Once you’ve lived in Norway for a while, you’ll come across more and more everyday references to janteloven as a reason for Norwegian society being the way it is.
But what Exactly Is Janteloven?
Janteloven (the law of Jante) at its simplest describes the way that all Norwegians (and in fact, other Scandinavians too) should behave: putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments or being jealous of others.
Conforming to societal expectations
I think it’s fair to say that Norway is a more cohesive society than the UK or USA.
Norwegians by and large are courteous: I’ve rarely been brushed off when asking for help, even in English. They keep the streets tidy, recycle plastic bottles and cans (albeit encouraged by the pant deposit system), and take part in the dugnad tradition of volunteering. They may suffer from high tax rates, but there are few complaints from the population who understand the need for income taxes and most importantly, see the results by way of infrastructure improvements and subsidies.
As a liberal who believes in the right of the individual to live their life as they wish, it has been quite an adjustment. I’m not saying the system is right or wrong, but it works well in this environment and in these circumstances.
The term janteloven can be traced back to Aksel Sandemose, a Danish-turned-Norwegian author, whose works of fiction included references to these “laws” in the context of small-town Denmark (taken from an English translation on Wikipedia):
- 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
It is wrong to say this is the origin of janteloven behaviour though, as Sandemose was seeking to capture something that already existed in Scandinavian society. This suggests this way of living is deeply ingrained in Scandinavians and passed down through generations. Although not explicitly taught, these societal needs are reflected in many children’s books and songs of today.
Time for a change?
It may be surprising to those who see Scandinavia as some sort of societal utopia, but there is a growing anti-Janteloven movement in Norway. In the entrepreneurial circles I move in with my freelance writing, I meet many Norwegians who believe the anti-bragging approach is holding the country back from achieving more success on a global scale.
It’s also inspired an expletive-filled song from a Danish band:
Free your mind, free your mind
It’s time, it’s time
To break the chains, break the chains
Break the law, break the law
Break the Jante Law