Janteloven (Denmark, Norway and Sweden)

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Janteloven
Location: Denmark, Norway and Sweden
Author: Morten Jakobsen
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Original text: Morten Jakobsen, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Janteloven is a term that describes a set of norms, which state that ‘one should never try to be more, try to be different, or consider oneself as more valuable than others’ (Bromgard, Trafimow and Linn 2014: 375)[1]. These norms are embodied in informal practices that confer negative attitudes towards individuality, individual self-expression and measures of success. These practices can take many forms across a range of social settings. In a business and work environment it may be seen in the condemnation of new ideas and the reluctance to voice those ideas; in a school setting it may pertain to serving the needs of average and low-skilled students, while neglecting the needs of talented students; in public life it may refer to voiced disapproval of material displays of success (Stigsgaard 2005; Lenler and Faber 2008c; Avant and Knutsen 1993-94: 456)[2][3][4]. Common to these examples is the disapproval of individualism, independent thought, and the overall support for a homogenous, egalitarian collectivity.

Photograph showing a commemorative plaque at Sandemose's birthplace in Nykøbing Mors. Artist: Poul Krogsgård

The term was first coined by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his book En flyktning krysser sitt spor (1933). Inspired by his own upbringing in the small town of Nykøbing Mors, Denmark, Sandemose depicted the upbringing of a young boy in the fictional town of Jante who experienced immense pressure to conform to the peasant life of its inhabitants. By studying the behaviour of the villagers, the author codified the norms of the small society into ten commandments reminiscent of the Biblical Ten Commandments, and named them janteloven. They read as follows: 1. Thou shalt not believe that thou art something. 2. Thou shalt not believe that thou art as good as us. 3. Thou shalt not believe that thou art more than us. 4. Thou shalt not fancy thyself better than us. 5. Thou shalt not believe thou knowest more than us. 6. Thou shalt not believe thou art greater than us. 7. Thou shalt not believe that thou art a worthwhile human being. 8. Thou shalt not laugh at us. 9. Thou shalt not believe that anyone is concerned with thee. 10. Thou shalt not believe thou canst teach us anything. (Sandemose 1994: 76)[5]

The function of these laws is to subdue the individual to the community. The spiteful linguistic framing of the norms by Sandemose reflects his own opposition to janteloven, which he believed drained the spirit and motivation of individuals.

While the practice exists in Denmark and Norway as janteloven, it is known in Sweden as jantelagen. It has been claimed that the same norms and practices, although not identified by a specific name, are present in other Nordic societies such as Finland (Booth 2015: 242)[6]. The Greek mythology concepts of hubris and nemesis express similar ideas (Sprognævnet 2004)[7]. Sandemose claimed that janteloven applied not only to small communities within Denmark, but identified it as a specific trait of human nature that had the possibility of flourishing in any society (Sandemose 1994: 15)[8].However, those who practice it seldom clarify what is meant by the term, which poses challenges when investigating its supposed influence. Some consider it a social practice, while others use it as a label for a specific set of norms. The ambiguity of the term is also recognised in public. According to a survey conducted by a Danish newspaper in 2008, half of the Danish population believed that janteloven was often rhetorically misused as an excuse by people who were experiencing a lack of success (Lenler and Faber 2008b)[9].

Photograph showing Anja Andersen , coach for the Danish handball team Slagelse HF, wearing a shirt that reads "Fuck Janteloven", where janteloven is a set of norms embodied in informal practices that confer negative attitudes towards individuality, individual self-expression and measures of success. Artist: Claus Bonnerup

There has been little academic research on janteloven in its own right. This is likely due to the conceptual imprecision of a term loaded with meanings and controversies, as well as the elusive character of these practices, which do not easily lend themselves to scientific research. Nevertheless, the term has been used in an academic context to explain social relations in Scandinavia: it has been suggested that as a set of norms and informal practices it plays a role in Scandinavian society. Some scholars have considered it a useful label for describing socially acceptable and appropriate behaviours in Norway (Avant and Knutsen 1993-94)[10].In this case janteloven reflects larger societal norms of conformity. Norwegian society is highly homogenous and egalitarian with a considerable emphasis on societal solidarity. The extensive welfare state reflects this solidarity as it tries to eliminate poverty through welfare redistribution and social benefits. In the context of this research janteloven functions as a label for the underlying norms explaining these modern developments, whilst also being used as a social tool to ensure that people stay within the boundaries that serve the community and do not set out on an independent trajectory.

The strong emphasis on community serves to ensure its continued existence, while at the same time limiting those who dare to stand out. It can be problematic for creative and innovative persons, who may be discouraged from pursuing their passions, especially if their actions are considered a threat to equality. One example of this limitation is the public education system, where pupils are socialised into the Norwegian idea of community from an early age. Education most frequently is targeted towards the needs of the average student, and supplemented with special assistance for those who lag behind, but rarely is any separate teaching available for those who display particular talent. It has been claimed that this is a direct consequence of the belief and values of janteloven, which dictates that no one should consider themselves better than any other (Avant and Knutsen 1993-94: 456)[11].

In Denmark, janteloven has been described as a set of norms present in public institutions and life, which are taught to citizens from an early age and reproduced throughout life (Gopal 2004)[12]. Perceptions of equality in Danish society are described as the belief in the equality of people across economic, political, cultural and social spheres. The supremacy of the community poses a challenge to people with a mind-set of individualism.

The term is widely known and referred to outside academia. In the aforementioned 2008 survey, three-quarters of the respondents believed that janteloven existed in contemporary Danish society (Lenler and Faber 2008a, 2008b)[13][14]. The same poll also suggested that successful people experience different attitudes from people to their success depending on how they express their accomplishments. The majority of respondents did not believe that if a person held a prestigious job or went to an elite school as a result of his or her talents, that this would produce negative responses from others. Conversely, it was found that individuals who displayed their success through material possessions, such as owning an expensive car or electing to have plastic surgery, would be negatively connoted (Lenler and Faber 2008c)[15].

Critics have vehemently attacked janteloven’s prescription of conformity, pointing to its petty mind-set that only accepts mediocrity. This criticism is especially visible among business leaders and celebrities. One of the most famously outspoken critics of janteloven is Anja Andersen, a successful and controversial former Danish handball coach. Often criticised for her aggressive body language and swearing on the sideline during matches, she was renowned for wearing T-shirts with the words ‘fuck janteloven’ printed in bold capital letters on the front. These T-shirts later became available for public sale, which exemplifies the broader popular critique (Information 2006)[16].

Notes

  1. Bromgard, G., D. Trafimow and C. Linn. 2014. ‘Janteloven and the Expression of Pride in Norway and the United States’, The Journal of Social Psychology, 154: 375-378
  2. Stigsgaard, L. 2005. ‘Lever janteloven?’, Berlingske Tidende, 3 December
  3. Lelner, J. and K. Fabler. 2008c. ‘Kunstige bryster udløser mest jantelov’, Politiken.dk, June 24, http://politiken.dk/indland/ECE529526/kunstige-bryster-udloeser-mest-jantelov/
  4. Avant G. R. and K. P. Knutsen. 1993-94. ‘Understanding Cultural Differences: Janteloven and Social Conformity in Norway’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 50 (4): 449-460
  5. Sandemose, A. 1994. En flygtning krydser sit spor. Aalborg: Aalborg Stiftsbogtrykkeri
  6. Booth, K. 2015. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. London: Vintage
  7. Sprognævnet. 2004. ‘Janteloven’, Sproget.dk, 1 September, http://sproget.dk/raad-og-regler/artikler-mv/svarbase/SV00001169
  8. Sandemose, A. 1994. En flygtning krydser sit spor. Aalborg: Aalborg Stiftsbogtrykkeri
  9. Lelner, J. and K. Fabler. 2008b. ‘Janteloven er en undskyldning’, Politiken.dk, 23 June, http://politiken.dk/indland/ECE528333/janteloven-er-en-undskyldning/
  10. Avant G. R. and K. P. Knutsen. 1993-94. ‘Understanding Cultural Differences: Janteloven and Social Conformity in Norway’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 50 (4): 449-460
  11. Avant G. R. and K. P. Knutsen. 1993-94. ‘Understanding Cultural Differences: Janteloven and Social Conformity in Norway’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 50 (4): 449-460
  12. Gopal, K. 2004. ‘Janteloven, the Antipathy to Difference: Looking at Danish Ideas of Equality as Sameness’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 24 (3): 64-82
  13. Lelner, J. and K. Fabler. 2008a. ‘Janteloven er groet fast i vores bevidsthed’, Politiken.dk, June 21, http://politiken.dk/kultur/ECE527973/janteloven-er-groet-fast-i-vores-bevisthed/
  14. Lelner, J. and K. Fabler. 2008b. ‘Janteloven er en undskyldning’, Politiken.dk, 23 June, http://politiken.dk/indland/ECE528333/janteloven-er-en-undskyldning/
  15. Lelner, J. and K. Fabler. 2008c. ‘Kunstige bryster udløser mest jantelov’, Politiken.dk, June 24, http://politiken.dk/indland/ECE529526/kunstige-bryster-udloeser-mest-jantelov/
  16. Information. 2006. ‘En dårlig taber er en vinder’, 10 March