American Culture, Shopping, and Christmas


I hate to shop.
My wife loves to shop.
That’s marriage.

Cultural Anthropologist and Marketing Guru, Clotaire Rapaille, writes (The Culture Code) about why people around the world live and buy as they do. Each culture, he tells us, has a code that if discovered can tap into the deep unconscious impulses that motivate our behavior.
So let’s dip our toe into the cold deep water of culture and test out what a deeply American activity like “shopping” might mean. The American Culture Code for shopping, according to Rapaille, is “RECONNECTING WITH LIFE.”

In frontier days, he explains, going to town to buy groceries or supplies gave homesteaders one of their few chances to connect with others. Going to the mall or the store is more about getting out of the house, leaving the isolation of one’s solitary existence and reconnecting with life and others. In fact, observes Rappaile, “buying” is a negative in that it signifies for women that the end of the shopping
experience is near.

Hmm. Well if you put it that way….

One of the first fights I had with my wife was on how we would celebrate Christmas.
I couldn’t believe she wanted a tree and all the frivolous pagan ornamentations.
And shopping? An absolute paganization of the incarnation.

I was wrong. She saw the forest. I saw the twig. In fact, shopping may be one of the most collegial and relational behaviors available to us. I admit I’ve not been to a mall twice in a decade of Christmas holidays.

After all, the internet is for buying.


The internet is for buying but stores are for shopping and buying. Shopping is about people. About rubbing elbows. About rekindling the sense of community connection. About remembering that there are other people out there. It’s normal to want to be around others. And I say this as an introvert and as a loner.

One of the themes of my writing and teaching is “let’s get normal” again. It’s time to reconnect with life, society, culture, our neighborhoods, and the people that inhabit these good worlds. So here’s the thought. Sure, we’re consumeristic. Yes, we’re individualistic. Here’s a solution. Get normal. Reconnect with life. Go shopping.

Buying? Well that’s another subject.

See you in the Mystic

Alex McManus

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16 responses to “Culture Code – Part 3”

  1. Andy Avatar

    Reconnecting with life — reminds me of my love of going to coffee shops when I could just as easily brew my own coffee at home. And here in Japan, at $3 a cup for a drip coffee at Starbucks, that’s saying something. Oh, and when shopping for a cup of coffee, buying is the beginning of the experience. 🙂

  2. James Petticrew Avatar
    James Petticrew

    Alex, what are you doing! If Ann reads this I will get dragged off to the local shopping centre to reconnect with life. I have parroted that old one, “women shop but men buy” but Ann busted my smug arrogance and pointed out that I can shop in a book shop as much as she does in a clothes shop!
    I think over here some thing deeper is going on with shopping than just the reconnection thing, I think it is very much connected with self worth, buying the right things, knowing the “in” things to look at to many teenage girls and young women is the equivalent of the being a committed sports player or fan among males.

  3. JIMMY h Avatar

    i can’t believe you’re talking about shopping smack-dab in the middle of the NFL Playoffs… i definitely won’t be sharing this post with my wife!

    all kidding aside, you bring up some great points… and thanks for the clear distinction between shopping and buying.

  4. Alex Avatar

    Andy, You live in Japan? Nice.

    Jimmy, seems you and James have something in common.

    James, interstingly, Rapaille says that for the French, shopping is about Learning Your Culture. Older family members will take younger family members and show what, how and when to buy. How would you put the Scottish Code for shoppng into a word or phrase?

  5. rob filback Avatar
    rob filback

    alex, looking for your email address, shoot me a message to when you have a chance..

  6. James Petticrew Avatar
    James Petticrew

    mmm …. Scottish codre for shopping, I think it has become the number one leisure activity and as I said a source of self-worth (I shop, therefore I am) with women it is also a tribal activity about bonding and friendship. Allan and I go to the rugby to bond, Mairi and Ann go to the shopping centre. How do you sum that up in a phrase, sorry I am preacher, I am far to verbose!

  7. Andy Avatar

    Shopping in Japan — defining/expressing who I am

    BTW, there’s a shop here in Tokyo called: God

    Also BTW, what company had the advertising campaign a few years ago with the triumphant music and the single phrase: I am (coke, pepsi??). At the time, I thought that it expressed something like: I shop, therefore I am God.

  8. Andy Avatar

    Hold that thought,
    Make that, I consume therefore I am (God or like a god).
    BTW, it wouldn’t be hard to modify the code at Voxtropolis so that comments appear with spaces between the lines (so users don’t have to write their own HTML to get a space). Most blogs have this feature these days, and you’re not one to be behind the times. 😉

  9. Ariah Fine Avatar

    Alex, I have to say your support of shopping as some sort of communal experience seems dangerous to me. It might be slightly more communal then living in our own private fortresses, but it’s a far cry from the type of community Christ calls us to live in scripture.

    I’m sorry, but I think emphasizing shopping as a sort of spiritual experience is a stretch.

  10. Alex Avatar


    On the one hand, I consider your comment to be a voice of reason. Thank you for standing up against man’s nemesis, shopping.

    On the other hand, my wife reads my blog, so I’ll have to disagree with your zeal. I think Jesus would have gone shopping all day long with his wife and ended the day with a romantic dinner complete with wine and perhaps some slow dancing.

    Yes, you’re right. The shopping experience I describe is a far cry from the type of community Christ calls us towards. When I go shopping I can barely drag my feet from exhaustion and feel like a pesky five year — are we done yet? Christ, on the other hand, would have laughed  a lot and hard while shopping.
    He would have enjoyed a soft white ice cream with warm chocolate dripping on his chin. He would have winked playfully at children. He would perhaps even have had an opinion on women’s shoes. Undoubtedly, he would have languished at the thought of having to go home to check his email. Something I’m addicted to doing.

    Oh, to be more like Christ and the community that walks with him. I’m afraid that I have a long, long way to go. Ask my wife.

  11. Ariah Fine Avatar

    Whoa, I didn’t mean to jump into a stereotype of shopping being a man’s nemesis. If you had written about expensive football game tickets, plasma TVs or power tools being important to community I would have risen concern as well.

    I completely understand your example of Jesus joyously participating with his loved ones in a way that shows love and care for the others interest. I’d still argue that shopping shouldn’t be something we embrace. Jesus loved tax collectors but he didn’t happily go and participate in tax collecting with them, nor did he participate in prostitution or drunkenness. Am I off-base?

  12. Andy Avatar

    I’m with Ariah on this. I think there are better ways to connect with life than shopping. If by “shopping” you just mean being out there with people, then maybe… Heck, that’s sort of what I do, only I call it, “Going to Starbucks” (which almost always means going to a place where shopping goes on).
    But we Americans are raised in a consumer culture. I consume therefore I am (alive and connected). I feel that. My consumption, whether in the mall or (buying very large and expensive items) online both gives me a sense of life/power, and it also drives the machine.
    When I am not being defined by shopping and buying (or forming strategies or building kingdoms on the Internet), I’m slowly realizing that what God offers is better. “Better” in a profound sense. God offers a better quality of life than I’ve known so far except in moments. I find myself drawn toward a sense of adventure (the one that popped up in those moments). And then I ask, what if I gave myself to something greater than all this?
    I’m not talking about modifying my behavior (just to be clear), which I think is where religion goes with these things. Nor am I saying anyone, your wife included, should stop shopping. That’s how we end up “shoulding all over ourselves.” But I’m thinking that in our quest for cultural relevance, there’s a greater adventure than anything culture (including the religious appearance of it) understands. If so, it’s more relevant to speak of (and live out) mystery than to explain or justify following Jesus it in a way that sounds culturally practical or relevant. And we can give up the quest for cultural relevance and get on with better things.
    Given I’m not trying to persuade Christians of anything these days, just trying to live among non-Christians and follow Jesus here, and by his grace I’ll be light and life. I sympathize with your burden to communicate to Christians. Leading Christians away from our own idols is much harder than leading non-Christians away from theirs. Again, and please believe me, that’s not a reference to your wife, yourself, or anyone in particular. It includes myself (I grew up in church) and all that still lies between myself and and this mystery of knowing Jesus and living in Christ.

  13. Alex Avatar

    Ariah, if “shopping” –which is different than “buying” –means for Americans what Rapaille says it means, namely, Reconnecting With Life, than we should embrace shopping. Embracing shopping –that I sinfully resist by the way –is different than embracing “consumerism” or “buying”.

    By the way, Andy, I’ll bet you and the others at Starbucks aren’t there shopping. You’re there “consuming,” “buying” or “renting” a seat at the cost of a latte so you can work there in good conscience. [At least, that is what I do anyway].

    I think that what Rapaille would say, in contrast to your comment Andy, is that “buying” as you described it, is not what gives Americans a sense of life and power. He would say that “Shopping” and not “Buying” gives –at least women — a sense of life, a reconnecting with life, as he puts it.

    By the way, I liked both (Ariah and Andy) your comments. One thing I would add Andy is a comment about mystery. You write:
    “When I am not being defined by shopping and buying (or forming strategies or building kingdoms on the Internet), I’m slowly realizing that what God offers is better. “Better” in a profound sense. God offers a better quality of life than I’ve known so far except in moments. I find myself drawn toward a sense of adventure (the one that popped up in those moments). And then I ask, what if I gave myself to something greater than all this?”

    Might not what God is offering be Himself? And might not this gift be attached to our real lives of shopping, buying, strategizing, and building kingdoms on the internet? Unlike you, I didn’t grow up in church so I don’t automatically bifurcate between a spiritual world and a material one. God is mysterious and he does make himself known in the profane. I know I was there. And you’re right, if we follow him, we enter an amazing adventure.

    I’ve discovered that all humans regardless of their religion or lack of it, are fastened to their idols. I came to faith via a power encounter with the demonic. the demons and idols outside the church walls are big too. be careful out there. but do go there. christus victor.

  14. James Petticrew Avatar
    James Petticrew

    Oh no shopping should conclude with dancing??? My marriage is doomed, I am even worse at dancing than I am at shopping! Its okay for you Alex with your Latin American rythmn and Brazilian wife, I am West of Scotland Scot (you probably had worked that out from the accent hadn’t you?) the only rythmn I heard growing up were the riveters guns in the ship yards. I am as likely to dance to the rythmn as sing in tune. Poor Ann, both her ears and her feet get assaulted.
    Seriously, I do understand some of the concerns here, yes shopping can be about reconnection but how do we stop ourselves and our young people drawing self-worth from continuous consemerism? Shopping could end with a wonderful romantic evening with our spouse. (I am trying to convince myself of that) but I know for many shopping ends up with a credit card bill which shows the good feelings have had too high a cost. I understand the distinction you are making between shopping and buying but I fear on the weight of the billions of pounds spent on advertising in our culture it is a distinction that many find difficult if not impossible to maintain.

  15. Andy Avatar

    Alex – Thanks and I appreciate your concern, too. You pegged me on the Starbucks-rental thing.

    One Question: Does Rapaille mean that Americans really reconnect with life through shopping or that they merely perceive it that way?

    New Point: Is there an important, implicit point here that Americans don’t feel connected with life?

    Observation: For a marketing guru all that’s important is perception. If Americans perceive that shopping reconnects them to life (and meets the felt need) then that’s all marketing gurus need to know (even church marketing gurus). But that leaves the larger question unanswered: How can Americans genuinely reconnect with life and stay connected with life?

  16. Alex Avatar

    Rappaille means that at a yooung age Americans are emotionally imprinted with shopping = reconnecting.
    Since there is nothing wrong with shopping in and of itself [unlike prostitution or drunkenness –not drinking –drunkenness], and we want to build on the healthiness of seeking to “reconnect with life”, we should ask how to exploit this American fact for the kingdom.

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