An excerpt from THE CULTURE CODE:
The Culture Code is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing — a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country — via the culture in which we are raised. The American experience with Jeeps is very different from the French and German experience because our cultures evolved differently (we have strong cultural memories of the open frontier; the French and Germans have strong cultural memories of occupation and war). Therefore, the Codes — the meaning we give to the Jeep at an unconscious level — are different as well. The reasons for this are numerous (and I will describe them in the next chapter), but it all comes down to the worlds in which we grew up. It is obvious to everyone that cultures are different from one another. What most people don’t realize, however, is that these differences actually lead to our processing the same information in different ways.
My journey toward the discovery of cultural codes began in the early 1970’s. I was a psychoanalyst in Paris at the time, and my clinical work brought me to the research of the great scientist Henri Laborit, who drew a clear connection between learning and emotion, showing that without the latter the former was impossible. The stronger the emotion, the more clearly an experience is learned. Think of a child told by his parents to avoid a hot pan on a stove. This concept is abstract to the child until he reaches out, touches the pan, and it burns him. In this intensely emotional moment of pain, the child learns what “hot” and “burn” means and is very unlikely ever to forget it.
The combination of the experience and its accompanying emotion create something known widely (and coined as such by Konrad Lorenz) as an imprint. Once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us more of who we are. The combination of these imprints defines us.
One of my most memorable personal imprints came when I was a young boy. I grew up in France, and when I was about four years old, my family received an invitation to a wedding. I’d never been to one before and I had no idea what to expect. What I encountered was remarkable. French weddings are unlike weddings in any other culture I know. The event went on for two days, nearly all of which was spent around a large communal table. People stood at the table to offer toasts. They stood on the table to sing songs. They slept under the table and (as I later learned) even seduced one another under the table. Food was always available. People drank le trou Normand, a glass of Calvados that allowed them to make room for more food. Others simply went to the bathroom to vomit so they could eat more. It was an amazing thing to see as a child and it left a permanent imprint on me. Forever more, I would always associate weddings with gustatory excess. In fact, the first time I went to a wedding in America, I was taken aback by how sedate it was in comparison. Recently, when I remarried, my wife (who also grew up in France) and I held the kind of multi-day feast that meant “wedding” to both of us.
Every imprint influences us on an unconscious level. When the work of Laborit crystallized this for me, I began to incorporate what I learned from him into my clinical work in Paris, most of which was being done with autistic children (in fact, Laborit led me to the theory that autistic children do not learn effectively because they lack the emotion to do so). The subject of imprinting also formed the foundation of the lectures I gave during this time. After one particular lecture at Geneva University, the father of a student approached me.
“Dr. Rapaille, I might have a client for you,” he said.
Always intrigued at the possibilities offered by another case, I nodded with interest. “An autistic child?”
“No,” he said, smiling, “Nestlé.”
At the time, focused on clinical and scholarly work, I barely understood what the word “marketing” meant. I therefore couldn’t possibly imagine what use I would be to a corporation. “Nestlé? What can I do for them?”
“We are trying to sell instant coffee in Japan, but we aren’t having as much success as we would like. Your work on imprints might be very helpful to us.”
We continued to talk and the man made me an extremely attractive offer. Not only were the financial terms considerable, but there was something promising about a project like this. Unlike my work with autistic children, where progress was painfully slow, this offer was a chance to quickly test theories I had developed about imprinting and the unconscious mind. It was an opportunity too good to pass up. I took a sabbatical and went off on my new assignment.
My first meeting with Nestlé executives and their Japanese advertising agency was very instructive. Their strategy, which today seems absurdly wrong but wasn’t as clear-cut in the ‘70s, was to try to convince Japanese consumers to switch from tea to coffee. Having spent some time in Japan previously, I knew that tea meant a great deal to this culture, but I had no sense of what emotions they attached to coffee. I decided to gather several groups of people together to discover how they imprinted the beverage. I believed there was a message there that could open a door for Nestlé.
I structured a three-hour session with each of the groups. In the first hour, I took on the persona of a visitor from another planet, someone who had never seen coffee before and had no idea how one “used” it. I asked for help understanding the product, believing their descriptions would give me insight into what they thought of it.
In the next hour, I had them sit on the floor like elementary school children and use scissors and a pile of magazines to make a collage of words about coffee. The goal here was to get them to tell me stories with these words that would offer me further clues.
In the third hour, I had participants lie on the floor with pillows. There was some hesitation among members of every group, but I convinced them I wasn’t entirely out of my mind. I put on soothing music and asked the participants to relax. What I was doing was calming their active brain waves, getting them to that tranquil point just before sleep. When they reached this state, I took them on a journey back from their adulthood, past their teenage years,to a time when they were very young. Once they arrived, I asked them to think again about coffee and to recall their earliest memory of it, the first time they consciously experienced it and, if it was different, their most significant memory of it.
I designed this process to bring participants back to their first imprint of coffee and the emotion attached to it. In most cases, though, the journey led nowhere. What this signified for Nestlé was very clear. While the Japanese had an extremely strong emotional connection to tea (something I learned without asking in the first hour of the sessions), they had at the most a very superficial imprint of coffee. Most, in fact, had no imprint of coffee at all.
Under these circumstances, Nestlé’s strategy of getting these consumers to switch from tea to coffee could only fail. Coffee could not compete with tea in the Japanese culture if it had such weak emotional resonance. Instead, if Nestlé was going to have any success in this market at all, they needed to start at the beginning. They needed to give the product meaning in this culture. They needed to create an imprint for coffee for the Japanese.
Armed with this information, Nestlé devised a new strategy. Rather than selling instant coffee to a country dedicated to tea, they created desserts for children infused with the flavor of coffee but without the caffeine. The younger generation embraced these desserts. Their first imprint of coffee was a very positive one, one they would carry throughout their lives. Through this, Nestlé gained a meaningful foothold in the Japanese market. Understanding the process of imprinting — and how it related directly to Nestlé’s marketing efforts — unlocked a door to the Japanese culture for them and turned around a floundering business venture.
It did something much more important for me, however. The realization that there was no significant imprint for coffee in Japan underscored for me that early imprinting has a tremendous impact on why people do what they do. In addition, the fact that the Japanese did not have a strong imprint for coffee while the Swiss (Nestlé is a Swiss company) obviously did made it clear that imprints vary from culture to culture. If I could get to the source of these imprints — if I could somehow “decode” elements of culture to discover the emotions and meanings attached to them — I would learn a great deal about human behavior and how it varies across the planet. This set me on the course of my life’s work. I went off in search of the codes hidden within the unconscious of every culture.