Gammelgaard, where my grandmother and then my mother, ran the household and where I grew up. (Father's side)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Jante Law-"Janteloven"- musings on a darker side of Denmark

        Most of my musings and Danish memories deal with nostalgia, recipes, happy moments and uniquely Danish traditions. I would be remiss however in describing the Danish soul if I didn't mention something less complimentary. This might come as a shock to the reader, knowing that Danes are the happiest people in the world, according to some. (Reports of the second highest suicide rate puts this a bit in perspective)
       Having moved to the US, I forgot about this element, until a friend of mine (who has also moved here) recently reminded me. My friend has become very successful with his business here in the States and I was complimenting him on it. Over dinner we spoke of the Danish people, foods and things we miss; when suddenly he interjected: "but you know, I really DON'T miss the Jante Law!".

       I thought "Janteloven" was something uniquely Danish, but found in my research, that it covers all of Scandinavia. It is named after a typical small town where nobody is anonymous. The term negatively describes an attitude towards individuality and success in Scandinavia. A mentality which refuses to acknowledge individual effort; and places all emphasis on the collective while punishing all those who stand out as achievers. (Wikipedia)

       If you mention this law to anybody in Denmark, they will know exactly what it means; however very few people, myself included, will know of the specific points involved.

      In 1936 the Danish Norwegian auther, Axel Sandemose, defined the Jante Law as a series of rules that go as follows:

 1) Don't think you are anything special.
 2) Don't think you are as good as us.
 3) Don't think you are smarter than us.
 4) Don't convince yourself that you are better than us.
 5) Don't think you are more than us.
 6) Don't think you are more important than us.
 7) Don't think you are good at anything.
 8) Don't laugh at us.
 9) Don't think anyone cares about you.
10) Don't think you can teach us anything.
11) Don't think that there aren't a few things we know about you.

       If you transgress this unwritten law, you will be regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against communal desire in the town to preserve harmony, social stability and uniformity.

      In my mother's Danish classroom she, being the inspirational teacher she is, put the exercise to her students of posting the exact opposite rules of the Jante Law. We all need self esteem and this seemed a good way to reflect on these silly, less than inspiring tendencies.

       So if I grew up never knowing these "rules" exactly, never having seen them in writing; how much credence could they possibly have? The unspoken rules in a society, the ones you live by and learn by example by, are extremely powerful and I suspect these "rules" have been part of the Scandinavian culture for hundreds of years if not thousands. These rules are sadly alive and well, as they are part of the fabric of our otherwise well educated culture; but there is hope, when we can ask ourselves to reflect on the reverse of each rule:

     1) You are special.
     2) You are just as good as everyone else.
     3) You may actually be smarter than everyone else.
     4) Strive to be the best, we will cheer you on.
     5) You may achieve more than us.
     6) Your brains may benefit us all, and you may hold more importance than us.
     7) Believe that you are good at everything.
     8) Laugh, when you find us funny, we can take it and will laugh with you.
     9) We all care about you and about each other.
    10) We can learn a lot from you, do teach us.
    11) We all make mistakes, we won't hold yours against you.

       I know many happy Danes, in fact all the Danes I know are pretty happy, and most of them quite full of initiative and positive spirit. As we age, we all run into the experiences and ups and downs that shape our personalities. Doesn't life have enough challenges without adding those negative unwritten rules? If every Dane practiced the reverse Jante Lov, a little bit each day, perhaps the heaviness of Ingmar Bergman onto the Scandinavian image could be enlightened a bit? I have great respect for his movies and his work, but there are genuine smiles, light as air, in Scandinavia as well, let's put more emphasis on those; let's dispense with the unwritten rules. Some rules are for breaking, these are the ones!


  1. Great post Maria.... even though Danes on an everyday basis tell each other that the "Jante Law" is dead - it is, sad but true, very alive! Success is not to be celebrated nor shared.... even our tax system punishes success and entrepreneurship.

    and on top of the suicide rate, you can add, "worlds-most-drunk-youth"...

    THESE ARE RULES TO BE BROKEN!!!! let's go! ;-)

  2. Thank you Jakob. I agree, the Jante Law does not show itself in society as openly as it used to, thank goodness! It is however just under the surface and will rear it's ugly head when you least expect it; even from otherwise positive and well educated people (and politicians! :-) )
    . It is a bit of a sad curiosity that philosophers could spend endless amounts of time investigating. Yes; LET"S BREAK THEM NOW!!

  3. Jakob - I'm curious to hear more about the "world's most drunk youth" statement/statistics (one reason I'm thankful to have been able to raise my children abroad... :)

    AND... I'm totally with you: Let's break those ugly rules of 'Jante'!!!

  4. Hi Anonymous, I believe it was last years statistics from WHO
    Breaking rules as we speak :-)

  5. I am married to a Dane, and I am living in Frederikshavn. Until 3 years ago, the attitudes I encountered here didn't have a name until my husband mentioned it to me. I did notice this in Norway too, but it's really "enforced" in Denmark. No person from the Anglo-world would even understand it until they've experienced it themselves.

  6. Dear TailaMkinDK. I am sorry it has taken me this long to write back, I have had technical problems commenting on my own blog! This should be fixed now! You are absolutely right, for the Anglo-world it is a phenomenon to be experienced before one can understand it; although I wish it were non existent. Thanks for your feedback.

  7. I think you nailed this one pretty good. It is exactly a danish thing. And it might be that this will keep down some of the people who was actually able to do some good for Denmark.