What is Jante’s Law? To really understand Scandinavia, look to Janteloven
If you really want to understand Scandinavia, forget hygge — look to Jante’s Law.
Whether it’s entirely fair or not, there exists in the global consciousness certain assumptions about various cultures:
Americans are fat and loud. Brits are prim and repressed. Canadians are polite to a fault.
While there are of course some unfortunate truths often embedded in stereotypes like these, you only need to see a group of sinewy Colorado mountain bikers or a bunch of howling London lads on a stag weekend in Mallorca to disabuse you of the notion that these are ironclad laws.
Except for the thing about Canadians. That’s 100 percent true.
Another pretty much ironclad truth of cultural stereotypes is that in Scandinavian countries there is an emphasis placed on equality, sharing and fairness.
Right-wing politicians in English-speaking countries love to disparage Sweden, Denmark and Norway for being too ‘socialist.’ However, they always fail to mention that despite their higher taxes, these countries invariably show up in the top ten in World Happiness rankings.
(They also conveniently forget that they are among the most successful capitalists in the world, but that’s the subject for another day.)
One big reason for their consistent top happiness rankings is because those taxes pay to make life better for everybody, through great health care, incredible public transportation and a wonderful social safety net.
In categories like income equality, trust in government, social support, life expectancy, and personal freedom, Denmark and Norway came in 2nd and 3rd respectively for 2019, with Sweden ranking at number 7.
And neighboring Finland and Iceland, while not usually included as technically Scandinavian countries but which nonetheless share much with them in terms of culture and values, are ranked number 1 and 4 respectively.
But oddly enough, if you were to talk to most people from these nations about how high they are in the world happiness rankings, you’d probably find them downplaying their top spots. The cultural norm in the U.S. to reflexively shout “We’re number one!” at every opportunity just isn’t that common here.
In Scandinavia, there’s a cultural tendency to favor not standing out, and instead to focus on helping the group to succeed rather than insisting on always being front and center. A great deal of this attitude can be summed up in something called Jante’s Law.
What is Jante’s Law?
Jante’s Law describes a set of cultural norms common in Nordic countries emphasizing collective well-being and group accomplishments, and disapproval of touting individual victories.
The concept of the Law of Jante—Janteloven in Denmark, Jantelagen in Swedish, Jante laki in Finnish and Jantelögin in Icelandic—while it is simply a part of the cultural oxygen that everyone here breathes, was laid out in stark terms in a 1933 book called “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” written by Danish-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose.
In it, Sandemose satirically conjectures that Danes are so happy because their highest aspiration is to be average, and he mocks the fictionalized small town people from the village where he grew up.
Here is the list of the fictional Law of Jante as devised by Sandemose:
The Ten Rules of Jante
Don’t think you are anything special.
Don’t think you are as good as we are.
Don’t think you are smarter than we are.
Don’t convince yourself that you are better than we are.
Don’t think you know more than we do.
Don’t think you are more important than we are.
Don’t think you are good at anything.
Don’t laugh at us.
Don’t think anyone cares about you.
Don’t think you can teach us anything.
Ouch. Well okay then.
Let’s just say that an egomaniacal, self-obsessed personality like that of a certain president or a certain prime minister would be pretty unlikely to develop in a child living in a place where people lived by this philosophy.
How is Jante’s Law applied?
But one thing that is important to note right off the bat is that while Jante’s Law is indeed pervasive and can be seen in almost all aspects of daily life of Danes and Norwegians, it’s not like it is something formalized.
You won’t find a show called “Copenhagen Police: Special Jante’s Law Unit” where vaguely disappointed Danish police run around tut-tutting people to reel in their ego when they get too proud of something.
It’s more that unspoken societal pressures tend to lead to certain behaviors. While a mother may scold her young child not to brag about his or her accomplishments, in the adult world the expression of Jante’s Law might come out in more subtle ways.
Author Michael Booth, who lives and works in Copenhagen, describes how Jante’s Law actually works on the ground in this anecdote from his 2014 book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People:”
“One friend of mine, the newspaper columnist Annegrethe Rasmussen, sparked a recent Jante Law debate when she wrote about her experiences of coming home from Washington, D.C., where she lives, and telling her friends about her son’s performance at school.
“As a kind of quick way into the subject,” Annegrethe told me shortly after the column was published, “I said, ‘He’s doing really well, he is number one in his class.’ And the table went silent.”
Though she is Danish, and so should have known better, she realized immediately that she had breached the code. “If I had said he was great at role-playing or drawing it would have been fine, but it was totally wrong to boast about academic achievement.”
For Booth, it’s the Jante’s Law-based tendency to set one’s sights on a decent life, an average one as part of a successful group rather than at the head of one that lends itself to the contentment we see in Scandinavian countries.
Contrast this attitude with the American tendency to believe that, somehow, each and every one of us is tremendously special and destined for greatness. That alone might begin to demonstrate why there is so much general discontent in the U.S. and a general sense of happiness in Scandinavia.
After all, as author Ronald White said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
You can also find the expression of Jante’s Law in the tendency of many Scandinavians, for instance, to continue driving a similar car as their neighbors rather than buying some flashy monstrosity if they get a better job. And everyone is pretty happy earning broadly equal salaries as everyone else.
The country’s income inequality rankings are consistently among the lowest on the list of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, and in the workplace the boss is almost always addressed by his or her first name.
Another interesting aspect of Scandinavian workplaces is the great emphasis that is put on group talks and problem-solving. While U.S. or U.K. companies might have a CEO or manager come down from his or her pedestal for a rare pep talk to the workers, these types of talks are almost unidirectional.
Bosses in those countries talk at their workers; bosses in Scandinavia talk with them. Every employee is given an opportunity to comment, bring their opinion, and offer ideas, with no individual being placed above any other.
How the Law of Jante fits with Lagom
Jante’s Law can be said to be strongly related to another historic cultural touchstone across Scandinavia and the broader Nordic world, the concept of lagom.
This term, which is sometimes falsely said to stem from the old Norse term laget om, literally meaning “around the group,” actually means something more like “just the right amount.”
Other ways of interpreting lagom can be “in balance” or “suitable.” It’s important to note that it doesn’t imply abstinence or doing without; rather, lagom places an emphasis on sharing so that everyone has exactly what they need, creating a sense of balance and equality but not deprivation.
The idea is that you don’t really need extra in order to be happy, but also that the rest of us are going to watch out for you and make sure you’re not doing without.
Many social scientists who study Scandinavian societies suggest that this kind of social pressure towards creating a level playing field for all lends itself to better social harmony, and emphasis on the group sharing in the rewards leads to happier societies in general.
You can perhaps see an example of this if you try to name the most famous Scandinavian entrepreneur.
Scandinavian countries are among the richest in the world, yet if you were to try to identify a rich individual from there, you’d be hard-pressed to do so. It’s almost instinctual, this sense of Jante’s Law, that Swedish or Norwegian or Danish success in the world economy is spoken of in the general sense.
It’s not about the individuals who happen to head up the most successful companies there; it’s about all the people in the entire group, without whom that success would have been impossible.
Janteloven and Hannibal
There was a great commercial campaign recently that perhaps helps to illustrate Janteloven, featuring one of the best known people from Denmark, Hannibal actor Mads Mikkelsen. His deadly serious face is seen as he rides a bike through various whimsical Copenhagen locations, passing through a number of unlikely settings.
The contrast of his stony look as he intones “They say we Danes are the happiest nation in the world,” as he rides along is worth the price of admission alone, and is somehow demonstrative of a Scandinavian tendency toward self-deprecation and dry humor at not taking yourself too seriously.
As Mikkelsen rides across dining tables and through apartments, he comments on various Danish quirks and the most famous cultural touchstones that Denmark is known for: beauty, furniture design, hygge, work/life balance, etc.
It’s all presented with a certain unpretentious humility that is also typical of the Law of Jante, but it is cleverly undercut with a note of national pride — perhaps suggesting that what Danes are most proud of is not only their national beer Carlsberg, but of their very lack of pride, their humbleness.
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