Lately, in the UK media, people have been asking themselves if this Law of Jante that exists across Scandinavia is the secret to living in a harmonious and happy society. Clearly, this set of cultural and society rules are a little more complex than simply looking at them and assessing whether they would fit elsewhere. To understand how the Scandinavian society works – and why – we need to go a bit deeper.
The Laws of Jante go back to a fictional book by the Norwegian writer Axel Sandemose. In his brilliant book from 1933 called A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, he writes about the Danish town called Jante and the unwritten social code that defines everything in it. This novel describes the author’s alter ego, Espen, a sailor who sets about discovering himself through his childhood in a town. In fact, what Sandemose really did was document this social code that was present all over Denmark and Norway and to an extent Sweden, too. Across all of Scandinavia, this peculiar set of ‘laws’ or rules exists. Not mentioned, but always there, silently enforced by everybody in unison. These are known as ‘The Laws of Jante’:
The Ten Rules of Jante
1. Don’t think you are anything special.
2. Don’t think you are as good as we are.
3. Don’t think you are smarter than we are.
4. Don’t convince yourself that you are better than we are.
5. Don’t think you know more than we do.
6. Don’t think you are more important than we are.
7. Don’t think you are good at anything.
8. Don’t laugh at us.
9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.
Janteloven (the Laws of Jante) aren’t that unlike most countries’ cultural codes that silently ensure some sort of peace and common ground is upheld. However, because the laws were actually formalized by Sandemose, these cultural values became much starker and obvious when seen in print.
To understand how they are applied so strongly in Scandinavia, you need to look at our general culture: Scandinavians love being equal in everything – from what we do in our work to how we like to live in our homes. Nobody is to have too much more – or less – than everyone else. We like having the same car as the neighbours, we like earning similar salaries. We like not having a huge class divide –it makes us feel like the world is a fairer place when things are shared between us.
It goes back and touches a bit on the concept of Lagom, too – from the old Norse word meaning ‘Laget om’: around the group. We share what we have so that there is enough for everyone and this creates a balance between everybody. It means we are all sort of on a level playing field and it makes us content in our daily lives. It is how we preserve harmony and social stability, to an extent. It has existed for many years, even before it was written down – and can be found in old sayings such as the Swedish proverb: ‘Noble deeds are done in silence’, for example.
Many people, when they first hear about it, think the Law of Jante is something that is consciously applied. We do not, however, have Jante-enforcement officers hanging around street corners, trying to catch people out who are getting too big for their boots. The reality is much more subtle: it stirs. It sits inside every family, every work place, every school, every person. It is engrained in us from a young age – to a lesser or bigger extent. It is simply part of the Scandinavian way of life – and most people don’t spend time questioning its existence.
The Law of Jante is not so much about people not wanting to see you drive down the high street in your new fancy Aston Martin, though. Scandinavians can absolutely appreciate someone’s good fortune. Instead, it is much more about making sure Benny Hansson down the road doesn’t feel bad that he doesn’t have an Aston Martin. The first would be simple envy, but it goes deeper than that: By stepping outside the social norms we have created, the invisible barriers that define our sociality, then you make Benny Hansson feel bad for not buying an Aston Martin. You break the group, you break the rules and if we’re all going to live together in harmony, we need to consider eachother’s feelings. And thus, the Law of Jante is reinforced. By the way, you see very, very few flashy cars in Scandinavia.
It is different to Tall Poppy Syndrome in that the latter is all about knocking the poppy down, stop him being too big for his shoes – whereas The Law of Jante is still about the group and not making others look bad. It’s not about you, you know.
When you look at how the Law of Jante is applied across cultural norms in Scandinavia, it is perhaps also easier to see how many democratic social policies have been easily accepted. It is not because of you; it is because of others around you: The greater good, all of us and our collective social happiness. Enough to go around for us all – and we can all live happily ever after.
Things are changing, however, as the world gets smaller and our cultural norms are shifting slightly with the influence of the more capitalist mindset of the have-it-all and the look-at-me-how-great-I-am culture. We’re all a bit more bling and we are brave enough to stand out more. The Millenials are changing the rules faster than many generations before them – and with every me-generation that has followed, the rules are being blurred more and more. In the big cities, the laws of Jante are often now seen as a bit of a myth. People who have built successful businesses are ok to talk about it now and, by and large, being successful is ok (as long as you don’t claim all the praise for yourself). As long as you share your new-found status and wealth with society, you are fine to have it.
Indeed, you can easily still spot Janteloven still in use in everyday conversation with Scandinavians from any of the countries. If a Scandinavian person is singled out for doing a really good job, they will immediately say it was only possible because of their team and dismiss personal efforts. Thinking of running for class rep? Wait for someone to nominate you. Just hit a number one in the charts with your new song? You only got there because people bought the record. It is never just about you, it is always about us.
You are free to do anything you want and can in Scandinavia – as long as you don’t appear different to any of us and stand out. Ever. And perhaps forget about that new shiny Aston Martin for now until you understand the social rules. Because if you over step these rules, well, then don’t think you can come here and teach us anything. Do you think you’re better than us? You’re not. Don’t think you know more than we do… and so it continues.