Jantes Law: A Countryside Beast Headed for Extinction?

Nicholas_Roerich,_Guests_from_OverseasI first heard about Jantes Law this summer while in Scotland’s Western Isles, when a friend there who knew I would be going to Scandinavia introduced me to the term. She defined it as a sort of humility on steroids and declared that the mentality had been handed down to the Scots from the Norse who settled in Scotland centuries ago.

Doing my homework before my trip to Scandinavia, I learned that Jante’s Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.”  Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante, which he modeled on his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Jante was typical of all small towns and communities, in that nobody is anonymous. Jante’s Law was adopted in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success.

Later, during my travels in Scandinavia, I asked a few locals I met to give me their definition of Jante’s Law. I also asked the folks I met whether they thought in today’s global cross-pollination the concept was gaining or losing currency. Here’s what the locals had to say!

Renee Zeeberg of Hjørring, Denmark

renee zeeberg cropped v2

I love Denmark. I especially love the northern part of Denmark where I am from. The light, the people and the culture. But If there were one thing that would make me move to another place it would be Janteloven (Jante’s Law). I know Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country in the world however I often envy the mentality of Americans.  I am not an expert in American’s attitudes, however from this part it the world it seems that U.S. citizens encourage the pursuit of happiness and success. Jante’s law does the total opposite!

As defined by Sandemose Jante’s Law includes ten specific rules:

You’re not to think you are anything special.
You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
You’re not to think you know more than we do.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
You’re not to think you are good at anything.
You’re not to laugh at us.
You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

These ten principles or commandments are often claimed to form the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people. Humility is therefore a side effect of the law, however not in a positive way. If there were to be a positive side effect to this law it could be that it makes us quite honest and considerate people–simply because of the fear of standing out from the crowd and risking being ridiculed.

Janteloven often means that you are not allowed to be proud of extraordinary accomplishments. Just recently I was awarded Young Leader in North Denmark 2014 by Junior Chamber International. That was a big accomplishment and I have been working very hard achieving this goal. But because of Janteloven you have to undersell and almost make an excuse of yourself.  Of course many people also congratulated me however there is always that underlying message that you are not good enough and you are definitely not to think that you are something special.

 Jenny Ohlström, of Stockholm, Sweden

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I believe Sweden has become a more open minded country in the recent decades. At least we want to see ourselves as this, and sure, much has happened during the last 50 years.  

We nowadays know English very well from school and can interact with other cultures. And we travel a lot. On average every Swede makes 2.5 international trips per year!  Nevertheless, I believe Jante still lives in the corners of all type of Swedish societies. High to low, Jante is there.

I have had the privilege to travel internationally since I was little and have got to know by heart many other cultures.Every nationality or social structure has it’s own spirit, soul and social behaviour. I have also since childhood listened to and learned from my grandparents and their generation from the deep old south of Sweden.

My mother is as blond as you can get and my father was dark-haired. I am dark-haired and Swede, which is a combination that was not common in my generation when I grew up. I believe I’ve had an advantage because of this. I can blend in almost anywhere. Meanwhile, I have always had a life that is not a ordinary ‘Svensson life’ but I have many times met Jante back home.

I see Jante as a complex matter that is difficult to avoid, because it is part of a social ground structure. And this social behaviour gets forwarded to the next generation mostly without any further notice. I have tried to understand this matter and I have made my own conclusion:

As a Swede you respect someone who accept and respects you. When you bring it down to why you respect someone, I believe we still are very influenced by old Luther: Be good and do good. On the final day we will anyway all be judged equal. No need to take extra turns and put your head in the clouds.. You may anyway fall down with the next storm and who was smarter then, hm? Better to be on the same level, using flat organisations etc.

Maybe because over 1 million Swedes migrated to America in the late 1800, the ones who were left behind became a bit grumpy–struggling hard as mostly farmers in the thin soil–and they therefore used the Jantelaw as a justification for their lives?

Or maybe a natural selection took place at that time. It was all the adventurous and open-minded people of Sweden who took a chance and left for America. And the rest, the more low-profile people who stayed may have been more easily “adoptable for Jante- thinking” stayed?

 Asa Jane Bell of Gothenberg, Sweden

Asa Jane Bell

The idea behind Jäntelagen is ‘don’t think that you are any more than anybody else.’ For example, in Sweden, some rich people will simply downplay having money, as to appear as just ordinary people. Case in point–Ingvar Kamprad, the owner of IKEA, and one of the most wealthy people in the world. He walks around in his rubber boots, drives an old Volvo and lives a very ordinary life, for the most part. Someone who is trying to show off usually gets met with a cold shoulder, and may have a hard time getting respect and appreciation. Seeing that we are also very influenced by American things, the influence of Jante’s Law is starting to change a little in at least the younger generation. So now bling, bragging and other things are becoming a little more common.

As a country, Sweden has a long-standing history of socialism as it’s core value, and Jantelagen certainly spurs out of those beliefs. With socialism all people have equal power, and everybody should get to decide everything. But it’s important to remember that socialism works great as a theory, but in practice it can’t work all the way–as no “ism” can function in it’s purest form. It can’t work that all people get to decide everything, someone has to decide in the end.

Brian Bell of Gothenberg, Sweden

Brian Bell photo

First, Jante’s Law may well have been coined by Aksel Sandemose  in his book in 1933, but not his idea per se. It was already a prevalent feeling among Scandinavian people. It was nothing new, just newly written about! There are other closely related ideas in words like lagom [Ed. Note: a Swedish word meaning “just the right amount”], but his version is more radical and more direct.

My contemporary take on it is that while somewhat subdued, and further battered by the “next generations,” it is a true phenomenon in Scandinavian society. It is essentially the opposite form of “bling bling.” Nobody wants to bring specific attention on themselves. I live not far from a small coastal town that Ingrid Bergman called home. She felt bad for the townspeople when her being there would cause a stir among the press and fans, who would come there to “see” her or the place. This feeling bad was in part because while yes, she was a star, she also was simply a star because of her job, not her “life” in a sense. People, even stars, live more simply here and it is in part because of this specific way of how the collective consciousness works here.

In addition, there is something that many people note about Sweden. It is that individual homes, cars, “stuff”… is common. In other words, everybody has a white painted kitchen. You are a real rebel if you have accent colors or some other radical alternative! I visited here in 2003-2004 and could ask for cream in my coffee, and get it. In 2014, the conventional wisdom has changed and now you may be able to get milk, but not likely cream because that fell out of favor and that is to me, part of this Jante’s law thing. This actually works in an odd way that also has some “world” bearing.

Most people have either heard or believe that Swedish women are on average somehow more attractive then “other” women. It is probable that there are certain genetic features that Scandinavian women aren’t going to complain about, and there is a tendancy for Swedes to enjoy outdoor activities and be more in shape relative to many places. (and the diet is healthier BUT this is getting uninteresting!). There is something that I have been mulling over for a while which is; This idea of collective conscious and Jante’s law extends to both positive and negative things. So while I cannot find coffee creamer, I certainly can see all the women I want running around in yoga pants (or running tights as I think of them). But, it would be rare for a single woman to wear yoga pants as a statement. It is an all or nothing thing. Therefore, basically most all women here wear yoga pants (and many men actually). So while it is certainly a sight to see when a tall, shapely, blue eyed blonde is shopping for dinner in something thats showing off every curve, it isn’t unusual to see it. That, I think, is part of the reason why when people travel here, they find the population to be remarkable looking. (Of course this extends to all areas of fashion, etc. )

Because of this seeming juxtaposition, between being very present and alluring, and this idea of remaining under the radar, socially speaking, it is only unusual when viewed from the outside looking in. A retirement aged woman wearing a short dress is only cause for stir outside of Scandinavian society. Within Scandinavian society it became part of the collective conscious somewhere along the line and thus isn’t going to raise any eyebrows and remain within lagom or Jante’s law if you will. This extends across all of the various pieces of society, again both positive and negative. Until someone starts a revolution here and all customer service people across Scandinavia become faster and the lines move smoother, we will all just quietly, and somewhat patiently, wait our turns while someone holds up the line arguing over the dates on a coupon.

Ingjerd Jevnaker of  Oslo, Norway

head shot Jante’s Law I think was more accurate in earlier days – I think now we have a much more individualist culture. However, I think in some cases it is valid, and probably more so in Norway than Denmark or Sweden perhaps.

For instance we do not have any celebrities that can do whatever they like and say whatever they want. People get a lot of criticism if they go out in the media appearing big-headed and too bold. Berlusconi or Sarkozy could never have been state leaders in this country. We want everyone to be equal and even the royal family has to be very down to earth in their public appearance. So in a way – it is a good law, because it prevents people from thinking they are so much better than everyone else.

The reason why I reckon it is more valid in Norway than the other countries is that Norway has never really had any nobility or very rich individuals, but since the oil discovery in the 70s, we have had a very rich state.

But I do think we are a less egalitarian society now than we used to be.

Tollak Hjelmerviker of  Bergen, Norway
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There is a widespread perception in Norway and perhaps across the Nordic countries that we have an egalitarian society with a small upper class. This societal structure has helped to produce a “likeness culture” where the norms act as a pressure against the individual not to stand out, especially in an outstanding manner that can put us–the majority–in the shade.

In addition to Sandemose’s term Janteloven (Jante is another name for a small town in Denmark), in Norway we have a word bygdedyret, which translates roughly as “countryside beast.” Bygd means a village, and dyr means animal or beast.  The “Countryside Beast” is watching you all the time if you’re doing something that the rest of us do not like. It is especially true that in rural areas and small towns this phenomenon is strongest, just because everyone knows everyone. By traveling–or fleeing–into the cities, you can escape this animal to a greater extent–because the social control is weaker in larger, urban society.

In the past, let’s say 50 years, with the liberation of women, youth rebellion, media  evolution, monetary society, urbanization,  internationalization, these unilateral equality norms largely had to let go. In the 80s, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland said that it is “typically Norwegian to be good.” Later it has been so that we (as a nation and otherwise) want to be the best in everything. We had the best Olympic Games in Lillehammer and we are the richest and best society with the Norwegian welfare model. And in the 90′s we beat Brazil in soccer. We have the song competition “Idol” and all sorts of competitions and prizes to cheer the best and the parents cheer their own on the football field etc. We have found the culture of winning, that we as a community need champions. And we have the PISA surveys [Ed Note: a worldwide study of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance in different countries.] And we have had to accept that the gap between rich and poor has increased substantially in Norway .

At this point I have the impression that many people are opposed to the differences being so great, and there are certain objections against the PISA-hysteria, and a belief that schools also have other values ​​to protect. In 2011 there was a scientific study that showed that Norway is still a country where people adhere to the standards prevailing in the society more than other countries. This also has great benefits–having trust in each other makes society work easier.

I think the Jante’s Law and “the countryside beast” are not very strong today, at least not in our larger cities. It may be present in terms of fashion and social media perhaps, but most people feel more free than before to follow their own desires.

 

Image courtesy of Colin Bowker

 

Illustration “Nordic Beast with Fifty Eyes or More”
courtesy of Colin Bowker

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