You have probably heard about Jantelagen – translated as the Jante law, governing Swedish society and social relationships. But what exactly is it, and what is there to do when you experience the effects of it?
In fact, the term is not of Swedish origin
It first appeared in the pseudo-autobiographical book A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks (1933) by Danish-Norwegian, writer, Aksel Sandemose. Most Swedes have probably not read this book [author’s wild guesswork], but confidently refer to the term in informal speech. We use it in relation to sociological questions, describing the way the group controls its individual members.
The book itself narrates the life of a young boy growing up in a small town – Jante. Here, social relationships are governed by ten commandments. The first – and most famous one, You are not to think you are anything special, is followed by another nine informing you of your limitations. No one is to believe that they can stand out from the group, doing anything better than the others, or teaching them anything.
This law holds a firm grip on every member of the group, killing any attempt not to comply through a severe method of passive bullying. Non-conformists can expect a role as an outsider, receiving no empathy or support from the group. The result is a uniform society, rendered by mediocrity, suspicion and envy.
Perhaps you could recognise this in Sweden, at work or among friends or family. This may be particularly conspicuous to Newbies, who will, per definition, be different from their Swedish neighbours, colleagues, in-laws, friends, enemies. We often blame this phenomenon to be one of the reasons integration can be difficult in Sweden. This could also explain why talented Newbies are not automatically considered as suitable for positions as average Swedes at work.
So, is Jantelagen something typically for the Nordics?
Well, yes and no.
No, because I have seen symptoms of it all over the world, and after some reading I have learnt that this was also the view of Sandemose himself. It is more of a rural or small-town syndrome, often prominent in working class groups, or those from a working class background.
Yes, because the above is, historically speaking, a fairly accurate description of Swedish demographics. It is easy to forget that contemporary Sweden is a result of a fast and recent urbanisation. We are the result of an equally fast and recent transformation from a small and agricultural economy to a modern welfare state.
Sweden is dominated by a fairly wealthy and educated middle-class, however with a different origin. This change of events occurred less than a century ago, and arguably on grounds that make them somehow not well-deserved. A feeling of superiority (We made things so great for ourselves!) is constantly haunting our collective mind. An inferiority complex of huge proportions (This is all too good to be true!) makes us question the validity of this. We are dealing with a newly, and not entirely established, national identity characterised by low self-esteem.
Which leads me to my second Yes
Yes, because I think when we speak of Jantelagen, we also speak of something else, which most Swedes themselves lack words to describe. I am referring to the ever present demand for social conformity. This is, in my opinion, also a result from our past, and the ideologies shaping Sweden as it looks today.
The concept of equality played a huge role in the building of the welfare state. Official measures are designed to ensure this; taxes, parental leave, childcare, trade unions, the educational system.
But also in everyday life, this is present, but in a more abstract way. Subconsciously, we avoid to highlight attributes that would make us appear unequal, or different. Instead, we label such qualities as private. Opinions, particular skills, financial power, emotions have become something we normally keep to ourselves, making social invisibility a camouflage. In that way, we find conformity liberating, protecting us from judgements from others.
How does the Jante law affect you?
Show a Swede who you are, and they will meet you with blankness. As a full-fledged Swede myself, I would like to apologise for that. I honestly wish we could be more welcoming by being ourselves when meeting strangers. But please, give us a chance, this blankness is not so much about you, as about ourselves. You may be concerned that your new Swedish acquaintance may not like you. However, at that same moment, this very person concerns themselves about the very opposite – they worry that you do not like them. The difference is – they care much more than you do!
Wanting to blend in through blending in? Read about the concept of prestigelös, and other popular Swedish personal qualities valued at work.
Written by Sofi Tegsveden Devaux
After many years of international experience, Sofi now runs her own company, Bee Swedish, specialising in Swedish language, culture and communication. She believes that Swedish culture is much more complex than most newbies, oldies – and especially Swedes themselves, realize. Her work aims to create mutual understanding and bridges for collaboration through curiosity, a critical mind-set and a sense of humour. She hopes that her blog posts can provide some useful insights into the particularities of the Swedish mind.