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.
One widely discussed achievement of Scandinavian countries is their enviable rankings on the leaderboard of the happiest countries in the world. These achievements have prompted many in the anglophone world, where self-improvement is popular, to seek insights from their success.
A Scandinavian cultural concept that is particularly interesting to look at from a personal development perspective is the so-called “Law of Jante” (or “Janteloven” as it is called in Norwegian and Danish).
This Scandinavian concept is interesting because 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”.
The concept of “Janteloven” may have been intended as a satire of Scandinavian cultural norms, but it still has the potential to provoke thought and encourage self-reflection. Furthermore, challenging some of our ingrained assumptions offers a new perspective that can be valuable for better understanding Scandinavian culture and communicating 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.
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. As a result, many Norwegians have called for the end of Janteloven.
So, why is it called Janteloven?
“Janteloven” originates from a novel by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, titled "En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor" (A Refugee Crosses His Tracks), which was published in 1933.
Despite being satirical, “Janteloven” captures the essence of some of the unwritten Scandinavian cultural norms.
The novel’s protagonist grew up in a small town named Jante, and Janteloven represents the oppressive pressure that the town exerted on individuals.
Even though Sandemose set the book in a small town, he claimed that Janteloven has its validity everywhere.
|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”.
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. As a result, 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.
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.
Crab theory, also known as crab mentality, refers to the phenomenon where if a crab positioned at the top could easily flee, other crabs located lower down will do everything possible to prevent 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.”
“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 from 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.
Despite the pressure of Janteloven, Norwegian talent manages to shine on the global stage. However, these stars have, for the most part, been humble in both defeat and victory.
That radically changed when the outspoken, now retired, cross-country skier Petter Northug hit the world stage in 2009. He bragged, teased his Swedish neighbors, and was a sore loser.
Needless to say, not all Norwegians approved of this behavior. His critics were accused of being excessively influenced by 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.
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 extension, this implies that everyone else is unique too. Each person has their own path to follow and their own story to share, which means there is no rationale for making comparisons 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. One simply needs to avoid standing out, conform to the group’s choices, and forsake individuality. It may be a life without ambition, but it can be quite comfortable if one doesn’t resist it.
But is that the best way to live?Conclusion
Although it comes from a work of fiction, Janteloven has become a concept that 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.