Janteloven, “the law of Jante” is an important aspect of the Danish culture. It’s one of those things that have two sides. A two edged sword. And as a lot of weapons, it hurts both the one holding it and the one it thrusts.
I have always seen this law as inherently violent as it repress individuality and expression of talent. Everytime I think of it, I have to force myself to remember that it has a hidden light side in order not to smash the book closed.
Basically, it can be summed as “Don’t think you’re special.”
- 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.
This law, which is actually more of a cultural norm, has only been written in a novel in 1933. It sets focus on conventional and group behavior. Group work is extremely important in Nordic cultures. Pupils and students are taught to work in common and there is generally an emphasis on what you achieve as a team.
The social norm comes down from a time where people, as farmers, laborers, handworkers, were much dependent on each other. As a result, trying to reach out and express your individuality was seen as breaking the community which feeds you.
If you brag about your personal results, you are not seen as a teamworker and therefor less eager to work, to be hired. Opposite, praising your team, teamwork, is valued and as such, showing how you participated and improved teamwork is seen as valuable.
So this law actually means :
You are to work with us. You belong with us and without us, you are nothing, but we also need you, to be stronger, to work better.
The hidden moral
This law is actually an emphasis on group work and push pupils and later the adults, to never get anything for granted but to work hard, to work together to achieve goals that cannot be done alone.
Danes also like to see each others as equals and therefor not a threat (to their job situation mostly). Probably one of the reason there is so much trust at work. And in the society.
It also push on enjoying the simple things of life rather than running for the wealth and grandeur.
Despite its negativity, the law implies also the existence of a social net, ready to help the weak, to protect you in your times of needs in order to protect the group itself.
Law and Order.
Janteloven is maybe one of the reason for Scandinavia to have became one of the most peaceful regions on Earth.
Here, not so much riots or mobs in the streets, because of social equality. No social clash but a large middle class, which truly, ought to be the base of any democracy. And the importance for everybody to work hard and fair, to educate themselves, trust each other and to respect the rules.
No wonder Danes wait for the green man to cross the street.
Immigrants have it hard.
Janteloven is such an important thing in Denmark that common folks, and politicians backed by them, require that immigrants assimilate to a certain point within this.
A foreigner could probably never totally get into it because no matter how hard they stick or adopt local values, they would still be a little different. They are still foreigners.
The law is very less visible today, but still an important part and a foundation of Nordic cultures.
More people get married outside their social group. More people climb the social ladder.
But it is also because of Janteloven. Maybe. As the law express, one should work with others and not against the group. As a result, the whole group, the whole society grew in living standards and as such, formed what is today a huge middle class that crushes all under its weight.
Janteloven is about social control, which is less obvious today. But modern Nordic welfare states, with their high taxes and trade unions, can be seen as a modern implementation of this social control and social safety net.
Nevertheless, the law remains so important that some people might refrain to express some talents or hopes because of it.