Janteloven (Law of Jante): Insights into Scandinavian culture

Scandinavian culture is intriguing. To some, it conjures images of stoic and reserved people true to their Viking ancestors. To others, it evokes utopian societies which leave nobody behind.

A much talked about success of Scandinavian countries, is their enviable rankings on the leaderboard of the happiest countries in the world.

In the anglophone world, where self-improvement books are best-sellers, many seek to learn from others’ successes.

There is a concept in Scandinavian culture which is particularly interesting to look at from a personal development perspective. This concept is the so-called “Law of Jante” (or “Janteloven” as it is called in Norwegian and Danish).

What makes this Scandinavian cultural concept interesting is that it goes against many of the underlying assumptions of the personal development genre.

The “Janteloven” concept is no silver bullet - in fact, it was meant as a satire of Scandinavian cultural norms, and certainly not as a “how-to guide”.

Despite that, “Janteloven” is a very thought-provoking concept because it is so different from what many of us are used to.

Understanding “Janteloven” can shed a new light on some of our values and cultural assumptions - at the very least it can help us better understand Scandinavian culture, and better communicate with Scandinavians.

In the following, we’ll go into the origins, the benefits, and the problems with “Janteloven”. Finally, we’ll look at the growing anti-Janteloven movement in Norway.

Janteloven: a Scandinavian cultural concept

For many of us, social media plays a big part in our lives. Although not by design, social media can have a negative effect on how we perceive ourselves.

While some become self-centered, others go in the opposite direction and lose their sense of self-worth, eventually yielding to the constant pressure to conform.

This loss of self is something Norwegians have known since way before social media. They call it “Janteloven”. (The Law of Jante).

Janteloven - which is not actually a law but a set of social norms - is so deeply ingrained in Norwegian culture that it might as well be a part of the constitution. Luckily that is not the case, as the Law of Jante aims to remove all individuality and feelings of self-worth.

So what are these social norms? In short:

While some see Janteloven as the reason for Norway's success as a society, others believe that Janteloven only exists to hold people back. Many Norwegians have called for the end of Janteloven.

So, why is it called Janteloven?

The origins of Janteloven

“Janteloven” originates from a novel by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, titled "En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor" (A Refugee Crosses His Tracks). It was published in 1933.

Despite being satirical in nature, “Janteloven” captures the essence of some of the unwritten Scandinavian cultural norms.

The main character grew up in a small town called Jante, and Janteloven is the expression of the tyrannical pressure the small town of Jante put on the individual.

Even though Sandemose set the book in a small town, he claimed that Janteloven has its validity everywhere.

The ten rules of Janteloven
1) You're not to think you are anything special
2)    // as good as we are
3)    // smarter than we are
4) You're not to imagine yourself better than we are
5) You're not to think you know more than we do
6)    // are more important than we are
7)    // are good at anything
8) You're not to laugh at us
9) You're not to think anyone cares about you
10)    // you can teach us anything

In essence, the rules of Janteloven are the exact opposite of what the millennial generation in the U.S. was told growing up: “you are special”.

The benefits of Janteloven

While the ten laws of Janteloven are grim, the will to put society's needs above one's own can have its benefits.

Probably the best Norwegian example is the Government Pension Fund. When Norway struck oil, the government decided that a big part of this newfound wealth should be saved for future generations.

While some political parties want to spend a little more of this money, the consensus is to keep saving and investing. The Norwegian Government Pension Fund is now worth over a trillion USD.

And not to mention how the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that when push comes to shove, the world was ready to make that sacrifice as well. While there have been protests, most of the population put their lives on hold to protect the vulnerable.

The problem with Janteloven

Low self-worth combined with a relenting pressure to conform is a recipe for depression and social angst. Janteloven is not about how everyone can transcend equally but how to keep everyone down at the same level.

This mentality is not unique to humans living under Janteloven but is also observed in crabs trapped in a bucket.

Known as crab theory, or crab mentality, if the crab at the top can easily escape, the crabs further down will do whatever it takes to keep it from escaping.

But Janteloven takes it one step further. Because the top crab wouldn't even try to escape as that would make the other crabs look bad.

“If I can't have it, you can't have it either. If you can't have it, I can't have it either.”

The growing anti-Janteloven movement in Norway

Soccer-girls, handball-girls, ski-guys, and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. They assert themselves at the top. In the same way, we’ll show that Norwegian businesses can make it internationally. Do we need a new slogan? It is typically Norwegian to be good.
 —Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norwegian Prime Minister (1992)

While the Prime Minister restrained herself using the word «good» instead of «best», her proposed new slogan “It is typically Norwegian to be good” still symbolized a step away from Janteloven.

And even with Janteloven breathing down their necks, Norwegian talent still makes it to the international stage. However, these stars have for the most part been humble in both defeat and when winning.

That radically changed when the outspoken, now retired, cross-country skier Petter Northug hit the world stage in 2009. He bragged, he teased his Swedish neighbors, and he was a sore loser.

Needless to say, not every Norwegian appreciated this type of behavior. His critics were accused of being slaves to Janteloven.

And what did Petter do? Change his Instagram name to @jantelov1 of course. He currently has 506k followers (Norway’s population is about 5 million).

Janteloven never stopped me.
 —Petter Northug. Winner of 15 gold medals, 4 of them in the Olympic Games

And then there is reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. A highly emotional chess player (yes there is such a thing) who refuses to talk to interviewers after bad losses.

Some Norwegians see him as a self-centered sore loser who needs to grow up, others say it is a part of his much-needed “vinnerskalle” (winners mentality). This “vinnerskalle” cost Magnus 30.000 USD when he didn’t show up to a press conference during the 2016 World Chess Championship

Unfortunately, we can't have it both ways with a free, individualistic population combined with a true altruistic society. But Janteloven is not good for our minds.

Time to reform Janteloven

Although a Scandinavian mindset, Janteloven has influence everywhere. And the first step in reforming the law is to break the first rule - accept the biological fact that you are indeed special.

By proxy, that means that everyone else is special as well. Everyone has their own journey and their own story to tell, so there is no reason to compare yourselves to others.

For the next step, think about those crabs in the bucket. Are you holding people back, or are you holding yourself back because of other people? Is that the type of person you want to be?

The last step is to stay true to your personal beliefs and values. While Elton John famously said that "sorry" seems to be the hardest word, those living under Janteloven will all agree that "no" is by far the hardest.

However, people accept Janteloven for a reason. All you have to do is not stick out, conform to the group’s decisions and leave your individuality at the door. It’s an ambitionless existence that can be rather comfortable if you don’t fight it.

But is that the best way to live?

Conclusion

Although it comes from a work of fiction, Janteloven has become a concept which is used when discussing and studying Scandinavian cultural norms. For more on Scandinavian culture, it is interesting to look at the differences between Danish and German culture.

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to create and record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.