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Janteloven, The Unwritten Scandinavian Law

Updated: Sep 4

There's an unwritten (often unspoken of) rule of life in Scandinavia that unless you've lived here you probably have not heard of. It's called Janteloven or Jante's Law. It's not a law written in any constitution or official rule of law, but it has power. It quietly guides the ways people in Scandinavia and the Nordics behave towards each other and view themselves.

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But let's start at the beginning. Back in 1933, a Danish-Norwegian author called Aksel Sandemose wrote a book entitled "En flyktning krysser sitt spor" (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). He based his story on the fictional town of Jante that bore a close resemblance to his own home town of Nykøbing Mors. In Jante everyone knows everyone else, no-one is anonymous and no-one can get away with anything. It sounds like it might be a nice place to live, but there is always a down side. In Jante the good of society must be put above everything else, including your own well being and happiness. You must always remember that you are nothing special, you are no better than anyone else. Ideologically it sounds like a wonderful idea, but Janteloven most definitely has it's drawbacks.

Sandemose didn't come up with the idea out of nowhere though. The idea is much older than his writing and characterises the theory that one shouldn't show off, think you are better than anyone else or do anything out of the ordinary. A lot of the qualities of the quiet, modest Scandinavian with which we are so familiar and love so much. These days it shows itself as the Nordic sense of modesty and a quiet disapproval to shout about your own achievements.

The Nordic countries are famous for their self effacing modesty and sense of discretion and Jante’s Law certainly plays a big part in that. It’s not normal to brag about who you are or what you have. I am afraid to say that those things are usually assumed to come from foreigners and that is where a large part of the culture difference lies between Scandinavians and the rest of the world. I found it very difficult when I first moved to Norway and I wanted to tell a friend or family member about an accomplishment. Ordinarily that would have been something that would have come naturally and been easy to say but in Norway it’s much harder and you tend to keep quiet. Without even realising it Jante’s Law enters your life and you find yourself towing the line

Let's look at the rules of Jante's Law as written by Aksel Sandemose:

10 Points of Jante’s Law

1 You are not to think you are anything special

You are no better or worse than us and to think that you are is conceited and an unattractive trait.

2 You’re not to think you are as good as we are

We are all the same.

3 You are not to think you are smarter than we are

We are all as clever as each other. No one person is smarter than the next.

4 You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are

Don't get too ambitious. We are all in it for the good of the many and you are not to start to think that you can achieve something more.

5 You are not to think you know more than we do

Again, you are no smarter than everyone else.

6 You are not to think you are more important that we are

Everyone is equal and has an equal say and an equal importance in society. This to some extent is something to be relished. It all sounds rather communist, but with our wonderfully embracing social care systems in Europe it’s a philosophy that in part we can hold close.

7 You are not to think you are good at anything

"I can do that just as well as you can". Don’t go bragging. No-one likes a bragger and especially not here in Scandinavia.

8 You’re not to laugh at us

We are not a joke, you must take everyone else seriously and we will do the same for you

9 You’re not to think anyone cares about you

That characteristic modesty or is it?

10 You’re not to think you can teach us anything

This always strikes me as the saddest rule - we can all learn from others.

In the book there is an eleventh rule too, known as the "penal code of Jante":

11 Perhaps you don't think we know something about you

This unfortunately is probably true! In Norway, most of your information can be found online, including your tax return and assets. Before things were computerised people would even queue up at the tax office to read the tax returns of their neighbours! Fortunately it is much better now as you have to log onto your account to do it and the other person can see that.

Of course, these social norms can’t possibly apply in their purest form nowadays, and the idea is one that is a bit light-hearted but it very cleverly pinpoints some of the less well known aspects of Nordic society and the reasons for them.

Norway flag bunad
Janteloven is becoming much less a part of my own kids' generation's lives without them losing their Nordic identity

As the generations pass, these “laws” become less and less important and it’s very much the older generations in Norway who still cling to them. As people travel more and immigration increases so the culture of Jante’s Law becomes ever more thinned down as other cultures water it out, but it would be sad thing for Scandinavians to loose that quiet modesty that they are so loved for.

I take Janteloven with a big pinch of salt, but even hard lessons like this have something to teach us, so what can we take from Janteloven and apply to own lives wherever we are and do we even want to?

How you can have a little Jante's Law in your life (but only the good parts of Janteloven!!):

  • Show respect for everyone regardless of how they might at first appear. This is a core part of life in Scandinavia. Everyone is equal regardless of background and status.

  • Be proud of your accomplishments, but keep it a little modest. Or better still allow your accomplishments to shine through on their own merit.

  • Don't laugh at other people. Be kind always. Simple.

  • Don't always assume that you have achieved more than someone else. If you don't know everything about a person and who they are. We don't their background and what they might have achieved in their life that are not telling you aboo what do you think of Jante's Law? It's taken me some time to really understand it and I still find it very different from my upbringing in England. But it does help me to understand Scandinavians and life here much more easily.

So what do you think of Jante's Law? Some of the points are easy to understand and make great sense, but there are some aspects that are tough. However overall it helps us understand the way of life in Scandinavia much more easily and gives us a unique insight that we might otherwise miss.

I'd love to hear your opinions on it. Why not join me and my friends from all over the world in the Living a Nordic Life Facebook group where we'll tackle this one and give our opinions from the perspective of our different cultures. We'd love to see you there!

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