Janteloven: The Root of Scandinavian Modesty

In America, we have the common phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” which represents our strive to be better than our neighbor and fellow Americans. We all want to be cooler, smarter, and more successful than the person next to us. Now just take a “hop, skip, and a jump” over to Scandinavia and you will hear the phrase “Janteloven”. But what is Janteloven and what does it mean for the Scandinavians?

Keeping up with the Joneses Scandinavian Jantelov

“Keeping up with the Joneses” seems counter culture to the Scandinavian Jantelov

The Law of Jante

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Janteloven translated into English means “The Law of Jante”. Jantelov was created in 1933 by a Norwegian- born Danish author by the name of Aksel Sandemose via his book ‘En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor’ (A fugitive crosses his tracks). Janteloven is a list of 10 rules, with the exception of a recognized 11th rule, that govern how Scandinavians should think about one another.

Without further ado, a rough translation of Janteloven:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as us.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than us.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than us.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

.11. .Perhaps you don’t think I know a few things about you?

modest scandinavians janteloven lifestyle

Janteloven encourages the Scandinavians to be modest, and not compete with their neighbors

Cultural Implications

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Having come from an American culture rich in individualism, coming to Denmark has proven that Jantelov is chiseled into the culture. Most Danes seem to much more reserved and humble in everyday life. These rules refrain people from “judging a book by its cover,” as they encourage assuming that they are no better than the person they are meeting. It is actually quite refreshing to not feel the glare of judgment when meeting people here, compared to in the U.S where I have many times received and many times dished out said judgement.

Now don’t get me wrong, American culture has been creeping into this Jantelov-ruled society. “Selfies” are in full effect here and Jantelov is becoming less popular. Many times, you can find a Dane posting on Facebook “Screw Jantelov – (insert gloating here)” when wanting to announce something exciting they have done in their life. In these instances, Danes feel Jantelov is a bit too extreme. Like everyone else in the world, Danes want to announce their accomplishments and the things that make them stick out among the rest; but due to Jantelov, they must do so with an inclination of guilt.

With most Scandinavian countries having a form of Jantelov while also leading as some of the happiest countries in the world, it seems as though there might be something to this Jantelov. Unlike “Keeping up with the Jones’” where it pushes us to constantly be better than everyone around you, Janteloven has the opposite effect as it is not always good to stand out amongst others and teaches that you shouldn’t always compare yourself to others, but only to yourself. Like Alexander Kjerulf explains in his book Happy Hour is 9-5, we must first look to ourselves to find happiness before comparing to outside factors such as co-workers or salary. It seems as though the Scandinavians have it figured out when it comes to happiness. So, is it time that we start incorporating their methods to ourselves?

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Peter Gratale
30 Jan 2014

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