” … should remind us that when we seek to bring something new to a culture, one must adapt the idea to the culture.
It doesn’t work the other way.” – Me & Clotaire Rapaille
If you haven’t read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille pick up a copy. It’s kind of an odd but interesting way to look at how different cultures <mostly Europe versus U.S. in the book> see things differently.
A quick example: British luxury is about detachment whereas U.S. luxury is about rank.
This is going to be a long post and will focus more on America and Americans but will hopefully inspire some overall thinking about not just ‘codes’ but why when we have an idea in our head and we articulate it <and we are proud of how well we articulated it> the listeners simply shake their head and even reject the idea.
Because that is what codes and this type of thinking is all about.
The reason to read the book and think about it is because it can actually help you avoid situations where the communication direction appears obvious, yet, that choice may be “against code” and therefore not generate the response you desire.
This thought is actually fairly practical to not only businesses and marketers … but also for those of us in ever day life.
I often use some of this in high school classes and use ‘boy to girl’ dialogue as examples.
In their words … I tell boys … that f you are oblivious to the ‘codes’ you will end up saying something that sounds good in your head … and be said with the proper intent … and yet the receiver <the girl> will hear something either completely different or worse, hear nothing … because it was ‘against code.’
Simplistically the culture code concept is that extremely strong imprints are placed in people’s subconscious at an early age determined by the culture in which they are raised.
For example an American child’s most active period of learning happens in an American context. Mental structures/imprints formed in an American environment fill the subconscious. The child therefore grows up an American <with all our “codes”>.
Apply this thought to every child globally and you can easily see this is why people from different cultures have such different reactions to the same things.
So the Culture Code is about a cultural subconscious and every culture has its own mind-set.
I pulled out some parts to share. I will mainly use Clotairre’s own words and thoughts but on occasion I intersperse some of my own words and thoughts.
And I will begin by sharing his thoughts on Americans and the American Culture Code.
- Teenager country
Let’s begin by saying as a culture America is one of an adolescent. And this metaphor extends beyond our relative age as a culture into the way we act and react.
Think about it this way.
We never killed our king because we never actually had one. We rebelled against the only king who ever tried to rule us.
Our rebellious period has never ended.
Looking at our culture through this set of glasses explains why we are so successful around the world selling the trappings of adolescence: Coca-Cola, Nike shoes, fast food, blue jeans, and loud, violent movies.
And the people we love, celebrities, and what fascinates us so much is their resistance to growing up. They are forever young at heart, crazy, up and down, one day invincible, one day totally rejected, and they always come back. They are the “eternal adolescents” all Americans would love to be.
At the same time they are a victory for nonconformity. In America, you can be eternally ‘young’, a non conformist and successful.
In addition the American culture exhibits many of the traits consistent with adolescence: intense focus on the “now,” dramatic mood swings, a constant need for exploration and challenge to authority, a fascination with extremes, openness to change and reinvention, and a strong belief that mistakes warrant second chances. Underlying this adolescence attitude is a free spirited work ethic foundation.
How can this be?
One can look at our culture <or any culture as a matter of fact> as a survival kit passed down from one generation to the next.
The American culture evolved as it did because the pioneers, and later the waves of immigrants who came to our shores, needed to evolve that way if they were to survive the conditions of this vast country. Traits such as Puritanism, a strong work ethic, the belief that people deserve a second chance, and putting a premium on success all helped us to survive in this new world.
On the other hand, the Swiss culture evolved the way it did, forging multiple cultures into one very strong one, in response to regular threats to Switzerland’s survival as a sovereign state.
Lets move on to work.
- work and working
Using the words of Nike one can boil the American agenda down to three simple words: “Just do it.” Our champions are athletes, entrepreneurs, police officers, firefighters, and soldiers – all people who take action. We may respect thinkers, but we don’t celebrate them nearly as much as we do our action figures.
When our forefathers came to America and discovered a huge undeveloped land, their first thought wasn’t “Let’s have some tea.”
It was “Let’s get to work.”
There was a New World to create, and it wasn’t going to create itself.
Americans celebrate work and turn successful businesspeople into celebrities. Donald Trump and Bill Gates are pop stars. Stephen T. Covey, Jack Welch, and Lee Iacocca are mega-selling authors.
Instead of Bonjour Paresse, our best-sellers include The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Good to Great.
Work put you in a position to get to know people, excite children, keep family going, or plan your future.
Work could make you feel that you were on the map, that you had arrived, or that it was all you did.
The American Culture Code for work is WHO YOU ARE.
We seek so much meaning in our jobs. If our job feels meaningless, then “who we are” is meaningless as well. If we feel inspired, if we believe that our jobs have genuine value to the company we work for <even if that “company” is ourselves> and that we are doing something worthwhile in our work, that belief bolsters our sense of identity. This is perhaps the most fundamental reason why it is so important for employers to keep their employees content and motivated. A company operated by people with a negative sense of identity can’t possibly run well.
Our work ethic is so strong because at the unconscious level, we equate work with who we are and we believe that if we work hard and improve our professional standing, we become better people.
Those who fail to act, who accept the limitations of their work with barely a grumble, are likely to feel miserable about their lives.
The hopelessness of their jobs has done critical damage to their identities.
We love the story of Bill Gates laboring away in his garage, coming up with a great idea, and becoming the richest person in the world. Why? Because it reinforces the notion that “who we are” has endless room for growth. The self-made millionaire is an inspirational symbol for us because it proves that all of us can work hard, find the thing that we do superbly, and forge and extraordinary identity.
Even if someone like Gates is an extreme exception to the rule <most people don’t make that leap with their ideas> we like the belief we could be an exception.
We like the concept you never have to be stuck in what you do. Self-reinvention is definitely on Code. If your work no longer provides you with the sense of the ‘who you are’ that you desire, it is not only acceptable but also preferable to seek something new. Americans champion entrepreneurs because they are our most aggressive identity-seekers. They don’t wait for someone to tell them what to be, but rather take significant risks to become what they believe they should be.
Americans all want to believe that we are headed somewhere in our work, that we aren’t going to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives <this is definitely not the same in European work cultures or Asian work cultures>.
Most of us have an ideal job in mind, and it usually involves movement. None of us want to feel that we are “done”. We often feel the need to keep working in order to feel that we still exist.
Involving staff in the direction of the company gives them an elevated sense of identity, the feeling that they are integral to the company’s success.
Similarly, helping employees understand their career paths is on the Code.
The team should be regarded as a support group that allows individuals to become champions.
People around the world perceive us as being concerned only with money. This huge misconception is one of the reasons so many of them fail to see what really does motivate us. At the same time, though, Americans themselves perceive this preoccupation with money and think it suggests that we are greedy at heart or that we prize material goods over enhancement of the spirit. This also is a misconception, one that gives us much less credit than we deserve.
The notion that we “come from nothing” pervades America. In a sense, we have the poorest rich people in the world, because even those who accumulate huge sums of money think like poor people. They continue to work hard, they continue to focus on cash flow and expenses, and they continue to struggle to earn more.
Clearly, money signifies more to Americans than the means to buy things. It shows us how we’re doing, tells us how far we’ve come from impoverished poor roots. Money reminds you that your “business is a good one,” that you’ve worked hard to get something, that you can carry your burdens, that you are appreciated, and that you are moving up to the next level. Not having money makes you feel as if you are “in a hole” … you may even feel that “it’s gonna kill me.”
The American culture has no titles of nobility to show us who the big winners are. Without them, we need something that performs a similar function. Participants tell us through their third-hour stories that that thing is money.
The American Culture Code for money is PROOF.
Money isn’t a goal in and of itself for most Americans. We rely on it to show us that we are good, that we have true value in the world. We can prove what we’ve accomplished only by making as much money as possible.
Money is our barometer for success. Most Americans find it impossible to feel successful if they feel they are underpaid. Money is a scorecard. If someone is doing a job similar to yours and making more money, you unconsciously believe that he or she is doing a better job. Being paid for a job imbues it with instant credibility.
A publishing contract changes one’s attitude about their accomplishments instantly. Suddenly the previous two years of “unpaid work,” gain validity. The money the publisher paid is proof.
Because we believe money is proof, we see a very strong connection between money and work. Money earned via hard work is admirable, proof that you are a good person.
This means that ‘on-code’ firms portray themselves as facilitators who provide their clients with tools for generating more money.
Many European cultures have a different view of money and its functions. At a certain point many Europeans simply settle back on the estate, leaving the world of commerce behind.
For example. Money in France isn’t a form of proof, but unpleasant fact.
We truly believe there is a link between goodness and monetary success and that those who cheat and lie their way to the top ultimately meet their comeuppance on both the spiritual and financial planes. Consistent with this mind-set is the American attitude towards charitable donations.
Americans are the most charitable people in the world. Americans expect their most fortunate to share what they’ve earned, and we have an entire system of laws in place for giving one’s money away.
It is off Code, for example, to preach profitability to one’s employees. Money is the proof of goodness not in itself the goal. Instead, a company’s management must inspire employees to be the best they can possibly be. This is on Code for both work and money and, if done effectively, leads to profitability.
Money alone is the worst reward for an American employee.
The most on-Code approach is to use money as a global positioning system that shows the employee where he is on his career path.
At every promotion, the employee should be shown a visual representation of the income curve that he or she is on. The angle at which one’s salary is climbing is a powerful symbol of growth. It is visual proof.
Work is an essential part of who we are we just want a chance to prove ourselves and receive tangible evidence that we have succeeded.
Which leads me to “quality.”
The Culture Code for quality in America is IT WORKS.
The Culture Code for perfection in America is DEATH.
We don’t want people telling us what to do and holding us to their standards. We want to discover things and learn how to do things our own way.
We had to learn everything ourselves, and we did it the only way we could – through trial and error. Learning from our mistakes not only allowed us to survive, but also helped us to grow into a powerful and hugely successful country. We were rewarded for our ability to pick ourselves up off the ground and do things better the second and third times. Trying, failing, learning from our mistakes, and coming back stronger than ever is an essential part of the American archetype.
The Japanese needed to make most of their land, efficiency is critical.
Mistakes are costlier. Quality is a necessity. Perfection is premium. Their Code for quality? PERFECTION.
Interestingly Americans find perfection boring.
Think about it.
None of our products needs to perform brilliantly (our cars don’t need to be masterpieces of engineering, our cell phones don’t need to provide sonic perfection), but they absolutely need to perform.
The most important message is that Americans put a premium on functionality. We are not a bells-and-whistles culture. We would rather have a cell phone that always operates when we’re in the middle of a call than one that takes pictures, plays music, and allows us to download television clips.
A car that reliably gets us to work, the supermarket, or soccer practice is much more valuable to us than one that corners masterfully or has rain-sensing windshield wipers.
We expect our products to break down.
However, because our Code for quality is IT WORKS, we expect problems to be resolved quickly and with a minimum of disruption.
Americans are far more responsive to good service than they are to perfection (which they don’t believe in anyway). This means that crisis is a great opportunity to create loyalty. If a customer comes to you with a problem with a product or service and you solve that problem quickly and minimize the customer’s inconvenience, you will likely earn that customer’s dedication. You have proven yourself to the customer.
The bottom line is that great service is more important to Americans than great quality.
- america’s beginnings and home codes
You can trace many of the American traits to our humble beginnings. Though we are the richest country in the world, as we discussed earlier, at the reptilian level we consider ourselves poor. We start out with nothing and we labor to achieve wealth, and even though we may succeed, the hand-to-mouth attitude remains.
Let’s look at Home in America.
Home is a place where you can do things repeatedly and have a good sense of the outcome – unlike the outside world, where everything can be so unpredictable. Home is a place where doing things again gives them added meaning.
And the kitchen is the heart of the American home because an essential ritual takes place there: the preparation of the evening meal. This is a ritual filled with repetition and reconnection that leads to replenishment. Making dinner is on Code for home in America <which also means that NOT making dinner creates guilt and angst and a sense of loss … which people cannot really put a finger on but the Code offers a reason why>.
Food is secondary.
In China, dinner is all about the food. Food is cooked in multiple locations (the kitchen, the fireplace, outside, even the bathroom) and it has a hugely prominent place in any Chinese home. Food is hanging, drying, and curing everywhere. While the Chinese are eating dinner, they rarely speak with one another. Instead they focus entirely on the food. This is true even at business dinners. One may be in the midst of a spirited conversation about an important deal; when the food comes, all conversation ceases and everyone feasts.
The response of poor people to food is consistent throughout the world: they eat as much as they can when they can, because they don’t know whether they will have the opportunity to eat the next day.
The average American spends six minutes eating dinner.
The American Culture Code for food is FUEL.
While in Japan, food is a means to approach perfection.
Let’s move to shopping.
- shopping and us
The American Culture Code for shopping is RECONNECTING WITH LIFE.
Shopping is a social experience, a way for us to encounter a wide variety of people and learn what’s new in the world.
The Code taps into the adolescent component of our culture. We all want to “go out and play.” We aren’t going to learn anything sitting alone at home. Only when we go out into the world do we discover anything new about life.
Buying is about carrying out a specific mission. It’s a task. Shopping is a wondrous experience filled with discovery.
Consumers like the synergy between the buying they can do online and the shopping they can do at a retail outlet.
Buying signals the end of shopping, the point at which you sever your connection with the world and go back home.
Returns offer the consumer an alibi for returning to the store. Nordstrom has based part of its reputation on its willingness to take items back with no questions asked.
They’ve turned shopping into an open-ended experience.
For another perspective let’s look at France.
The French Culture Code for shopping is LEARNING YOUR CULTURE. They consider their shopping an educational experience.
So, in America, from a business perspective, one is on Code whenever one underscores shopping as a joyful, life-affirming experience. Making shoppers feel that they can browse without pressure to make a buying decision is a very good thing, as is creating a space for them to linger (many bookstores have done this by adding cafés). Establishing a store as a place where people can gather and reconnect.
With the exception of convenience stores, emphasizing the efficiency with which the consumer can make purchases is off Code.
While telling people they can get in and out of your store quickly seems to make sense at the cortical level.
It flies directly in the face of the Code.
Telling shoppers they can have a fast shopping experience in your store is a little bit like trying to sell a thirty-second massage or half a piece of chocolate <grocery stores should take note of this>.
Let’s talk about how we look at each other (country to country and culture to culture).
- comparing country codes <explaining America>
Participants in France talked about the confusion that stemmed from their belief that they were supposed to illuminate the world with their ideas but that the Americans were actually doing it.
The Code for America in France is SPACE TRAVELERS.
Germans see themselves as superior in education.
The Code for America in Germany is JOHN WAYNE.
The English Code for America is UNASHAMEDLY ABUNDANT.
The English expect us to seek abundance in everything. They expect us to be extreme and to try to win at any cost.
The French Code for France is IDEA.
Raised on stories of great French philosophers and thinkers French children imprint the value of ideas as paramount and refinement of the mind as the higher goal.
The French Code for England is CLASS.
Culture Code for Germany is ORDER.
That was fun <at least for me>.
Before I finish I want to end with some code thoughts on leaders and leadership.
So let’s talk leaders.
- leaders & leadership
Business leaders or political leaders.
Any and all people who lead in America.
Like all adolescents, we have little patience for father figures. However, we are happy to follow a rebel as he leads the charge.
Our leader is the person who leads the rebellion. This is essential in a culture where health means movement. We are always changing, always moving forward, always reinventing, and we want a president who can direct this process. The president needs to understand what is broken, have a strong idea about how to fix it, and then “rebel” against the problem.
We don’t want our presidents to think too much.
We don’t want a father figure. We want a biblical figure.
The Culture Code for the American presidency is MOSES.
Strip away the religious components of the story of Moses and you’ll see that he represents the Code for the American presidency aptly: a rebellious leader of his people with a strong vision and the will to get them out of trouble.
The French, on the other hand, rally behind leaders who challenge the system with new ideas <remember, the French code for France is IDEA>. Napoleon and de Gaulle are considered models of French leadership because they faced down the existing system and changed it to better serve the people.
American’s don’t want father figures who tell them what to do, but they do want men <and someday, maybe even soon, women> with a plan they can understand and follow.
So how do Americans see America?
Certainly, we see ourselves as “new.”
We also see ourselves as occupants of vast amounts of space.
Just as the Japanese are the masters of micro-culture because they must fit a huge number of people into a small space, Americans are the masters of macro–culture.
The American Culture Code for America is DREAM.
And we want our leaders to fulfill this dream code.
Even our cultural adolescence is a dream: we want to believe we are forever young and that we never truly have to grow up (and this is truly embodied with our fascination with health clubs and plastic surgery and things like that).
It is entirely on Code for people to change careers, locales, or living situations as long as they genuinely believe that doing so gives them a chance to grow <and attain their DREAM>.
I included this because all leaders, business or political or in school, need to remember this.
With the fun facts out of the way here are some Clotaire thoughts as we do the voodoo we do <i.e., living lives here at our own workplace and in Life>:
- The stronger the emotion, the more clearly an experience is learned.
- The only effective way to understand what people truly mean is to ignore what they say and watch what they do.
- People typically give answers they believe the questioner wants to hear. (and, yet, they believe they are telling the truth).
I say all of this because in the end people give alibis for their actions.
These alibis give “rational” reasons for doing the things they do.
But we are, in general, irrational people. Well. Not really if you buy into this Culture Code idea. To be effective we need to consider the alibis while addressing the Code.
While you can’t believe what people say, it would be a mistake not to listen to it and incorporate it into your message … whether that message be in face to face communication, business communication or … well … any frickin’ communication I imagine.
But think about whether people will truly “do what they say.”
Why did I decide to share this?
Despite some interesting thoughts on how to market to consumers it also should remind us that when we seek to bring something new to a culture, one must adapt the idea to the culture.
It doesn’t work the other way.
It is about understanding people and their cultural underpinnings and behavior driven by attitudes.
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss studied kinship, saying that he was not interested in people but in the relationships between them – the “space between the people.”
We should care about things like the Culture Code idea because we are constantly discussing ideas … and trying to communicate ideas with people … in business and in Life.
In other words we are in the business of finding the kinship between ideas and things and people.
Now … there is a thought to put up on your wall.