, pay attention to the deeper structure of what a car means to each person.

You have only a limited time to make a lasting impression – The age for imprinting varies according to culture. Generally, children are exposed to only one culture up to age seven, the one in their homes. This is the culture code that will influence them as adults.

Learn the code to understand the meaning – Because the code is a shared element of each culture, you can’t listen to just one person’s story and learn what an object means. You’ll need to gather multiple accounts before you can decipher the code. You are seeking the combination for a lock that opens the “cultural unconscious.”

“The Culture Code is 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.”

Codes for America

Think of a culture as a person. It is born, grows and comes into maturity. Most countries came of age by killing their monarchs. Revolutionary America rejected its king, but didn’t kill him. Its founders rebelled against their parent countries by running away. Launched in such acts of teenage rebellion, the U.S. remains an adolescent culture. This shapes all of America’s codes and explains many of its patterns. Americans focus on the present, not the long term. They have endless energy, and get passionate crushes on celebrities and leaders that surge and pass quickly. They create and innovate easily, and start many new projects, but don’t always follow through or look ahead. These are all adolescent characteristics.

Other countries view America through a range of different associations, many of which fit the adolescent persona. The French look at Hollywood’s indulgence in superficialities plus the U.S.’s grand achievements, like the moon landings, and conclude that Americans are essentially “space travelers.” The Germans remember World War II, and the U.S. armed forces’ brash bravery, but they also think that Americans do things in a slapdash way, so they associate America with the image of the “cowboy.” These traits fit the U.S. code for what its people want in a leader: someone larger than life who has vision, but not conceptual vision. Americans want a “reptilian” visionary, someone who speaks directly to their survival instincts. They want a “Moses,” a leader “who leads the rebellion.”

“For a company breaking into a foreign market or an individual looking for an ideal place to live, the most important thing is to connect with the Code.”

Codes for the Heart: Love and Sex

Americans show their adolescence in their culture codes for love and sex. When young women and young men first mature, their sexuality is dangerous for them. Both genders speak of a battle between the sexes, and the two compete for power. As a result, Americans associate seduction with manipulation and being forced to do things they don’t want to do. The culture code defining sex is even darker: culturally, Americans tend to see sex as violence. They use aggressive language to refer to sex – men speak of “nailing” a woman, and women “joke about castrating a man if he cheats on them” – and people are more comfortable speaking of violence in public than of sex.

Americans also view love immaturely, with high hopes and a contradictory expectation of ultimate failure, so “the American culture code for love is ‘false expectation’.” This is different from the French code, which interweaves “love and pleasure,” or the Italian code, which sees a mother’s love as the truest kind, and views romance mostly as a source of fun and excitement. Japan’s culture offers the greatest contrast, as the Japanese do not expect young people’s desires to lead to marriage. Instead, young folks turn to their parents to make practical choices for them. In Japan, sex is an uncomfortable subject and seduction is a very subtle and oblique process.

“You never get a second chance to have a first experience. Most of us imprint the meanings of the things most central to our lives by the age of seven.”

Body Codes

Your brain has three general sections. The “limbic system,” the area that processes emotion, develops first, from birth to age five. The cortex, which deals with “learning, abstract thought and imagination,” doesn’t develop until after about age seven, but then it becomes the site of logical reasoning. Finally, the “undisputed champion” of your brain is the “reptilian brain,” which consists of “the brain stem and the cerebellum.” This part of your brain cares only about “survival and reproduction,” your most fundamental drives. If the components of your brain ever clash, your reptile brain will win. When codes collide within a society, the winner will be the most powerful elements, the ones that are survival-based.

The reptile brain shapes the U.S. cultural “health and wellness” code. Americans are active and pragmatic. For them, to live is to act and to be occupied. Their health code is “movement,” which explains why senior citizens in the U.S. so strenuously resist the loss of independent mobility, such as refusing to stop driving or continuing to use a walker, even if a wheelchair would be more practical. In American culture, if you stop moving, you might as well be dead. Americans also have negative associations with hospitals, which they see as “processing plants.” By contrast, the U.S. code for nurse is “mother,” and for doctor, it is “hero.” This creates a paradox, as Americans worship doctors but fear hospitals.

“Emotions are the keys to learning [and] imprinting. The stronger the emotion, the more clearly the experience is learned.”

Americans have very strong, specific associations with youth. This is part of being an adolescent culture, but it also stems from the U.S.’s very short history as a new country. Its culture is much younger than European cultures, and its continual flood of immigrants essentially restarts its culture over and over. The result is a country that is convinced it can and should stay young forever. This doesn’t mean just staying vital; it specifically covers looking young. That’s in contrast to England, where the young are seen as callow, or India, where the Hindus believe you grow as you pass through life’s stages. In those countries, trying to hold on to an earlier time of life and look younger would be foolish. However, in America, youth is like a mask, which explains the addiction to plastic surgery, and the popularity of products, like sports cars or hair dyes, that sell youthfulness to middle-aged consumers.

“Even the most self-examining of us are rarely in close contact with our subconscious.”

Contrasts and Tensions

Culture codes are organized according to paired binaries. The French code’s linked comparative qualities are freedom versus privilege. Their belief that free people are too proud to work comes from France’s long history of having a privileged aristocracy made up of people who did not work, an ethos that is no longer acceptable. American culture swings between great freedom, which is built into the nation’s founding documents, and curtailment of freedom, such as prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed. In America, women balance the imperative to be beautiful with the danger of “being too sexy.” This tension results in a complex set of rules that shift according to context. Victoria’s Secret addresses both extremes. Women can be sexy, but in lingerie that they hide under their clothing. Even the store’s name addresses this tension. “Victoria” indicates Victorian stiffness and oppression, while “Secret” hints at the “hidden closet,” the illicit expression of sexuality.

“The Internet cannot provide the kind of shopping experience Americans want. It doesn’t allow us to get out into the world and reconnect with life.”

The emphasis America puts on female beauty positions it as “man’s salvation.” Americans believe a beautiful woman can make a man into a better person. The movie Pretty Woman sums up these codes succinctly. Julia Roberts is essentially disposable as a prostitute, but when she turns into an elegant, well-dressed lady, she is able to transform Richard Gere’s character in turn, making him more ethical and compassionate. Some Americans override this complex dichotomy by gaining weight. According to their cultural code, people who are connected to society are fit and active. However, when they disconnect, they get fat, so gaining weight signals that a person is “checking out.” For instance, Al Gore gained weight after losing the 2000 presidential election and dropped the weight when he was ready to once again play a public role.

Given the negative association fat has in the U.S., you might wonder why America invented fast food and the “all-you-can-eat buffet.” The reasons lie in the deep emotional link to food. Just as health means motion, food means fuel. Americans value the sensation of being full as much as the French value the flavor of their food. As a culture, America also remembers its “humble beginnings,” when the settlers had to struggle to survive, and it is still gorging to make up for it. Finally, “on the limbic level,” Americans associate food with trusted maternal love, because mothers feed their children. Americans feel that to be fed is to be loved – and to be fed quickly, as in a fast food restaurant, is to be loved and to be made ready to move again.

“When the French spoke of Americans, it was almost as though they were speaking about an alien race.”

Codes for Work, Shopping and Quality

In the 1980s, the U.S. tried to “adopt the Japanese approach to quality” for rational reasons. Japan’s economy was booming while many U.S. companies faced serious challenges. This attempt failed largely due to the disparities between the two cultures’ codes for quality. Americans associate quality with function – the code for quality is “It Works” – while the Japanese associate it with perfection. Rather than creating a perfect product, Americans produce something that is good enough. When it is good enough, they move on. When it fails, they improve it. That’s why Hyundai succeeded in the U.S. when it introduced new warranties and service plans for its cars; it acknowledged the cars’ imperfections but promised to keep them going.

Given the value Americans ascribe to getting things done, it makes sense that their “culture code for work is ‘who you are’.” Your job defines you. This is taken for granted in America, but perhaps not in other countries. In France, only positions in the aristocracy, military and clergy traditionally held intrinsic value; other jobs were essentially free of meaning. Work was linked to peasantry. In India, people mature past their working years and enter a final stage of spiritual development.

“At the unconscious level, Americans believe that good people succeed, that success is bestowed on you by God. Your success demonstrates that God loves you.”

In America, the meaning of shopping is similar to the meaning of work plus the idea of movement, so shopping is “reconnecting with life.” This comes from several sources, such as the frontier experience, when settlers were cut off from civilization and couldn’t shop. Purchasing luxury items demonstrates that you’ve arrived; they are verification that you really are the person you have tried to create through your work.

About the Author

Psychoanalyst and marketer Clotaire Rapaille is the founder and chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide

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