Ebeltoft, DENMARK – It is of course overly simplistic to say that one idea underlines an entire society and culture, but Janteloven, or ‘the Law of Jante’ comes pretty close.
Janteloven is used to explain how Danes behave and how societies in Scandinavia are structured. While it cannot explain everything, it can give interesting insight for non-Danes about how Scandinavian society is arranged, and what is expected of those living in it.
What is the law of Jante?
Despite the name, Janteloven is a set of rules rather than a real law, and is mainly just used to explain a specific way of thinking. It emphasizes similarity and having a modest opinion of yourself.
The attitudes in Janteloven have been around for a long time, but it was Norwegian-Danish writer Sandmose who coined the rules in 1933.
The 10 rules that make up the ‘law’ are:
- 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 imagine yourself 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.
The 10 rules themselves are never really cited individually, but are instead more of a wider worldview where it is unacceptable to see yourself as better than the rest of the group, to boast, or be obtusely ambitious.
Janteloven of course has no legal repercussions, but does, however, work as a useful tool to understand an underlying attitude that is held by many – yet not all – Danes.
While there is a danger of Janteloven being attributed to every aspect of Danish life, painting over any nuances of Danish culture, it is often used as a tool by academics to understand how Scandinavian countries work.
The mindset can often be used to understand why certain behavior quickly makes someone an “outsider” in Denmark. An inability to fit into Janteloven can be cited as a critique as to why someone might not fit in.
The Janteloven worldview appears in many ways, like students tending to not be divided into classes based on ability as they often are in the U.S. or UK, for example.
Even Denmark’s royal family – despite their tax-funded wealth – are known for cycling their kids to school in Copenhagen like everybody else – a surefire way to win over many Danes by appearing “normal” despite their status.
This does not mean that some Danes do not boast, or that there are not classes or power structures. These things just show up differently in Denmark than they might in other societies, for example in the term “flat hierarchy” – something that you will often hear in Danish offices or universities.
A flat hierarchy has fewer steps in management (meaning fewer middle managers), and there is an idea that everyone should be able to contribute and be heard.
At all ages of education, Danish students call our teachers and university professors by their first names. When one professor suggested we call them by their last name, they were largely dismissed, and students continued to use the professor’s first name.
The Janteloven mindset sits in stark contrast to cultures like in the United States, where more individualistic expectations and a drive for personal excellence are valued more highly. Talking about your brilliant grades might be acceptable or even encouraged in the U.S. or UK, but in Denmark, it is a sure-fire way to give Danes “the ick.”
It is important to note that Janteloven doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be successful, although some Danes do feel that this is what it does.
It tends to be, however, more of an aversion to talking about your success or seeing yourself as better because of it.
The solution to all our problems?
Social scientists often use Janteloven as a description of these social pressures to behave in a certain way.
Many researchers use the mindset to explain a high degree of trust among citizens in Scandinavian countries and to explain the benefits that generous welfare states in Scandinavian countries provide. Whether it be universal student grants or childcare benefits, the egalitarian values of Janteloven can help explain why the state is willing to give so much help.
There are many cases where researchers or writers who are new to Denmark conclude that almost everything is because of Janetloven, and may fail to take into account other historical, political, or social factors, so how much Janteloven is responsible for is often up for debate.
Exclusion, isolation and difference
Janteloven has been criticized by some Danes for stopping people from feeling as if they can be proud of their achievements, or for stifling individuality. Some are even arguing against the relevance of Janteloven in the 21st century at all, and in some corners of the internet you can find a list of “anti-Janteloven.”
A less discussed issue around Janteloven however is, perhaps ironically, the exclusion that something with such strong egalitarian values has the power to do.
Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s work stresses that many historical factors, including the mindset in Janteloven, have led to Danish culture equating equality with being the same. This was built upon by anthropologist Kusum Gopal, who found that Janteloven influences discussions around immigration.
It can lead to pressures for newcomers to Denmark (especially those from non-western countries) to feel like they need to “renounce” or distance themselves from their heritage and home countries in order “to be considered Danes and citizens” according to Gopal.
A similar pressure is included in 2011 doctoral thesis research by Kevin Turasky at the University of Massachusetts. Turasky found that in Sweden, Janteloven-related ideologies influenced xenophobia and “insider/outsider thinking,” creating pressure for those seen as “different” – especially in regards to culture or ethnicity – to become more “Swedish” in order to become accepted.
My own recent research examined how not being able to speak Danish tended to create similar types of exclusion.
International students with low or no understanding of Danish were found to be frequently excluded, both academically and socially, regardless of the high English ability of both themselves and their Danish peers who were studying in English with them.
Those who had learned some Danish expressed feeling excluded simply for having a foreign accent.
What is interesting in this research from Gullestad and Gopal is that there is not only a pressure to become more similar, which is found in many places, but an overwhelming focus on renouncing any difference someone might have, to be seen equally.
More broadly, there are discussions about how many feel overwhelming pressure to renounce aspects of their non-Danish cultures or heritage. Proponents argue that it is a necessary part of becoming included in Danish society.
Danish immigration and integration discussions are complex, and can by no means be reduced to a few lines on Janteloven. But it is clear that this way of thinking can influence attitudes, expectations and cultural pressures.
Janteloven: a magic elixir or poison?
Janteloven is an analytical tool for academics, and perhaps interesting trivia for those outside of Denmark. For Danes it can represent egalitarianism and equal opportunity, or a pressure to fit in and hide aspects of themselves – for new and old Danes alike.
What is similar among all of us here, however, is that Janteloven has an undeniable place in the minds of all of us here in Denmark.
Amy Goodman is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International. She wrote this piece.
Abigail Goodman is an Illustrator with Youth Journalism International. She made the illustration.