What is Jante law or Jantelagen ?
When I moved to Sweden, I realized that there was a difference between the rich and the poor, even though the rest of the world describes Sweden as a country where everyone is rich and you cannot find poor people. So I started asking the same question I was asking myself when I was a little boy, “Why it is that some people are more successful than others? Why is it that some people have more money, better jobs, happier families, vibrant health and exciting lives, and others not? Why do some people drive newer cars, wear nicer clothes and live in better homes?” These people always seem to have money in their pockets and in their bank accounts. They dine in fancy restaurants, take beautiful vacations and live more enjoyable, satisfying lives. Why was this? When I asked some of my friends this question, their answer was, “They were lucky.”
However, I felt that something was wrong with this explanation. Were people who started off with limited backgrounds and eventually succeeded just lucky? If people worked hard, studied continuously and pulled themselves up into positions of prominence by their own application and effort, was this a matter of luck? Did this explanation mean that people who had come from all over Europe and moved into Swedish big cities, arriving with no friends, no skills, no money, and no opportunities, and who had then become successful, were just “lucky?” This explanation did not make sense to me. Think about Zlatan Ibrahimović: where does he come from? Look at those Turkish immigrants who own all the pizzerias, shops and bars around you: what do they have that you don’t?
When I started studying Swedish at Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) at Komvux in Karlstad, I came across the so-called Jante law, or Jantelagen in Swedish. It’s something very Scandinavian, and what I consider their secret weapon in preventing people from becoming who they want to become. The teacher explained that it is about being equal to your neighbors. I was intrigued, so I did some more research about the law of Jante.
It comes from the Danish word Janteloven, and it’s the idea that there is a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Scandinavian communities that negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. According to Wikipedia:
The Jante law, as a concept, was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, who, in his novel “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933, English translation published in the USA in 1936), identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modelled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.
Generally used colloquially in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a sociological term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.
You’re not to think you are anything special.
You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
You’re not to think you know more than we do.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
You’re not to think you are good at anything.
You’re not to laugh at us.
You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
These ten principles or commandments are often claimed to form the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people.
The enforcers of the law are, ofcourse, the same people oppressed by it: the citizens of Jante. Sandemose said that it was in the culture to keep each other down in Scandinavia; very much part of the Scandinavian collectivist spirit, I guess, and certainly something we foreigners struggle to understand.
Jantelagen certainly would not apply to classist countries like Rwanda where I come from, or China where I lived half of my adult life, but maybe Sweden is different in this regard. At university in China, when I was preparing a presentation about IKEA and Volvo, I read an article where it said Swedes had a hard time working under foreign management because of the ranking system. In China or other foreign countries, there is a chain of command, whereas in Sweden it appears you are as likely to find the CEO on the factory shop floor talking with staff as in the boardroom. I think this caused me to rethink some of my sales strategy approaches, and even my management style, to be adaptable to new cultures.
Swedish culture celebrates the achievement of the average and looks negatively at attempts to exceed it. When I moved to Sweden, I realized, that working as a low-level worker with a Master’s of Economics, I was regarded as an underachiever. Since I was new to the country I thought that I needed to up my game, but only slightly.
Equality remains a cornerstone of Swedish culture. This “we’re all the same” mentality comes from the Scandinavian concept of Jantelagen, the cultural compass that celebrates the “everyman” and discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in the culture not only with the “we are all equal” ethos, but even more so the “don’t think you are better than anyone, ever” mindset.
I found this overwhelming and struggled to keep up. Having all my previous attempts to succeed consistently land just under par, I enjoyed the underachiever status I had nurtured for years. Yet with a little effort, I managed to reach Sweden’s medium-set bar and I basked in the glory of a world where I no longer had to explain my never-ending story of life failures. However, I became disturbed when, sadly, I discovered that I possessed a skill slightly-above-average. Then I started to ask myself, “Should I really accept living the life of average when I know I can do better?”