Ever wondered why Norwegians are the way they are? The answer, at least in part, lies in the societal norms known as the law of jante.
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.
Janteloven (the law of Jante) at its simplest describes the way that all Norwegians (and in fact, other Scandinavians too) behave: putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments, and not being jealous of others.
Important: There's lots of confusion about the concept of janteloven, much stemming from its English translation. It is of course, not an actual law! Janteloven is more of an unspoken social code.
Conforming to societal expectations
I think it's fair to say that Norway in general 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 behaviour is right or wrong, but it does work well in this environment and in these circumstances.
The origins of janteloven
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
In the books of Sandemose, Jante is the small town where the main character grew up.
The resulting Janteloven is an expression of the small town’s tyrannical pressure on the individual, but the author went on to argue that Janteloven has its validity everywhere. He was seeking to capture something that already existed in society.
This suggests this way of living is deeply ingrained within Scandinavians and passed down through generations. Although not explicitly taught, these societal expectations 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' concept is holding the country back from achieving more success on a global scale.
The concept has 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
Last year I spoke with Anita Krohn Traaseth, the successful businesswoman, blogger, and new CEO of Innovation Norway. What she had to say is being repeated more and more as time goes by:
“One of the biggest things preventing Norway having a startup culture is the lack of self-esteem. Saul Singer was in Oslo two weeks ago and he told us the first word he was introduced to by Norwegians was janteloven. What kind of a message is janteloven for the next generation of entrepreneurs?”
“At the same time we need to build breadth. I am for keeping that, because this is the only way we can build similar to sports, a culture across the country. We are the sum of all our parts and we need to celebrate success on a national level.”
“For example, so many Norwegians have never heard of the small startups in Sogn og Fjordane with worldwide success. We need to build a culture of being proud. We need to cheer for failures. The road to success is failure, not janteloven.”
I do think these social norms hold back wannabe entrepreneurs from throwing everything into their projects, and it could go some way to explaining why freelancing is more difficult here than in the UK or USA.
But they also result in a society that is for the many rather than the few, and one that is the envy of the world.
Even though it's taken me four years to write about janteloven, it's an important subject area for foreigners to understand, even if you're just visiting, as it sets the context for many of the interactions you'll have with Norwegians.
What's your opinion on the future of janteloven?