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For non-Scandinavians, and perhaps even many Norwegians, the Nordic “laws of Jante” (Janteloven in Norwegian) seem very confronting. Understanding what these “laws” really mean, and what relevance they have to Scandinavian society, is not trivial. But it’s clear that it isn’t as bad as people first think.
I’ve found this concept fascinating and, as well as looking at academic accounts of it and its use in popular media, would often ask Norwegians what they thought of and how they understood this concept.
Here are some reflections on it, which will hopefully demonstrate that it’s not that confronting after all.
1. Janteloven is just a label…
Janteloven translates to “The Law of Jante” in English.
Jante is a fictional town created by Danish writer Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 book, En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor (translated into English in 1936 under the title A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). Sandemose’s law has ten parts but is generally summarised as a forceful injunction against thinking that you’re either special or better than anyone else: To this day the Norwegians invoke the imperative of Du skal ikke tenke du er noe (“You shall not think you are anybody special”) in all competitive contexts apart from the sports arena, wrote cultural historian and writer Professor Nina Witozek, 2011 in The Origins of the Regime of Goodness.
The laws read:
- You shall not believe that you are somebody
- You shall not believe that you are worth as much as we are
- You shall not believe you are more clever than us
- You shall not try to fool yourself by thinking that you are better than us
- You shall not believe you know more than us
- You shall not believe that you are more than us
- You shall not believe that you will be good at anything
- You shall not laugh at us
- You shall not believe that anyone fancies yourself
- You shall not believe that you can teach us anything
(in English Translation from Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s book Everyday life philosophers : modernity, morality, and autobiography in Norway).
Although most Norwegians will claim to understand the concept of Janteloven, very few have read Aksel Sandemose’s book or know of Sandemose’s formulation. That’s not really a problem because Sandemose neither invented the trait nor did he necessarily define it all that accurately.
So, while the label of Janteloven is useful for naming the concept, it isn’t useful for explaining it.
2. Janteloven is not uniquely Scandinavian
Calling it Janteloven gives it a uniquely Scandinavian feel – which is something that some Norwegians hate but others relish (both because they see positive aspects to it but also because it’s a form of cultural capital). Janteloven is, after all, simply a more extreme version of Tall Poppy Syndrome and similar to the Scottish expression “ah kent his faither” (that is, “I knew his father…”)
But there has been, and perhaps still is, a supposedly remarkable level of social envy that flavours Norwegian society – an envy so strong that Harald Stanghelle, political editor of the Norwegian Aftenposten newspaper, noted that Norway is “a country in which it was alleged that jealousy was stronger than the sex drive.”
And this is perhaps the most critical aspect of Janteloven – while it is neither specifically Scandinavian nor ubiquitous in Norway, it is pervasive enough that many commentators have noted how it resonates with Norwegians, even claiming that it characterises the Norwegian national identity.
3. There is no agreed-upon definition of Janteloven.
People have used it (rightly or not) to explain the apparent lack of ambition in Norwegians (marked by their relative lack of work-obsession and very reasonable working hours), their aloofness, their eagerness to criticise people who strive (in education, entrepreneurship, performance arts except for sport), the approachability of their king, and their lack of manners (including a strong disinclination to apologise).
So, for example, it could possibly explain why private schools aren’t all that welcome and the education system does not encourage high-achievers, why using coloured instead of white Christmas lights is considered unacceptably extravagant, and why someone might be offended by the house down the road with the all-too-showy white picket fence.
Academics, however, are generally wary of these ‘common sense’ interpretations of the subject, and instead associate it with a type of ‘egalitarian individualism’ (marked by ‘a strong suspicion against social climbers and a rejection of formal social hierarchies’).
4. It’s not nice, but not all bad.
Unlike the much nicer (but not entirely authentic) Scandinavian concept of hygge (cultivated cosiness) that is currently enjoying its 15-minutes of fame, Janteloven is generally viewed as not a nice thing… it is “a petty moral code” according to anthropologist Eduardo Archetti, something that hinders entrepreneurship and according to some it is killing Norway. For example, In 2011, Norwegian celebrity Trude Mostue labelled Janteloven the ‘big troll’ that prevents Norwegians from trying to stand out, encouraging them instead to always act like sheep.
But, while the overwhelming view is that Janteloven is negative, to the point that some people have talked of the deep and lasting hardship they have endured because of it (particularly in educational settings), some people see it as a positive thing.
For some, it is a reminder not to brag or to try to exploit others. Others attribute Norway’s equality and apparent humility to this concept, it has been suggested that Janteloven protected Scandinavia from the negative effects of socialism.
Indeed, one quick comparison that we’ve noticed is that unlike the very Australian trait of bragging and trying to size people up (after all, one of the first questions most Australian’s will ask is “what [job] do you do?”) Norwegians are much less likely to play the status game, including not bragging about their children’s achievements so much (though apparently that’s changing and my wife has observed several examples of this among her Norwegian acquaintances).
And, research has shown that Norwegians are somewhat unique in perceiving a much smaller difference in social standing between a high-status profession, such as the CEO of a company, compared with a low-status profession such as a factory worker.
It also might go a long way towards explaining some of the other (nicer) Norwegian traits, as measured in Hofstede’s famous National Cultural Dimensions. According to Hofstedes data, Norway is the least ‘masculine’ country after Sweden, meaning that unlike a strongly masculine society like Australia, which is very much “driven by competition, achievement and success”, Norway’s feminine society is one where “quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable.”
Janteloven-like tendencies might also explain the famous Norwegian trait of conflict-avoidance and of wanting to be agreeable: “the equality paradigm also promotes aversion to conflict”, wrote Stephen Trotter in his paper, Breaking the Law of Jante. My wife observes this in her workplace and it’s not entirely positive especially when being financially competitive is essential in business but this requires tough decisions and strong leadership.
As one academic has noted, the central feature of Janteloven is to “focus on self-beliefs, rather than accomplishment” and as another notes, what it really asks is that one is “modest in all endeavours and to avoid holding a banner up which says ‘I am somebody important’”.
So, far from being the stifling and derogatory maxim thought to undermine Norwegian individual flourishing, Janteloven could be considered a social safeguard that prevents the ugliness of excessive status-seeking that flourishes elsewhere.
Janteloven seems to be a local (Scandinavian) manifestation of the more general ‘control of upstarts’ phenomenon … within which egalitarian societies reign-in alpha-males and upstarts.
In our experience of living in Norway as expatriates for the past 19 months, Norwegian society is calm, quiet, organised and pleasant. Norway has a lot going for it.