Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Culture Code

Every year, I travel a few hundred thousand miles through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I've observed that the cultural context of each society has a major impact on behavior.

Gathering with locals in Lyon, France to have a simple meal of bread, cheese, and vin de'table is very different from gathering with locals in Plymouth, New Hampshire to have a Subway sandwich. Not better or worse, just different.

Courtship rituals the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy are very different than in a pub in Newcastle, England.

I recently read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, a cultural anthropologist who has developed a method for describing the reasons people around the world live and behave as they do. The book helped me understand some of the variation I've seen around the world.

For example, when purchasing a car, Americans seek a car that will express their identity. Germans will seek a car that optimizes engineering. American children will build a fantasy castle from Lego. German children will use Lego blueprints to build an exact scale model.

The chapters on relationships were fascinating. The descriptions are stereotypes, but interesting nonetheless. Culturally, Americans have unrealistic expectations of perfection in relationships (our 50% divorce rate is good evidence of this). English men spend a great deal of time with their mates at the pub and build a complex set of relationships outside the home that leads English women to fight for the attention of their men. Wander around Quayside in Newcastle on a Saturday night and you'll see the way that young women dress to attract the attention of their men. The Japanese view marriage as a practical partnership, often arranged by their parents. This does not imply marital bliss but the 2% divorce rate suggests it aligns with expectations.

Other chapters in the book explore Health, Youth, Home, Food, Work, Money, Shopping, and the way other cultures perceive America.

Although the idea of reducing complex cultural histories to a few key words (Culture Codes) is overly simplistic, several ideas ring as true

* Americans treat food as fuel rather than a high quality pleasurable experience to be savored
* Americans view buying over the internet as a focused task, while shopping at a mall is a social event
* Americans crave change, so making perfect products of high quality that last a long time does not align with our desire to have constantly improved products that work well enough for a short time and can then be replaced.

After reading the book, I have a new framework for approaching food, business meetings, and travel throughout the world.

Worth reading.

1 comment:

mxganse said...

Publishers Weekly seems to think it's mostly garbage. I guess I'll have to pick it up to decide for myself!

From Amazon's website:

"French-born marketing consultant and psychoanalyst Rapaille takes a truism—different cultures are, well, different—and expands it by explaining how a nation's history and cultural myths are psychological templates to which its citizens respond unconsciously. Fair enough, but after that, it's all downhill. Rapaille intends his theory of culture codes to help us understand "why people do what they do," but the "fundamental archetypes" he offers are just trumped-up stereotypes. He often supports jarring pronouncements ("The Culture Code for perfection in America is DEATH") with preposterous generalizations and overstatements, e.g., Japanese men "seem utterly incapable of courtship or wooing a woman." Writing with the naïveté of someone who has learned about the world only through Hollywood films, he seems unaware that every person living within a nation's borders doesn't necessarily share the same cultural biases and references. Rapaille's successful consulting career is evidence that he's more convincing in the boardroom than he is on the page. Amid the overheated prose and dubious factoids, it's easy to overlook the book's scattered marketing proposals and employee-management tips. (June 6) "