Forget about hygge, Janteloven is truly what rules Denmark. The Law of Jante, known in Danish as Janteloven, is a code of conduct in Nordic countries that it rarely spoken about but always known.
Janteloven, isn’t necessarily an actual law but an overall theme of modesty that emphasizes the collective way of success rather than individuality or ambition. The mentality discourages Danes from being overly personally ambitious or full of yourself.
Translated from Danish to English the Janteloven is the following:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
You’re not to think you are anything special
The United States is the absolute antithesis of Janteloven. Growing up I remember always being told in school and at home, that I was special and gifted. That everyone has the capacity to be a champion, to be #1, and to succeed.
America was founded upon the concept of American exceptionalism, which is essentially the belief that America is exceptionally unique and special; therefore, the United States is different than other countries because everyone is free. This notion of liberty includes everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While Denmark does not adhere to this concept of exceptionalism, its does make sense that in the U.S., this belief that everyone if free and therefore able to be what ever you want to be.
When I first heard about Janteloven, I was taken back that it included “you are not to think that you are anything special” Originally, I thought how could parents say this to their children?
Before writing this blog post, I began asking Danish friends and family how they view Janteloven. I asked about how it was taught and was surprised to learn that it is never something that is actually taught in schools or explicitly from parents to children. It’s impeded in the fabric that makes up the culture. It’s taught without saying those exact words.
For example, the motive behind this sentiment is to encourage kids to never stop working hard. If you believe that you are unique and special, you will never reach your full potential because you will inherently believe that you are gifted and therefore do not need to try as hard.
You’re not to think you are more important than we are
The American Dream includes the notion of individualism, which consists of self-reliance, independence, and what is good for the person individually. On the other hand, Janteloven insists that instead, it is best to work towards the success of the collective good through being self-sacrificing, generous, and dependable. Instead, it is what is best for the community, rather than what is best for only you.
This belief in the great good of the community, rather that what in good for you personally, is something I can get onboard with, because it means you are not more important that others.
For example, when I first moved to Denmark I did not have my bachelor’s degree yet so I worked as a waitress at a Danish restaurant. this promotion of the collective good was even seen in this job field. A waitress does not work for their own individual tips. Actually, the tips are built into the price of the food, which results in a much higher hourly wage for the waitress. However, if people do tip it goes into a collective tip fund. At this restaurant, collectively we saved up all of the tips and then went on a community outing together of bowling, eating, and drinking.
At first I was put off by this and greedily wanted my own tips that I worked for. What I didn’t realize was how it helped overall. Because everyone wasn’t out for their own self-interest of their own money, we worked as a cohesive team and it strengthened the feeling of a collective good.
On the other hand, there can be problems with this pressure on collectivism. It does damper those who truly want to progress and pursue one’s self-interest. In the U.S., going after your dreams shows initiative and drive. The self-made man is celebrate and admired. However, in Denmark one feels pressured to act morally correct without pursuing their self-interest, because if not they appear cocky, lacking modesty, and selfish.
You’re not to think you are smarter than we are
Due to this individualist culture in the United States, this does has a positive effect on innovations. Being competitive and a high achiever in the U.S. is actually considered a compliment and something to strive for. Those that are doing something special, new and innovative are looked up to. This could be a possible reason there are often technological inventions in the U.S.
I have always been a high achiever and achieved good academic grades. While I am not a Dane quite yet (three years to go until dual-citizenship,) I’ve noticed that Janteloven in this sense has crept into my psyche a bit!
I used to proudly pronounce that I got all A’s in school, but I have noticed I actually feel a bit self conscious when I do this because I don’t want to be seen as bragging or saying that I am smarter than everyone. My husband says that in Denmark, it should be a person other than yourself that talks about something such as your academic or career successes.
Lastly, this notion of not thinking you are smarter than someone else is linked to having low expectations. Danes notoriously have low expectations, in order to avoid disappointment. You are setting yourself up for disappointment if you are constantly thinking that you are the best and the smartest, because that might not always be the case! These low expectations can greatly influence happiness as well.
While I don’t necessarily agree with all of Janteloven, perhaps this American can learn a thing or two about being humble and working towards a greater and collective good!