Scandinavian culture has infiltrated these shores quite like nothing else in the past few years. Whilst things like Nordic Noir dramas and minimalist furniture from your favourite flat-pack warehouse are the obvious examples, even grand existential concepts have begun to enter the British psyche.

Explaining Scandi-Cool: Janteloven and The Law of Jante

The Janteloven Stronghold

A few weeks ago we wrote about the growing popularity of ‘hygge’ here in the UK; a concept which has taken over the mostly female of Instagram and essentially means ‘cosiness’ and enjoying the little things in life. Making the menial, meaningful, if you will. After we published the post, a few readers got in touch to suggest we look into another Scandinavian concept called ‘The Law of Jante’, more commonly referred to as ‘Janteloven’. And we think it’s fascinating. It may also go some way to explaining why the Scandinavians are so damn laid back.

Janteloven is a concept which is acknowledged and understood by the vast majority of the population in all the Nordic countries. Put in its simplest form, the term gives guidance to how citizens should behaviour in a society, suggesting that they should put the needs of that society ahead of their own individual wants and desires. As well as that, individuals should keep modest about personal achievements – including and especially wealth – and avoid being jealous of others’ accomplishments.

The Law of Jante

The term ‘Janteloven Stronghold’ was first coined in 1933 by Danish writer Aksel Sandemose. Having just moved to Norway, Sandemose identified and recorded ten cultural mind-sets (akin to the Ten Commandments) that he observed and experienced in Scandinavian culture. He then published these observations in his novel ‘En flyktning krysser sitt spor’ (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). The novel portrays the small mythical Danish town of ‘Jante’, based on his hometown Nkyobing Mors. The ‘Law of Jante’, as he described it, goes as follows;

• 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

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The Rise of Janteloven

The Law of Jante quickly turned into ‘Janteloven’, almost certainly because the Norwegian name for the Ten Commandments is ‘Moseloven’ or ‘the code of Moses’, and hence the word ‘Janteloven’ literally translates into ‘the code of Jante’.

According to Michael Booth in his book ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle’, Sandemose’s novel caused a ‘storm of controversy’ upon its release with most taking the conclusions that Sandemose saw Denmark as being ‘ruled by pettiness, envy, backbiting, gossip, inverted snobbery and small-mindedness.’ Much of this, Booth says, is because the Danes recognised the code so vividly. The Norwegians soon became aware of the concept, recognising it in themselves too, as did the Swedes (‘Jantelagen‘).

How Prominent is Janteloven in Scandinavia?

According to Booth, many in the Nordics will roll their eyes at the concept; the Law of Jante was even condemned by Queen Margarethe II of Denmark in a New Year’s speech back in the 80s. But ‘the truth is’, he says, ‘Sandemose really nailed the Danes [with his Law of Jante].’ Writing for the Psych Central blog, Lindsay Dupuis echoes Booth’s sentiments saying, ‘Jante Law operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.’

David Nickel in the Life in Norway Blog acknowledges that it plays a big role in Norwegian society too, saying it’s ‘passed down through generations’, with the concept ‘reflected in many children’s books and songs of today.’ It’s even more colloquially used in Sweden as a term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success.

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The Effects of Janteloven

The effects of such a belief system are varied and naturally they’re not all positive. Many individuals in the Nordics set their standards low due to a contentment with the norm, and having wealth isn’t considered an attractive quality either. Not only that, according to Booth, it can have far bigger implications when it comes to family support for individual ambitions, particularly in more rural areas.

But it’s not all negative either. There are two ways you could look at the Law of Jante; You could take Janteloven as an oppressive way of maintaining the status quo and discouraging ambition; Or you could similarly take it as a way of exhibiting modesty and coolness, as well as a way of promoting socialism and equality.

It also should be noted that the Scandinavian countries (Denmark especially) are usually towards the top of any ‘happiest country’ study. That could be explained by Janteloven; in a recent happiness study by the University College of London, it was discovered that low expectations helped boost happiness.

Nordic countries are also known for their sense of community and civic duty. Yale University, for example, recently named Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark as the top four ‘Greenest Countries in the World’. And while the Scandinavians generally pay high tax rates (with the Danish the highest in the world), according to a Gallup survey in 2014, ‘almost 9 out of 10 Danish people happily pay their taxes to some or a high degree.’

The Future of Janteloven

If the first-hand accounts we came across are anything to go by, while still known and accepted in some form or another, Janteloven is losing its grip on the Scandinavian psyche. This is especially true in the bigger cities where multiculturalism means ideas and behaviours are shared.

But as the Law of Jante was only documenting pre-existing behaviours and beliefs, it’s probably safe to assume that the concept will always be recognised in some form by Scandinavians. As we were told numerous time in researching Janteloven; Understanding the law of Jante is essential to understanding the Nordic mindset, and it might go some way to explaining Scandi-cool.

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