Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do by Clotaire Rapaille








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






The best marketers understand the need to present products and services in ways that resonate with likely buyers. Crossing borders requires making the message ring true for each different culture. Coltaire Rapaille introduces readers to this process in his new book, The Culture Code. Through an interview process that proceeds systematically through several levels, Rapaille gets to the bottom of why people feel certain ways about things, and then boils that sense down to a single word or phrase. Readers may agree or disagree with how he summarizes these cultural codes, but the process may be instructive for all. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 6, “Working for a Living: The Codes For Work and Money,” pp. 112-116:


“What do you do?”

When someone asks you that question, you could of­fer any number of answers. You might discuss your role as a parent. Or you could talk about the various things you do to main­tain your household. You might respond with a list of your hobbies. In America, though, the question really means “What job do you do?” and the only expected answer involves your work.

There is something very powerful and revealing about the way we ask “What do you do?” in American culture. It’s another way of ask­ing “What is your purpose?” as though one were looking at an unfa­miliar machine and asking “What is it for?” We usually ask it almost as soon as we meet someone. “Where do you come from?” is the first question, followed by “What do you do?” The answers enable us to size someone up, as well as providing an evening’s worth of small talk.

In several other cultures, one’s work is not nearly the passion and preoccupation it is in ours. Stendhal’s classic novel The Red and the Black defined a French culture in which one’s life had value only if one served the country (as part of the military—the red) or God (as one of the clergy—the black). All other occupations were vulgar, best left to peasants. This attitude still pervades French culture and leads to a system in which the unemployed receive more money than many service employees receive. A major best-seller in France is Bonjour Paresse, whose title translates as “Hello Laziness.”

Most of my European friends are baffled that I continue to work so hard long after I’ve made enough money to keep me comfortable the rest of my life. To them, the concept of continuing at one’s job be­cause one loves one’s work is unfathomable. Europeans usually take six weeks of vacation every year. Here, two weeks is the norm, and many people take their work on vacation with them, or even go years without a vacation while they are building their careers.

This has been the American approach to work from the very begin­ning of our culture. 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. Towns needed building. The West needed opening. The rudiments of a bold political experi­ment needed to be put in place. There wasn’t time for leisure then, and in a very real way, we still believe there isn’t time for it now. Americans work longer hours than the people of any other culture.

Americans celebrate work and turn successful businesspeople into celebrities. Donald Trump and Bill Gates are pop stars. Stephen R. 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. Billionaire owners of sports teams, like George Steinbrenner and Mark Cuban, make the headlines as often as the athletes they employ.

Why does work mean so much to us?

Why do we need to love our jobs?

Why is it so important to us to have a strong work ethic?

When I set out to discover the Code for work in America, I was able to play my role of “visitor from another planet” with unusual credibility. While I myself had an extremely positive attitude toward work and a huge amount of passion for what I did, I grew up sur­rounded by those who embraced the French attitude. I already knew that Americans took a very different approach to work, but I was cu­rious about how they imprinted this and what it meant to them at an unconscious level.

The “bad focus group” conversations of the first hour of the dis­covery sessions varied widely. While some participants spoke with ex­citement and optimism about their jobs, others complained about long hours, low pay, and difficult employers. And while all seemed to agree that work was something you “had to do,” their attitudes about this obligation ranged. When we got to the third hour, however, and I asked participants to recall their first imprint of work, a very clear pattern emerged.


I had a paper route when I was a teenager. There were days

when I dreaded it—snow was the worst—but for the most part,

I had fun with it. I liked collection days, and not only because I

got tips. I liked talking to the customers and getting to know

them.—a forty-Jive-year-old man


My most powerful memory was just a couple of weeks ago. I’m a camp counselor and I ran into one of my kids at the video store. She saw me and ran into my arms and brought me over to meet her father. When she said, “Dad, this is my counselor,” she said it like I was a queen or something.—an eighteen-year-old woman


I work three jobs to keep my family going. It seems that the only thing I do is work all the time.—a forty-seven-year-old man


I remember my first grown-up job. I worked during the summer in high school and college, but this was totally different. This was a career. I liked having colleagues and taking on assignments and planning out my future. I got a promotion after only six months and I felt like I was on the map.—a thirty-two-year-old woman


I worked for the same company for twenty-three years. One day, a bigger company bought them and suddenly I was out on the street. For six months, I kept trying to find a new job and kept getting nowhere. When I wasn’t looking for a job, I felt like I had nothing to do. My wife and kids had their lives, but I had nothing. I finally got a new job for much less than I used to make. It doesn’t feel the same, and I don’t feel the same.—a forty-seven-year-old man


My first paying gig changed my life. This was it. I had arrived. I was a professional musician!—a twenty-nine-year-old man


My first memory of work was watching my mother break her back lugging boxes of fruit for her fruit stand. It seemed to me that she was struggling all the time, but she never complained about it. I know she didn’t like the long hours and the hard la­bor, but she liked talking to customers. Everyone knew who she was—she was the fruit stand lady.—a sixty-nine-year-old woman


The tone of the stories ran the gamut—people were happy with their work, they hated it, they felt invigorated, disappointed, or over­whelmed—but the energy of the stories moved in a very specific di­rection. Work put you in a position to get to know people, excite children, keep your family going, or plan your future. Work could make you feel that you were like a queen, that you were on the map, or that you had arrived; work could make you feel that it was all you did; if you lost your work, you could feel that you had nothing.

Though participants might have suggested otherwise in the first hour of our sessions, their third-hour stories gave them away. For Americans, work wasn’t simply something you did to make a living or because you had to do it. Even if you didn’t like your work, it had a much more powerful dimension, a life-defining dimension.

The American Culture Code for work is WHO YOU ARE.

When we are wearing the new glasses provided by the Culture Code, the question “What do you do?” takes on added meaning. In essence, when we ask someone what she does for a living, we ask her who she is. Americans very strongly believe that they are what they do in their jobs. Why are unemployed people often depressed by the loss of their jobs? Because they are unsure of how they will pay the bills? Certainly. At a deeper level, though, it is because they believe that if they are “doing” nothing, then they are nobodies.

If work means “who we are,” then it is perfectly understandable that we seek so much meaning in our jobs. If our jobs feel 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 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.


Some readers of the excerpt may disagree, claiming that “I am not what I do,” but others will see how the process lead logically to distilling that code from the interviews. Observing and understanding patterns can lead to conclusions. Readers of The Culture Code who “get” the process, are more likely to present themselves, their products and their services to customers in ways that are congruent with the culture of those customers.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2006



Buy The Culture Code

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Culture Code.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com