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The Culture Code – Why we live and buy as we do

People of faith often take the challenge to get to know the culture of the ancient literature they refer. They must ask, What are these ancient people trying to say to each other about what is meaningful to them? I suggest that we must also “exegete” the cultures of 21st century Nashville or Miami, Edinburgh or Dusseldorf, Paris or Barcelona, Tokyo or Sidney. What’s particular to a context? What’s universal? Last week I read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille. [Yes, the author is French but let’s give him a chance.] Rapaille is also an immigrant to America. Like me. He’s a cultural anthropologist that consults half of the Fortune 100 companies on marketing issues.

In a way, Rapaille does what every thoughtful missionary has always done. He decodes culture. This task, once the domain of overseas workers, has come “home” and become part of the work for every church planter, pastor and leader in the West. We live in a changed culture and the clues to communicating with and reaching people have changed. Rapaille discusses several items of interest. Among these are

  • What does “shopping” mean for Americans?
  • What does “food” and alcohol” mean in America?
  • “Work” and “money”?
  • “Health” and “youth”?
  • “Fat”?
  • “Seduction”?
  • “Love”?
  • What do the Germans, English and French think of Americans?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to engage The Culture Code and many of the questions above. I look forward to all of your comments, but I’d be especially interested in the thoughts of our friends outside of the States.


What is the Culture Code? The Culture Code is “the unconscious meaning we apply to any given things – a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country – via the culture in which we are raised.” Soccer is a case in point. As a very young boy I asked my grandmother in El Salvador about a living Brazilian soccer legend who was at the top of his game.
“Who is Pele?” I asked.
“He is the king.” She said.

As I write this, I still feel the “goose bumps” like I felt them then. Goose bumps –or strong emotion –matter. Rapaille reminds us that “emotion is the energy required to learn anything.” The way we feel about baseball or Jeeps has everything to do with the emotional imprinting that happens to us as young children –before 7 years old according to Rapaille — and as we grow up in a particular culture.For me Pele is the King who presides over the “beautiful” game. And, every four years, everything must submit to this when, during the World Cup, the nations gather to determine the real champions of the whole world.

In terms of something less inspiring. What is the code for toilet paper? Rapaille’s research indicates that the American child receives an imprint when his parents applaud him for using the toilet on his own. But the emotional imprint for this high achievement is not associated with the toilet itself.

Until the child is able to clean himself his parents must still be intimately involved in the process. However, when the child can finally use toilet paper, he can close the doors and lock them, then he is free of his parents and his parents praise him for it.Because of this Rapaille declares that in the American Culture the Code for toilet paper is INDEPENDANCE. This insight led the Ritz Carlton to go after complete privacy and independence as their guides to designing their bathroom experiences.

So you thought when it came to toilet paper that people just bought whatever is on sale? Apparently not. How about you?

I’m still trying to decide what the soccer code is for me. It’s a fun exercise. MAJESTIC. ELEGANCE. ACTION HEROES. I’m not sure yet. But it has something to do with the fact that a poor boy from Latin America could grow up to be famous and loved. Yes, that a poor boy could grow up to be a millionaire. Oh wait, those are the lyrics for “only in America.”

What do you think?

See you in the Mystic…

Next Week: Decoding Seduction, Sex and Love.

Register Now: Decode Western Culture at HUMANA 2.0 in Orlando this February 7-8. Register before January 21 and save up to $50.00 per registrant.


18 responses to “Decoding Culture– Part 1”

  1. dean Avatar

    Great post topic, Alex.

    I recently saw The Culture Code on my “related books of interest” list at Amazon when I bought “The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes.” It caught my interest then but now, with your comments added, I think I’ll pick it up.

    Looking forward to the series.

  2. tina Avatar

    and I will be reading Dean’s copy!

  3. James Petticrew Avatar
    James Petticrew

    Alex very interesting, I was really challenged last year by reading “How America Hears the Gospel” and have been trying to think through the same issue for here in Edinburgh (I feel a Phd coming on) this book sounds like it really help. Wish I could make Orlando, sounds so interesting (and the weather here is so bad)
    Please wish Niza and Lucas a Happy New Year from all of us over here in Scotland.

  4. andrew Avatar

    For me, football’s cultural code is the opposite of that of toilet paper. For me it is loss of independant thought, it is Mob rule, Hoolaginism, Branding, Loss of Indentity, Peer pressure, Entrenchment, and Exclusive. I guess that sounds negative, but my cultural experience has been that football is used as means to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’, and an excuse to visit violence on ‘them’. Not a ‘beautiful game’ for me, I’m afraid. Not football’s fault by any means, just the crazy Irish fans :O(.

  5. Reynolds-Anthony Harris Avatar
    Reynolds-Anthony Harris


    I have been working this the culture code methods with a number of my faith-based clients as well as for profit clients. As a christian who works in this field of understanding, I am absolutely delighted that you have taken this on in your work space. Terrific! While you are at it , I would suggest that you consider talking with my colleague Aaron Flores about his work in trans-culturalism (the next step beyond multiculturalism) We are in deep dialogue about this framework and its implications. Additionaly, I would suggest that you read Kester Berwin’s (UK) The Complex Christ. This book , to be published in the US this year, would be a great fit with what you are doing.
    Please be in touch with me if you are looking for additional conference speakers.

    Be well.


  6. Dean Bobar Avatar
    Dean Bobar

    I think that this book gets it right. I have found it helpful to look for word associations in persons’ individual use of languague to discern and discover cultural views and values. Is this basicall what the culture code is all about? What I think is most important is that we use a person’s cultural views and values in order to understand the overall cultural vision. What do you think?

  7. neil Avatar

    I loved the book, blogged on it a few days ago. I’d really like to see what Rapaille would come up with for “Jesus,” “Christianity” and “Religion.” I’m fairly certain that each one would have a significantly different code word.
    As for the soccer code word? Having grown up in Ireland I think my word would be HERO. I also think that’s why I’ve been so disappointed by the sport in recent years as my idea of hero has greatly changed.

  8. Jim Avatar

    Your musings on your code for soccer/football got me thinking. I played soccer for 4 years as a kid and 2 years in high school. I never played American football. Yet, I’d rather watch football than soccer any day of the week. I’d rather throw the football in the yard with my kids than kick the soccer ball. Why is that?

    I think you’re right about soccer being “the beautiful game” (hooligan fans notwithstanding). Football (the American kind) is a particularly ugly game with its brutal hits, stop-and-start-and-stop-some-more brand of action, and the stereotypical hulks that play it. What does it say about me (and Americans in general) that this is our favorite game? Is “football” our cultural code for “manliness”?

  9. Pete Gowers Avatar

    The beautiful game is rapidly dying – greed and money are killing it! The beautiful game is now just a range of brands.

    The World Cup no longer produces the real champions of the world! Just those who can buy and cheat best.

    Take Christiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), his antics at the World Cup were frankly disgusting. And every week he prefers to dive than to use his fantastic skill. How sad is that. What kind of culture is that? What kind of role model for all the kids who watch him?

    I hate to think what Pele makes of it all. Long live the King.

    Btw, listening to DoSul. Great stuff.

  10. Andy Avatar

    If the imprint for toilet paper is independence, maybe the imprint for “Jesus” is guilt/failure.

    It might appear that the imprint is vindication or power, but maybe that’s the result of sublimating what I said above. When Jesus represents guild, not grace, then we are motivated not to become like him but to justify ourselves. So the Jesus that goes hand-in-hand with being American, a consumer, protecting our way of life at all costs (even if it comes to torturing people)…this Jesus is a creation to replace the one we’re imprinted with.

    Just wild thoughts to see what kind of ruckus I can raise. (I’ve been watching Firefly reruns lately and the word ruckus just came out. Sorry. 😉

    Here’s a couple more stabs:

    religion – control, argument/debate
    Christianity – religion, good people (ie, not me)
    church – building / wedding / potluck

  11. Andy Avatar

    Jim said:

    “For me it is loss of independant thought, it is Mob rule, Hoolaginism, Branding, Loss of Indentity, Peer pressure, Entrenchment, and Exclusive. I guess that sounds negative, but my cultural experience has been that football is used as means to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’, and an excuse to visit violence on ‘them’. Not a ‘beautiful game’ for me, I’m afraid. Not football’s fault by any means, just the crazy Irish fans.”

    This is a great illustration. Just slip the word “church” or “evangelical” or “Christianity” in there in place of football and change a couple other words (just slightly) and you’ll see what I mean.

  12. erw Avatar

    No hostility intended here, but exegete is not a verb as I understand it.

  13. Alex Avatar


    thanks. i trip over language often. i sometimes create verbs out of nouns when the english langage needs them. i can’t take credit for this one though.

    “exegete” as a noun describes one who is skilled in exegesis. if you google dictionary and enter “exegete,” the only use described is the noun. however, if you use the dictionary on the “Dashboard” of an Apple, it also includes a second usage of exegete. You guessed it. Exegete is described as a transitive verb meaning “expound” or “interpret.” I used it as a verb, though, by force of common, informal, popular usage, and not via the permission of a dictionary. I usually hate when someone chooses informal usage over proper usage…like when pastors say that they “married” a couple when in fact they didn’t marry them, they performed a wedding in which the man and woman married each other, or they say that they “pastor” a church –a legitimate verbal use that turns a good noun into a bad verb.
    thanks, though. Oh, one question: what’s “knitwits”?

  14. Pete Gowers Avatar

    ‘knitwits’ is a slang term used to describe people who have ‘knitted wits’, however the usual dictionatry spelling (Oxford English) is ‘Nitwit’ and it means a fool or an idiot.

  15. erw Avatar


    I appreciate the depth of your explanation. Formality is not really a sticking point for me. By whatever means effective communication occurs, I’m for it. I’m glad to have opened my mouth, even if to stick in my foot. I’ve come across your blog through a general effort to understand Christians better, and a difference in vernacular might as well serve as an initial stumbling block. As for knitwits, I have a terrible mind for facts. Concepts I do Ok with, but details slip away. Knitwits is a software project of mine to safekeep such details. Beyond a domain name it has hardly gotten off the ground. I claim its because I am too busy but it may well be because I’m a nitwit. Once again, thanks for the response, and I suspect you will find me surfacing here and there on your site.

  16. Alex Avatar


    we have something in common. i tend to lose things too–cars, keys, phones, you name it. it’s actually kind of embarrassing. anyways, you’re always welcomed to hang around and comment at your pleasure. thanks for the conversation.

  17. […] Code, by cultural anthropolist and marketing Guru, Clotaire Rappaille, we’ve talked about Emotional Imprinting and the meaning of “toilet paper”, “sex” and “love” as well as […]

  18. Sandie (MHS '76) Avatar
    Sandie (MHS ’76)

    Alex, Like how you and erw continue to “match wits”…

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