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Jante Law: Blessing or Curse?

It’s been less than a decade since seemingly every major American news outlet delighted in covering the epidemic of narcissism gripping my generation. The same could not be seen in anyone who grew up in a Nordic nation. There, they are governed by what is known as "Janteloven" or Jante Law. The term was first used by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in a 1933 novel which satirized small-town Nordic culture. The laws are as follows, with "we" and "us" meaning the collective society:

1. You’re not to think you are anything special.

2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.

3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.

4. You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.

5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.

6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.

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.

While these laws are not official or enforceable and they began as satire, they are still seen as influential in Nordic countries. It’s an extreme version of humility and it has its ups and downs.

Janteloven is an equalizer. You are not special and neither is anyone else. This attitude is part of what shaped the modern welfare states of Nordic countries, as it is widely believed that everyone should be given the same opportunities. No one gets special treatment. Additionally, there is the expectation that no one stand out in any way. Expressions of individuality are not seen as positive and healthy. Being different is seen as not only dangerous non-conformity, but as a proclamation that you are better than others in some way. If everyone looks and acts the same, then everyone is equal but everyone is also stifled.

Because of this conformity and insistence that you not act better than anyone else, success is seen differently in the Nordic countries. In the US, while some recognize that their success is partly because of advantages they had, it is still seen as an individual accomplishment based on merit. In Nordic countries, success is practically shameful. You do not brag or show that you are proud of yourself. The comedy of this can be seen in a clip from Steven Colbert’s show where he interviews Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, who describes his discomfort after winning an Emmy.

In Nordic countries, no matter your accomplishments in life, you will always be treated the same as everyone else. In a way, this is laudable. We should all be able to expect the same treatment as people who have more money or more fame. The competitive rat race we are frequently caught up in as Americans does not exist there. You have more security but you also have less motivation to accomplish things. It would be depressing to achieve your wildest dreams and then be expected to pretend they are meaningless.

It’s been suggested that Janteloven and the low expectations about life it encourages in people is actually part of what’s led to Nordic countries consistently topping world happiness ratings. The less you expect from life, the happier you will be with what you have. If your aspirations of success as an artist or innovator are discouraged because they are not humble, your society ends up with less art and less innovation.

Some argue that the strict enforcement of humility prevents Nordic countries from succeeding more on a global scale. They don’t have tech hubs like San Francisco or Berlin because their startups avoid widely advertising their own successes, fearing accusations of inflated egos.

I’d imagine a middle-ground between Janteloven and American individualism would be the best way to go. We are at two extremes of a spectrum. Maybe that’s why people are such fans of things like David McCullough Jr.’s "You Are Not Special" commencement speech. It could also explain why even those who are critical of Janteloven still say they would not completely erase it if given the chance. I suggest we encourage both humility and individual expression. Don’t go so far as Janteloven, but also don’t fall into the trap of telling every child they’re "different and special" to artificially boost their self-esteem.

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