Americans say “I’m full” at the end of a meal because unconsciously they think of eating as refueling. Their mission has been to fill up their tanks; when they complete it, they announce that they’ve finished the task. It is also interesting to note that on highways all across the country, you will find rest stops that combine gas stations and food courts. When you drive up to the pump and tell the attendant to fill up your tank, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate for him to ask “Which one?”
–from Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do
Rapaille’s book on the hidden messages behind a culture’s perception of everything from love and sex to money and food finds its main contrasts in a comparison of France and the United States. This comes as no surprise when you see his photo (carefully knotted white silk scarf) and read a bit about his history (“The French who were lazy and lacked imagination stayed in Europe. The ones with guts and determination came here.”)
I won’t give away all the amusing insights, but many of them really hit home. For example, he claims that the American Culture Code for sex is “violence.”
“Since we are uncomfortable with sex, we equate it with the extreme opposite of pleasure, something that causes pain and death. It is also clear that as a culture we are far more comfortable with violence than with sex…It isn’t difficult to find places in our culture where the lines between sex and violence blur. Men talk about ‘nailing’ or ‘banging’ a woman when they bed her. Women joke about castrating a man if he cheats on them. Date rape drugs proliferate on high school and college campuses. We commonly refer to singles bars as ‘meat markets.'”
On the other hand, the French think nothing of discussing sexual positions at the dinner table, yet would be horrified to ask how much money a person makes.
The big breakthrough, though, comes out in how differently Americans and the French view cheese.
For the French, cheese is “alive”: “They go to a cheese shop and poke and prod the cheeses, smelling them to learn their ages.”
For Americans, cheese is “dead”: “Americans ‘kill’ their cheese through pasteurization (unpasteurized cheeses are not allowed into this country), select hunks of cheese that have been prewrapped–mummified, if you will–in plastic (like body bags) and store it, still wrapped airtight, in a morgue also known as a refrigerator.”
Well, the French might not be the movers and the shakers in the world, according to Rapaille, but they certainly know what they’re doing when it comes to Camembert.