Who Do You Think You Are?

Jantelagen – The Law of Jante

In Sweden we refer to the American people as the world’s “big brothers”, to the British as their “little brothers” and our selves as their “envious little siblings”, never tall enough, with an ironic twist.

Martin Luther

The Swedes are known to be a bit shy and cold but very polite, contrary to the Americans who are outgoing and love a hero or to boast about every success story. Well they say that in Sweden we´re taught that´s a big no no since the Dark Ages. There´s some truth to this and the blame goes to Martin Luther with his preaching of an ascetic life and living. But his legacy imposed unto us is slowly fading away and thanks to the Internet and improved travelling we´re all becoming enlightened cosmopolitans.

You´ve probably heard about those little voices of conscience talking to you from your shoulders whenever you´re tempted to indulge and become a sinner. There is the devil on one shoulder telling you to go ahead and an angel on the other telling you not to indulge.

Well in Sweden the angel is replaced by Martin Luther and he is even more uncompromising than the angels, telling you to devote your self entirely into following the Bible to the letter, to pray, living simple and never to indulge. Thus avoiding the devil and a future in eternal flames in hell (i.e. Purgatory).

Since the medieval priests preached and scared the living wits out of the Swedish people, Martin Luther always followed us in our night mares telling us to be humble followers and to stay in line.

With this in mind it´s easy to understand why Jantelagen and lagom eventually appeared as Swedish expressions and there´s little room for boasting.

Jantelagen i.e. the Law of Jante (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven Swedish: Jantelagen) is a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.

The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, who in his novel A fugitive crosses his tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor 1933, English translation published in the USA in 1936) identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modelled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.

Generally used colloquially as a sociological term to negatively describe an attitude towards individuality and success common in Scandinavia, the term refers to a mentality which de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers or tend to believe that they are better than the average guy. This phenomena occurs at many places all over the world and is referred to as tall poppy syndrome in English.

There are ten different rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, all expressive of variations on a single theme and are usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.


The ten rules state:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as us.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than us.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than us.
  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.

An eleventh rule recognized in the novel is:

11. You’re not to think that there aren’t a few things we know about you.

In the book, the Janters who transgress this unwritten ‘law’ are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against the town’s communal desire to preserve harmony, social stability and uniformity.

These 11 principles or commandments form the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people.


3 Responses to Who Do You Think You Are?

  • Thomas says:

    I plead the right to disagree with this description of life in Sweden. :-)

    Most people have occasionally felt disappointment for not being enough appreciated, which perhaps can explain why Aksel Sandemose’s concept of a customary law of jealousy and condescension has become popular and widespread, and – in the Scandinavian countries, where most of his readers are found – accepted as a true description of Scandinavians. But Jante’s law is really nothing but Sandemose’s (perhaps augmented) description of the feelings of a neurotic and suspicious person with figments of being watched and looked down upon. (Of course there are neurotic people who constantly feel that they are being looked down upon and watched by everybody, but they are, fortunately, a small minority, also in Sweden :-)

    The Swedish temperament – if there is such a thing – is better explained to an American by the fact that being discreet, in contrast to being ostentatious, is commonly regarded as good manners all over Europe, here augmented by the Swedish habit of being demure and shy. As a contrast to Jante’s law, Swedes in general are ready to express appreciation and admiration for others, even if a Swede seldom will use superlatives – for anything.

    Still, it’s a very good novel.

    • t-anna says:

      @Thomas – I don’t know; have you seen the reactions to the @sweden curator on twitter? the overwhelming majority of the put-downs are from other Swedes (“you’re so boring/your spelling is terrible/you’re making us all look bad”.) Being visible and not demure/shy is an sure way to get a ton of backlash, some pretty vicious.

      • Thomas says:

        No t-anna, I haven’t, but I’m not surprised; I’m sure there are a lot of mean and rude comments there to other people – that is, sadly enough, common in all un-moderated media, in any language, on any topic. Just look at the comments to any Facebook post that has attracted some attention. Still, Facebook performs a certain moderation, not allowing common four-letter words etc… I regret that this phenomenon is probably human rather than Swedish.
        On the other hand, Swedes are secretly proud of Sweden, become quite upset and are ready to reprimand, or at least correct, anybody that brings shame on us… Just look at myself :-)

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