Standing Out In Denmark: Discovering the Jante Law

One of the biggest differences between Denmark and the US is also the most subtle. You won’t notice it right away, but it will start to sneak up on you as you begin your job, talk to your new Danish friends and coworkers, or send your child to daycare or school. This difference has a name: janteloven, the Law of Jante (or, more succinctly, the Jante Law).

Janteloven was created by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in 1933 in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor). {{Side note: I find it so incredibly fascinating that something with this much cultural influence came from a novel. Ah, the power of literature.}} The novel is about a small Danish town called Jante which abides by these 10 – rather harsh – laws:

  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 convince yourself that you are 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.

These can all be boiled down to one sentiment: you are no better than anyone else here.

It’s claimed that in writing these laws Sandemose was inspired by a belief that existed in ancient Norse culture that to preserve one’s happiness one should be cautious and humble. In the book, these laws ensure harmony and stability in the town. But interestingly, it sounds like Sandemose wrote these 10 laws in a moment of Danish irony and actually meant them as a criticism of the restrictions of narrow-minded, small town life. Which begs the question, how did it go from a criticism of this way of thinking to being a defining cultural norm of Scandinavian society?

Because the general gist of these laws can still be felt in Scandinavia and in Denmark.

I was recently listening to a podcast by Kay Xander Mellish about raising children in Denmark, and in it she raises the issue of the Jante Law. In Denmark, children learn these rules very early in life. The whole podcast is very interesting and you should go listen to it all (it’s fairly short at only 5 minutes), but the most interesting part for our discussion is this:

The Jante Law is part of all Danish education. There’s no elite education here, no advanced, or gifted and talented programs. If your child is better than the others at a certain subject, his job is to help the students who are not as good.

If you come from a very competitive society – the US, the UK, China, India – that can be a bit of a shock. There’s no competition in Danish education. The kids work in groups. There are no competitive schools you have to fight to get into. There’s almost no standardized testing until the kids are 15 or 16. And there are relatively few tests within the daily school lessons.

In Danish school, your child’s social life is considered what’s most important. Does she have friends? Can she get along with the other children in the class? Does he like to go to school? Does he fit in?

The idea is that if a child is socially comfortable in school, if he or she wants to go to school, then academic success will follow.

No advanced or gifted classes?!, I hear you Americans saying. No awards for being the best reader or the most participating or the one with the best attendance?! This is at the heart of what is so difficult for many Americans to understand about Denmark because it’s such a fundamental difference, and it shapes every aspect of life from how we raise our children to how we interact with our coworkers to what we expect out of our governments.

You must understand that above all else, Danes value equality and community. It’s like they took the principle of democracy – which plays as equally important a role in Danish history as it does in American history – but instead of running with the “individual freedom” part they ran with the “equality” part.

How does this affect every day life? Let me give you some examples. Everyone does some kind of sport in Denmark. If you admit that you, in fact, do not like to run and don’t play a sport, your are met with disbelieving blank stares. And then you are nicely but persistently asked to join 1000 different sporting activities. It’s a nice gesture, really. You’re being included in the most Danish way possible. Plus, everyone knows you’re supposed to exercise. But. It feels a bit like peer pressure, which coming from the US immediately raises a huge red JUST SAY NO flag.

Another example. There are a few consumer products in Denmark that it seems like everyone has: Kahler vases, PH lamps. Almost as if, if you’re really Danish you’ll have these items in your house. You will also notice a similarity in how people dress. If you’re a girl, it’s skinny jeans, black leather jacket, fancy athletic sneakers, hair in a messy bun.

None of this is bad. Indeed, you see people buying the same things or wearing the same clothes all the time in the US. It’s human nature. Hell, we own two Kahler vases and an imitation PH lamp. (The real thing is freaking expensive!) And I’m thinking of buying my own leather jacket.

But.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone with brightly dyed hair, unusual facial piercings, distinctive clothes – anything that would visually mark them as different – on one hand. It’s such a shock coming from a country where everyone is trying their hardest to be unique and special. One of a kind. Different. I mean, come on, I come from the land of Lady Gaga for crying out loud!

We’re desperate to be different.

It’s kind of comforting to not have to worry about being special or unique, to be OK with being normal. To feel good about being normal. There’s a whole school of thought out there about Generation Y (aka The Millennials aka me) that says that the reason they’re so screwed up is because their parents told them that they were inherently special, that they would go on to do big and special things. Then they turned 25 and found out that really they’re just the same as everyone else, and it hit them hard. And thus the quarter life crisis was born. It’s a lot of pressure, to be special, to be unique. And as we all know if you try to be different you just end up doing it in predictable ways, ways that actually make you the same as everyone else who’s also trying to be different. Thus the punks, goths, and hipsters were born.

Plus, from a fundamental belief in equality comes the social welfare state, the drive to ensure that every citizen is educated equally, the belief that everyone deserves to be healthy and happy. Here, the care you get from every doctor, the education you get from every school is (theoretically) equally good. Denmark doesn’t have a large gap between the wealthy and the poor like there is in the US. (Ah the god ol’ 1%.) We say in the US that every American has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I don’t know that we really mean it. Or rather, we emphasize the pursuit bit rather than the actual achievement of happiness. You’re free to try and be happy as much as you want, but you’ll do it on your own. Good luck with that.

But.

It’s still hard to adjust to, the idea that you don’t want to call attention to your differences. And sometimes I find myself wondering about some of its other implications. If there’s such pressure to fit in, are bullying and peer pressure problems in Danish schools? How is it handled? Do people in Denmark even think about peer pressure in the same way that I do? Questions like that. Sounds like I need to do some more research and some more investigating.

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37 thoughts on “Standing Out In Denmark: Discovering the Jante Law

  1. This was a really interesting read! We heard a bit about janteloven in Danish classes, but I think in reality, it’s a lot bigger of a deal in Jyland. Here in Copenhagen, maybe because it’s just a bigger city, with a lot of diversity, I think there’s a less “Danish” feel sometimes, and things like this can get lost in the international shuffle.

    I think that the 10 laws do sound really harsh, like they’re really squashing you down into nothing. But I think if it’s a “code” that all of society lives by (like it sort of is, since it’s so ingrained in the culture here), then it’s nothing more than an equalizer, a reminder to be humble.

    In any case, considering the number of noteworthy, successful, or even just plain content Danes, I don’t think it’s working against their ability to fulfill their potential and lead happy lives!

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    • Thanks! And I totally agree with you on all counts. I do think you see more variety in Copenhagen given its size and number of international residents. I also think that because Aarhus has so many university students that I see more of the everyone’s-wearing-the-same-outfit thing than usual.

      I definitely think Janteloven contributes to the happiness /contentedness factor in Denmark. For one thing, you can just be happy being normal you! For another, you feel like you’re part of a community, you feel like you belong, which is one of the basic human needs.

      I’m definitely not knocking Janteloven, or at least the general gist behind them. It’s just so different from the US. I find it fascinating!

      Like

  2. Being a Danish expat for the last 11+ years, I really enjoyed that, I think you’re onto something. Not so much the actual laws but more the way the ideal of equality permeates society. I also agree with Zeta, however, that it would be much more pronounced in the province and much less so in the capital. Interesting, keep thinking and posting!

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    • Thanks Mette! I agree that the actual laws as written are a little over the top and probably tongue in cheek given the context in which they were written. I’m definitely a proponent of the fundamental belief in equality and am really liking the way that it has influenced Danish society so far. One of the main problems the US is facing is inequality in representation, in power, in voice. I’m looking forward to learning more about all of this over the next three years here!

      Like

  3. What a great post on a confusing cultural difference, especially as Americans in Scandinavia!!

    I think this is THE most difficult concept to absorb in Denmark/Norway. It’s a fine line to walk when translating a CV/resume, and especially when interviewing.

    Don’t brag! Be humble!

    Then how am I supposed to show my strengths and what I can offer your company?!

    I’m not raising children here in Norway, but I think American friends who are have had to adjust their parenting … especially if they moved here with their US-born children.

    As Zeta and Mette comment above, I also think it’s diluted in the bigger cities. And as more and more immigrants arrive, the lines can get blurred even more.

    This was a really interesting post, Allison! I hope others comment; I’d enjoy stalking reading the conversations!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Cindi! It’s definitely something some of us have to wrap our heads around. I agree, I think it definitely rears its head if you’re parenting in Scandinavia. And I TOTALLY agree with your comment about CVs/interviewing in this environment. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve gone to a couple courses on how to do so, and it just sounds impossible. Tell the companies what you can do for them, but don’t brag for goodness sake! Be humble while at the same time spinning your experience so it looks its best… It just seems impossible! Thanks for reading, as always 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome — I am always eager to read your posts, as you write so well and, as a newish expat, you bring up aspects of Scandinavian living I haven’t thought of in a while (or ever?).

        And to add to the whole “interview” aspect … do it all in another language. Yikes! What the heck are we doing?! 🙂

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    • that has an interesting effect for me: as someone who lived and worked (in IT) in Denmark for 20 years, until 2003, i always wrote an honest and factual CV for Danish employers

      but the same CV gets nowhere here in the UK, where people inflate their achievements and often simply lie

      i don’t miss Denmark much – apart from the sailing. the constant trickle of petty racism eventually became too much

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      • I know many expats who complain about that exact same thing (the constant trickle of petty racism) and the general lack of openness to diversity (especially outside of Copenhagen) and I think it’s the reason many leave after a few years.

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  4. Yes, I agree, it’s an interesting concept.

    I really loved the relaxed atmostphere in Denmark. As soon as I left Denmark to move back to France, the pressure started mounting again immediately. The school system here is the complete opposite from Denmark – the best jobs in this country are reserved for the people who have gone to certain schools. There is such pressure to succeed here that students often have nervous breakdowns. Even parents go to counselling because of the pressure they feel for their children!

    It was interesting when you said that you don’t find that the Danes try to distinguish themselves physically from other Danes. I think it’s the opposite! Sure, it’s probably because I lived in Copenhagen, but it’s definitely the “France effect” again. Everyone dresses the same here, classical black-based outfits. That’s another thing that I find so interesting – there are so many bloggers saying that everyone in Denmark dresses in black, but I don’t find that at all. For me, there was so much diversity in Copenhagen compared with France. I guess that’s what happens when you discover another culture after having lived in another foreign one for so long. It’s interesting how your cultural views change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean about the pressure to go to a good school and do well at school from an early age. It’s a big deal in the US. There are parents getting their children on lists for the best preschools as soon as they’re born! It’s a lot of pressure. So I agree, I think the more relaxed, even handed Danish approach is better for everyone’s sanity. Plus, they still have a really high level of education and a very smart citizenry. So they’re doing something right!

      I think that’s so interesting how you don’t feel that everyone dresses alike in Denmark! I definitely think you get more variety in Copenhagen. And I think the all black uniform (not to mention the skinny jeans) is pretty typical of big cities anywhere, New York would definitely qualify, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I just don’t see as much effort from people here to differentiate themselves in terms of clothing or fashion. Of course, that’s not to say that they don’t dress fashionably, because they certainly do! Much more than most Americans, I’d say.

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  5. This is interesting. I think I would like the way things work in Denmark more than at home. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the questions you asked at the end, and if there are any problems with it that the Danish themselves admit are problems.

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    • Agree, Marina. There is a lot that I like about Denmark that we don’t have in the US. I know that “social welfare state” is like a bad word in the US, but there’s a lot of good coming from it here in Denmark.

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  6. Dear Allison,

    I recently came across your blog and have been following your posts with much interest. I am a Turkish native married to a Romanian. We are both professors and moved here after living over a decade in North America (the US and then Canada). I just had a post about the Law of Jante on my blog this week (http://meltemdaysal.com/FynFunFashion/). I do think that these laws, while making social life easier, have unintended negative consequences on student/faculty life in terms of creativity and productivity. But maybe the gain in some dimensions is worth the loss in others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and looking forward to reading your future posts.

    Meltem

    Like

    • Hi Meltem. Thanks for reading and commenting! I think your perspective in your post on the Jante Law is very interesting. I definitely have a lot of questions about the full implications of this fundamental cultural trait. For instance, what if you’re that one kid who just doesn’t play sports and doesn’t fit in? And I haven’t seen yet how it affects work culture. I’m looking forward to learning more about it. Thanks for sharing your post!

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  7. Wow, this is super duper interesting. As a Mexican living in the US and married to an American, competition is one of the things that stands out to me in the country, and not necessarily in a good way. I kind of like what you explain about the Danish culture in this sense.
    I’ve also thought about the point you make about people trying to be unique here and just end up in a specific group trying to be different like the goths, hipsters, hippies etc… It’s all an interesting subject. Great post.

    Like

    • Thanks Mani! I know what you mean about the competitive atmosphere in the US. It’s not my favorite, either. I think there’s a lot to be said for helping each other out and building a community.

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  8. Very interesting. I found country schools in Australia like this and urban schools more into gifted and talented programs. Both nurture though in different skills. Very interesting read.

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    • Yeah, I can see the benefit of both types of schooling. Probably a balanced approach would be best, but I can’t speak from personal experience. It’s interesting that both types of education exist side by side in Australia.

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      • I think a balance of both is good, cooperation, excellent, and promoting excellence also brilliant, in Australia the big debate at present is how much education costs and who should pay, there was a big Gonski review which was looking at the need to spend more on education.

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      • Yeah, I feel like that’s always a huge topic of conversation in the US, too. Lately, it feels like the education budgets keep getting cut, and it’s clearly hurting everyone. Every once in a while someone talks about needing to spend more, but with the recession it’s not getting a lot of support. I feel like in Denmark everyone just automatically supports things like that. They don’t all agree on the amount that sound go to education or the amount that should be taxed, of course, but it seems to be a given that there will be a rather large tax and that it will pay for universal rights like health care and education.

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  9. Very nice read as always Allison! 🙂
    Like you said I think the Jante Law ideals are so engraved in the society in Denmark that it helps the social cohesion and happiness in a way that pushed their society forward unlike what we would expect.
    It’s quite interesting concept that with less competition you get happier citizens and that you can still get new ideas and development potential or even better ones that in a competitive system.

    Like you said this is the total opposite to what a more “western” approach suggests.
    The US are the extreme of this where even normal “community structures” have become business.
    Striving to be the best school, the best hospital, etc. will mean you get more money (it’s always about the money).
    Meaning you have to pay more to get in –>making it less reachable for the less wealthy –>increasing the gap rich/poor. It’s a vicious circle.

    In our more competitive societies we have the idea that if you don’t strive to be the best you’ll never be the best. This is probably true. But the actual fact is only a few can be the very best of their field. The others that have been trying so hard have to contend in being “second best” and many can’t handle that well.

    In a “western” perspective I would think that this relaxed/uniform approach could lead to “trouble.”
    Making “brighter” students lazy and that they’ll never be as good as they can.
    But I i’m pretty sure that the system is setup in a way that it still makes individuals achieve their potential.

    Cultural differences are one of the most fascinating parts of humanity.
    Faced with the same problems we came up with different solutions.
    But which is the best?…oh damn i’m being competitive 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful points. I think there has to be a happy medium between cut throat competitiveness and total sublimation of the individual, somewhere where we can look out for the community but still know how to value ourselves and our unique skills. I’d say that Denmark is closer to finding that balance than the US at this moment. I just get tired of everything being about money. Your example of hospitals is the perfect one. This is clearly an institution that should not be worrying about profits, and the fact that they do or have to has clearly contributed to the health insurance problem. I can hear people on the other side of the argument saying that if hospitals weren’t made to be competitive then we wouldn’t get the best care possible. But I don’t know if I buy that. Because Denmark has wonderful health care. Perhaps their desire to serve their community in this case can replace the desire to be the best and result in equal or indeed better care.

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      • Regarding Hospitals in the US model you are right…they wouldn’t have the best care possible because they wouldn’t have the funds.
        To be fair health is a universal right, so the money should come from the state…but look at all the issues that brings up in the American system…

        It’s all a bit “cuckoo” for someone like me who only knows the European system.
        Knowing that in a first world country (heck a country that claims to be the best) people can still die because they can’t afford to be treated is beyond logic/reasoning.

        But this is going off-topic. 🙂

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      • I totally agree with you. It doesn’t make any sense, especially once you step back from the system and look at what is going on in the rest of the world. The weirdest thing about US health insurance that I’ve come to understand now that I live in Denmark is that our insurance is tied to our jobs, our employers. Once you leave a job, your insurance ends until you can find another one or buy really expensive insurance yourself. Now how exactly does that make sense?

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  10. Pingback: And You Thought I Was Exaggerating: Baby Names Say Otherwise | Our House in Aarhus

  11. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do believe that you need to publish more about this issue, it might
    not be a taboo matter but usually people do not discuss these subjects.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

    Like

  12. As I prepare to travel to Denmark and Sweden, I looked at their Bank Notes (money). What stuck me, especially in Danmark is there are no people pictured. Its all bridges! Yes, the coins are of the Queen, and that is to be expected – she IS the Queen. But, it seems to me that the Jante Law is in effect here. The accomplishment of Danish engineering and pride in the form of bridges, plus the symbolism of Danish connectedness via the bridges. Yet, the person(s) that built the bridges are not mentioned, nor shown. In the US, we wouldn’t dream of NOT having a person on our bills, or changing them – and all men at that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is a really good point! I know we talked about the Danish money and what is one it at one point in my Danish classes, but I’ve forgotten everything that was said. But I definitely think you’re right. The US would totally have to put some famous person on a new bill or coin. I heard that there was a push recently in England to put a famous English woman on the money – I think Jane Austen was chosen – and people freaked out because it’s a women. Psh, people. Will they never get over these dead white guys?

      Like

  13. Hi Allison,

    A friend of mine is currently struggling with the Jante Laws and he sent me your post to understand them.

    I enjoyed reading this article because you try to understand how it affects everyday life and your point of view is completely neutral. You just mention the differences between the northamerican and danish societies, but you don’t condemn them.

    Keep writing so brightly!

    Cheers!

    Like

  14. Humility, like charity is a noble virtue, but not necessarily if you force it on others. Even if Sandemose meant it as an ironic statement, doesn’t it imply that any exponent of Jante Law basically believe that they are special, smarter than others and wiser than others in order to be trying to enforce this law on others. It is probably not how it seems to someone immersed in such a culture, but careful reflection might allow a different and deeper understanding.

    I certainly know people who are smarter and wiser in all sorts of different ways. I don’t think it would be very humble or good for society to just assume that they are the same as me. It simply means rejecting excellence instead of seeking and nurturing it!

    Like

  15. Allison,

    I really enjoyed your writing on the cultural differences between what you have learned is the norm in Denmark and our thought processes in the USA.

    My question is this: With everyone participating in sports aren’t there winners and losers? Doesn’t the very competitive nature of a sport go against the “everyone is equal” philosophy?

    Just curious to see if you have noticed anything regarding sporting competition and how the “law” is applied.

    Thanks!
    Robert

    Like

    • Hi Robert. Thanks for reading! That is a really excellent question. And I’m not sure that I have a very good answer for you! In a very un-Danish (or “udansk”) move, I haven’t joined any sports teams here in Denmark, so I haven’t observed first hand how they handle the winner/loser situation. My feeling is that the social sports teams everyone is a part of is less about the game and its result – it’s not even really about what sport you pick – and more about just getting together with friends to do something and hang out socially, just in a very specific setting. But now I’m going to have to pay attention to this question and see if I can come up with some more insights!

      Like

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