Culture Codes and Archetypes


I’ve been recently fueled by a conversation with a wicked smart chief strategy officer in Hilton Head. He’s got a passion for understanding and applying an archetypal lens to business and creative work that I find inspirational. He recently posted an intriguing article about the archetypal semiotics between Star Wars and the Japanese military. It called me to revisit my thinking about the role of archetypes in cultures. Specifically, what are the dominant archetypes alive in the cultures of the world today?

It’s an open-ended question of course, and is highly dependent on who is doing the looking, in specific context and time. But that doesn’t mean that its exploration isn’t valuable. And as both a creative and a strategist, I believe that a lot of the value in relevant and applicable outcomes is found in the journey of asking the questions, not necessarily in proving one is right or that another is wrong. Anyway, perhaps that’s a post for another day. Furthering the dialogue, I wondered if it might be helpful to include a bit of information about culture codes.

In his book The Culture Codecultural anthropologist, Clotaire Rapaille, pulls back the curtain on his thinking about the specific codes that influence cultural perception, and by extension of course, behavior. While the book has received some criticism (and what author hasn’t? :), it was instrumental in codifying my thinking around the many archetypal layers that exist in the interpretation of motivations. I found his approach and narrative insightful and provocative, two of my favorite experiences.

Rapaille suggests that there are five principals to unearthing a culture code:

  1. You can’t believe what people say,
  2. Emotion is the energy required to learn anything,
  3. The structure, not the content, is the message,
  4. There is a window in time for imprinting, and the meaning of the imprint varies from one culture to another,
  5. To access the meaning of an imprint within a particular culture, you must learn the code for that imprint.

What I find interesting about codes is that they can apply to numerous expressions, much like archetypes. I’ve been including the concept of codes in my archetypal strategy work for a while now. They have proved helpful by providing another layer of meaningful shorthand to brand character. Nevertheless like archetypes, the divide between a code and a stereotype can be a dangerous chasm.

Codes feel deeply rooted in the same wellspring as archetypes, the collective unconscious, that shared place in Jungian psychology that is not of this physical world, but that is always present and everywhere — where the inherited experiences of the human race reside. Rapaille asserts however that the principles of a culture code don’t belong to either the Freudian individual consciousness or the Jungian collective unconscious, but that there is a third unconscious – the cultural unconscious.

This morning I trawled back through his book to compile a list of the codes Rapaille talks about in his book. As is the case with any reduction of a concept, a lot of meaning will be lost in the list form, so try not to judge too harshly. At first experiencing, some may not make sense. If they don’t, the book explains the context of his assignment of each code. And it’s an easy and intriguing read.

Here’s the list.


What was that? Could you speak up?