Whether you have only studied a Scandinavian language or lived or worked in close contact with Norwegians, you cannot have escaped hearing about the Law of Jante (Janteloven). It is a concept as near the Norwegian heart (for better or for worse) as “dugnad” is.
The Law itself has no legislative value whatsoever, but its ten commands are meant to hold a mirror to Danish society in the 1930s. It originates from the 1933 book, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by Dano-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose, representing life in the little Danish town of Jante, which could be anywhere in transparent Scandinavia.
The ten rules are 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.
Pretty humbling, eh? But what does it actually point to? A positive, stable society where everyone develops together at the same pace, or a rigid, inert group of people forbidding others to make themselves be noticed, as the unwritten 11th rule states: Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things against you?
Here are a few points to consider that would help you understand Norwegian society better, through Janteloven.
Norwegian’s society is transparent, and it goes way beyond not having curtains in the windows. Tax returns are available for consultation provided you pay tax as well, enabling you to know how much your neighbour has in the bank. Gossip runs amok (after all, that is understandable, especially in the countryside, where everyone is a potential cousin). I hear more from politicians here than in my native country, and they have an open dialogue with each other instead of being thrown in the mud by journalists. The media make it very easy to know what is going on in the country, but, at your local level, the grapevine functions perfectly as well, enabling the group to control you and the image you project.
Egalitarianism and social cohesion
For society to remain stable, without conflicts that the group would not be able to handle, everyone should have access to the same opportunities. On the positive side, it means that all parents receive help from the government for the first 18 years of their child’s life, that these children will be able to participate in “culture schools” where they will learn art and music for a moderate sum of money, that these teenagers will later have access to State-funded loans to finance their studies, be them from impoverished or rich backgrounds, and that “everyone is best!” This is perfectly illustrated by the Norwegian education system, which is centred towards practical subjects as well as oral communication, and everyone’s love for sports, particularly team sports like football or handball.
On the other hand, it means that, should you be born gifted, like I was, your parents will have to move to another country to enrol you in a school that would suit your needs and your heightened pace, as “you are not to think you are smarter than we are.” Of course, I would be the first to say that, on average, Norwegians are well-educated and practical-minded, good parents, interested in art and heritage, good with their hands, fantastically fit and very good bakers. But remember that no one is allowed to excel in their craft; it would be even worse than bragging about it.
Defeatism (or, at least pessimism)
I remember reading an article when I still lived in the countryside. Two girls from the local town had moved to London on a musical venture that went bust after a year. No one was surprised and everyone expected them to fail, as they had dared “stand out” from the rest. This inertia, these endless meetings going on for years and years before a decision is made (or not), this expectation of failure and discontent are difficult to deal with on a daily basis for people who come from a dynamic culture that is solution-oriented. Not wanting to change something that is broken and preventing those who want to act is frustrating.
On the other hand, it may be because of that Norwegians love art and the country is so generous with stipends: it confronts them with their problems in a way that does not force them to take action.
A few parting words
Janteloven is a much debated topic, and the younger generations have come up with their own Anti-Janteloven rules, proving that it exists and functions as a weight on the spirit of some. Then again, as an instrument of social cohesion, it functions.