Arts & Culture

What is Janteloven?

If you’ve spent any time in Scandinavia, you’ve likely heard of the concept of Janteloven, or the Law of Jante. Known as Janteloven in both Danish and Norwegian, Jantelagen in Swedish, Jante laki in Finnish and Jantelögin in Icelandic, this concept illustrates a social code specific to the Nordic region.

Janteloven’s social code dictates emphasis on collective accomplishments and well-being, and disdains focus on individual achievements. It is an underlying principle that applies across Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. Understanding Janteloven is paramount to understanding both the history and modern-day cultures of these countries

The History of Janteloven

The idea of Janteloven first found its name through the work of Danish-Norwegian author Askel Sandemose in his 1933 book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor). In it, Sandemoose tells the story of a fictional small Danish town, Jante, where all individuals are expected to subsume their identity to the group. Though he first articulated the concept, Sandemoose argues that this is something that can historically be found throughout the villages and cities of Scandinavia.

 
 

The Ten Laws of Jante

The ten laws of Jante, written by Sandemoose, are a fascinating look at the wide net this pattern of behavior casts across society. Notice that they’re directed at “you,” and refer to “us,” meaning the culture or community at-large.

Do not to think you are anything special.
Do not to think you are as good as we are.
Do not to think you are smarter than we are.
Do not to imagine yourself better than we are.
Do not to think you know more than we do.
Do not to think you are more important than we are.
Do not to think you are good at anything.
Do not to laugh at us.
Do not to think anyone cares about you.
Do not to think you can teach us anything.

 
 

Janteloven in Scandinavia Today

How does Janteloven play out in Scandinavia today? In an increasingly globally-connected world, do the old cultural rules still apply? The answer is: it’s complicated (isn’t it always?). A general aversion to trumpeting individual excellence continues to be prevalent across Scandinavian cultures. Both international and domestic media emphasis tends to be on how strong the region – the society – is, rather than on individuals. Health care, welfare, gender equality, design, even happiness; these are the things that stand out when Scandinavia countries reference their strengths, not particular prominent individuals or celebrities.

But, in a capitalist society, those with the means of production also get the credit for success. Thought all Scandinavian countries have a socialist welfare model, their economic model is capitalism and increased global trade only underscores the fact. The result is that the Scandinavian countries encourage a system in which individuals strive to be financially and socially successful, while also eschewing the self-promotion that often accompanies this kind of success.

An example of the way Danes have both reinforced and poked fun at Janteloven is the popular Carlsberg campaign: “Probably the best beer in the world.” Ironically, the campaign features one of Denmark’s biggest stars, actor Mads Mikkelsen. As he goofily cycles around Copenhagen, head bobbing while he rides over the cobbled streets, there’s a charming mixture of self-effacement and pride that typically marks Janteloven. The commercial wants to showcase the best of Denmark, including Carlsberg beer, while gently undercutting the compliments. It ends with the biggest undercut of all: “probably.”
 

Header image by Gerd Arntz.

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