Just Who The Hell Do You Think You Are?: The Law of Jante and Scandinavian Jealousy

I come from a city in Norway where the Norwegian Department of Justice recently greenlit a quintupling of highway tolls for when the air quality is below a certain threshold. As an effort to combat air pollution by coaxing people to leave their cars at home and choosing public transportation instead, it’s admirable. However, since highway tolls will now probably hit $26 US on each passing, you’d predict rioting in the streets over this exorbitant pricing, air quality be damned.

Bergen, Norway. Picture by Flickr user Aqwis

 

But this is not the case. People are quietly accepting it. No one is making a fuzz, showing up at the doorstep of the city council and the Justice Department to throw eggs on the bureaucrats who made the call. The only exception so far is a small protest group trying to gain momentum by convincing drivers to leave their EZ Passes at home to force the toll collection agency to manually send out bills.The idea is to create enough paperwork at the agency to stymie the toll increase. In reality, this protest is likely to fail. Most Norwegians would rather quietly bite the bullet instead of sticking out by making noise and protesting.

This is telling of the Norwegian mindset and how we generally prioritize the collective good over the individual. Another example is our tax system. Compared to America, Norwegians pay high income taxes and we don’t complain about it: we’d rather have good public schools, free health care, and well-maintained highways for everyone than individually hoarding our money. (The Crown Prince Haakon Magnus, and his wife Princess Mette Marit, were roundly criticised in the media for their decision to send their children to a private school – How could they!? Norwegian schools are good enough even for the future king of Norway!)

Therefore, we don’t really have politicians running for office on a platform of lowering taxes. Norway even has what’s called a “toppskatt,” or a “top tax” that kicks in over a certain income threshold where those affected automatically get slapped with a much higher tax rate.

For most of its history Norway was a close-knit, agrarian society where people lived in harsh conditions and close contact with nature year around. People depended on cooperation to best survive and thrive. During the Viking era, before the country was unified and converted to Christianity by King Olav Den Hellige (Olav the Holy), Norway consisted of smaller kingdoms that was often at war with each other. This out-group hostility necessitated in-group loyalty and if you wanted to be successful in plundering and pillaging the village three fjords over, teamwork was necessary. There was no room for the selfish prick who wanted to make things about himself and steal the attention.

Consequently, Norwegians have an ingrained cultural mindset that prioritizes the best outcome for the group, considering the outcome for the individual second. This holistic attitude is still with us today, despite four-five decades of rapid economic growth (due to the discovery of oil and natural gas in the North Sea) and the assimilation of more cosmopolitan, multicultural attitudes.

This holistic view has a bitter corollary, though, and it’s called “Janteloven,” or The Law of Jante.

The term originated in a 1933 book by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, but has since become more well-known for describing a quirk in the Norwegian mindset: never think you’re anything special, never think you’re better than anyone, and don’t draw attention to yourself.

About his book, Sandemose said that the fictional town of Jante is meant to reflect his Danish hometown of Nykøbing, but the people and their bitter jealousy “might as well be from Arendal,” a Norwegian town very much representative of all Norwegian small towns. In 1955, the author remarked in an annotated version that people from towns all over Norway recognize themselves and their neighbors in the book. Tellingly, with his book, Sandemose didn’t invent these attitudes and gave them to his characters: he captured what was already in the Scandinavian culture.

The 10 Rules of The Law of Jante, as taken from Aksel Sandemose’s book.

 

On the positive side of our holistic mindset you have Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg speaking earnestly in her New Year’s Eve address to the people about the importance of helping our “new countrymen,” the refugees coming into the country as part of the migrant crisis emanating out of the Middle East over the last couple of years. On the negative side, you have people ending friendships because one part was “bragging too much” on social media and generally “taking up too much space in the room.” This actually happened to me.

A friend of four-five years that I spent a lot of time with slowly faded from my life. At first I thought he was just busy but I soon learned from a mutual friend he considered me too boastful and loud, and too “American.” (At this point I had spent several years living and studying in the US where my American friends considered me quiet and stoic compared to their standards.) Our mutual friend explained at a later point that he had also gotten annoyed with my “frequent social media posts from the gym,” and decided he’d had enough. I’m not mad at him and I still consider him a friend even though I don’t see him anymore. I do think it’s a perfect example of a stereotypically Norwegian attitude: just who do you think you are, just being yourself and taking up space?

As a native Norwegian I admire our ability to consider and prioritize societal outcomes and our perseverance in working towards a better society for everyone. Simultaneously, I despise our ingrained reflex to automatically hate on those who stand out, and behave a little differently than the rest of us.

Partly because of this last reason, I’ve spent almost seven years living and studying in the US which has made me consider a lot of interesting contrasts between Norway and the US.

I quickly came to appreciate Americans’ openness towards strangers, encouragement of people who want to stand out, eager cheering-on of others’ successes, and supporting people to “be themselves,” whatever that means. In Norway, you’re expected to fit in and not draw attention to yourself. People are often bitterly jealous of others’ success, too. We’re closed off to strangers which leads many foreigners to think Norwegians are rude. We’re not rude, we just don’t know you, so we’re not gonna talk to you.

Perfectly accurate summation of Norwegian moods and expressions.

 

In the US, you’re encouraged to take risks and try new things. In Norway, people tend to stick to what they know and find pleasure in the familiar. Americans can be confrontational if necessary, and speak up if someone is being an asshole in public. Norwegians will turn the other way and stay out of it.

Inversely, Americans who take risks – financially, bodily, health-wise, whatever – are more screwed if they fail, and it’s understood that your failure was a possibility you should have considered, so no one else is obligated to help you. It’s all on you. (I believe this is a strong underpinning of the opposition to socialized medicine in the US – no one else is responsible for what may befall you, and they’ll be damned if their tax dollars go towards helping someone else.) The rare Norwegian who takes similar risks will most likely get caught by a strong social welfare net built up by the state and our high taxes.

This Norwegian holistic attitude isn’t confined only to us – it also permeates Sweden, our “söta bror,” our sweet brother to the East.

We have a long and intertwining history with the Swedes, so naturally we have similar collective psyches. In Sweden the concept of “lagom,” is a parallel to Norway’s collective holism/Janteloven dichotomy, and it’s all about moderation and the limiting of excess.

The word lagom is a contraction of the phrase “laget om,” which directly translates to “around the team,” and dates back to the Viking Era. When a horn of mead was passed around, every man would drink exactly his share, and nothing more, to ensure there was enough mead for the whole group. This mindset is still an important part of being Swedish to this day.

This attitude of anti-excess permeates Swedish culture and mindset to a high degree: wealthy Swedes still drive around in reasonable cars like Volvos and Saabs. It’s considered flashy and unnecessary to drive more expensive-looking luxury cars. Professional athletes in Sweden display a courteous, honest humility when talking about their achievements because they’ve grown up learning to consider the team before themselves and to not be a show-off. We all know how American athletes can behave by contrast.

I have a pair of friends who live in the fanciest part of Stockholm. He’s an American, son of an uber-wealthy hedge fund manager from New York. She is from one of Sweden’s most powerful, wealthiest families who control a considerable part of the media landscape. He, being a New Yorker, is loud, talkative, and extremely inviting. She, a Swede through and through (despite having lived decades in New York), is quiet, unassuming, and quite possibly the sweetest person on Earth. They are the living embodiment of the contrast between growing up in a wealthy family in the US and in Sweden.

Like Norwegians, Swedes are also familiar with the concept of Janteloven. In Sweden however, it is closely tied to jealousy and what is called “den svenska avundsjukan” – literally “the swedish jealousy.” It’s common and well-known, yet rarely spoken of, and according to this Slate.com piece, isn’t like normal jealousy that could motivate you to act – it just seethes and stays with you to the grave. (Fun Fact: Norwegians know of The Swedish Jealousy too because of their jealousy of our oil reserves.) If you want to familiarize yourself with this part of the Swedish psyche, watch the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Translation: “If the Swedish Jealousy could be transformed into energy it could rival the world’s known oil reserves!”

 

Although there probably are many Norwegians and Swedes that quietly dislike, or even hate, Janteloven and the concept of “lagom,” they are both important cultural engines that have have helped transform our countries into “the happiest countries on Earth”: both countries routinely place in the top five in rankings of living standards and happiness, and are often viewed with envy from around the world for our social welfare systems, free education, generous parental leave policies, public safety, free healthcare, low unemployment, high salaries, and environmental stewardship. We may prioritize the collective good over individual welfare, but it turns out that makes for a nice place to live.

With such an old, established culture, Norwegians (and Swedes) are careful about making any dramatic changes that could undermine what we have built, but I do wonder if it’s possible to create a society that has the best of both worlds. Can we have the benefits of Sweden’s strong sense of community without the more oppressive aspects of Janteloven and lagom? Can we have Norway’s strong social welfare programs and free education, while still encouraging individuals to stand out and “be themselves”? Many of us who have spent time in America found ways to blend the best of both worlds. In the end, we should preserve the best of our culture while looking for ways to borrow from others. That’s what idea sex and Mixed Mental Arts is all about.

2 Comments

  1. Sylvia Swann Reply

    A fee years ago I was working on the Norwegian TV production “Champion of the Champions” in Cyprus, where our top athletes would compete against each other. The taping was run by a joint Swedish-Norwegian production force, as the Swedish were also present and taping simultaneously. I remember how awed I was, when walking down to the beach at 2 a.m. after a fairly modest dinner/drinks with the Norwegian production team, who were all in bed by now, to find the Swedes – including the legendary show host and the producer – sitting in a circle singing (passionaltely) Swedish folk songs and sharing what beer they had left. The pulled me in and handed me a beer – without hitting on me. I could barely breathe from the cultural shock. Norwegians would a) be too drunk by now to sing straight b) never EVER sing from the heart IN PUBLIC, not even AC/DC songs (to be shouted out loud) and c) never sit in a circle like that, because it’s too kumbaya and too confrontational. I left at 5 a.m. and they were still there. The next day the Norwegians were talking about little else than what I had had to tell them.
    If Norway and USA could merge cultures, happiness would ensue. God, I miss the States. And my God, am I happy about our tax system. If I had to worry about securing my kid’s future in addition to everything else there is to worry about, what room would therr be left for hygge?

    1. Hunter "Toto" Maats Reply

      That’s the goal of Mixed Mental Arts. We want to fuse the best of all cultures. Thanks for sharing your story, Sylvia!

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