The strange irony of Janteloven

Oct 12, 2006 • Karen

In my Danish class, we have been learning about the Janteloven or "Jante Law." The original law consists of a list of ten social mores in a fictional small Danish town:

1. You shall not think that you are special.
2. You shall not think that you are of the same standing as us.
3. You shall not think that you are smarter than us.
4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
5. You shall not think that you know more than us.
6. You shall not think that you are more important than us.
7. You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not think that anyone cares about you.
10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.

Of course, Danish society does not literally adhere to these rules. The Janteloven is used as a symbol of Danish principles of modesty and social equality.

I don't think those principles are exclusively Danish, though. The Janteloven also puts me in mind of Lake Wobegon, the iconic small Minnesota town. Or the little towns my parents come from. You're not supposed to brag and boast. You work hard, but fame and riches aren't the goal. Everyone has their little farm, or their little store, without harsh competition. Overall, we just want society to run smoothly, without passionate conflict. Of course American values--the American dream and the pioneering individual--are also present. But suffice it to say that the Janteloven way of thinking can exist outside of Danish society.

Back to Denmark. The principles of Janteloven have some interesting implications for Danish society--some positive, some troublesome. For example, Danish schools put an overwhelming emphasis on group learning as opposed to individual achievement. Danish students don't receive their first grade until the eighth grade or so, and even then the psychotic competitive environment that characterizes some American schools is virtually nonexistant. Magnet schools or advanced tracks are almost unheard of; while one gifted school exists near Copenhagen, it is a new phenomenon and quite controversial. The rigid lecture format is also avoided, as Danish schools are forced to grapple with the ugly inequality of knowledge found in the classroom: they try as hard as they can to ignore the fact that the teacher knows more than the students! Instead, Danish students learn socially through discussion with their classmates. The Danish school system encourages tight-knit classes to make school "comfortable" for students: Danish students stay with the same classmates and same teacher all through primary school. Thus, by the end of school everyone is friends with everyone else in the class and they know how to work as a team.

This idea of everyone feeling "comfortable" or "at home" extends to adult forms of social life, with interesting consequences. At house parties, it is assumed that you know everyone there already and so when you enter it is customary to go around shaking the hands of everyone present. You aren't supposed to introduce yourself during this, nor does the host introduce you. You just say hi--we're all friends already...right?

Except when that isn't the case.

Janteloven culture is built for tight-knit groups--little Danish towns in the country. It doesn't have a good way of dealing with strangers. Danish hosts will never introduce a new person to the rest of the group, because to do so would acknowledge an inequality between you. It would communicate that they know more than you do, are more integrated into the circle of friends. Unless you actively, directly solicit such information, the Danes around you will just pretend that there is no inequality, that you are one with the group--and then the inequality will just perpetuate itself!

For most Americans, this problem can be fixed relatively easily. American values are built for dealing with newcomers, both because of our immigration history and present-day mobility. In Denmark, going to university more than an hour away from home is a huge deal. In America, people get up and leave for the other side of the country quite regularly. Thus, Americans learn how to make new friends quickly, to be open and outgoing. If we understand that all we need to do is ask, to be the first to acknowledge the inequality of social knowledge, it is easy to overcome that Janteloven obstacle.

Well, most of us.

Back to Lake Wobegon and its progeny. We live in an amalgamation of Janteloven and American values. We aren't used to pressing ourselves onto others; we don't want to cause trouble. Some of us might be successful at being outgoing, but many are only really good at socializing in small, tight-knit groups of friends. I find myself in the latter group.

The irony of the Janteloven that I find is that, under it, two people can share similar social values and yet be completely incapable of connecting. One isn't taught to actively ask if a stranger needs help. The other isn't used to reaching out and asking help of a stranger. And so there's a deafening silence between the two.

They say that studying abroad isn't so much about learning about a new country, but gaining greater perspective on one's own self and society. I could believe it. I do believe that my Scandinavian upbringing (and perhaps innate introversion) has created difficulties in my meeting Danes here.

I'm working on it.