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Law of Jante (wikipedia.org)
87 points by monort on Sept 30, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments

I think foreigners tend to profoundly misunderstand what the law of Jante is about. It is not guidelines for how to behave in Scandinavia. It is a caricature we use ourselves to fight negative aspects of our culture. IMHO it is the negative aspects of things which are actually positive in Scandinavia. Humbleness, solidarity, consensus seeking, honesty are good Scandinavian virtuous. But there is always a flip side of the coin.

It is like in America, having faith in yourself and be proud of yourself are virtuous things, but there is also a flip side to it which is negative. That is bragging, being self centered and selfish. Taking sole credit for success of which you were only a participant.

Janteloven is not something to be celebrated but a rethotical tool to use against fellow Scandinavians when they are acting too negative towards an individual trying to do something great and new.

I don't really find the law of jante very applicable to Scandinavia, at least not uniquely so. Scandinavia is in many ways one of the most individualistic places in the world, in terms of things like social values or religion.

It's seem like most people who mention the law either seem to describe things prevalent in many parts of the world, don't agree with egalitarianism or dislikes the fore mentioned individualism.

I think it's vital to keep in mind the setting of A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks when discussing it. The law is presented both as a result of, and a way of maintaining the large class divide in 1930s small towns like Jante: Calvinist work ethic and a lack of upward mobility festering into resentment for other working-class people.

This is why I'm a little skeptical of attempts to invoke it for modern Scandinavia (especially since it's become somewhat of a rhetorical bludgeon used in favor of tax cuts)

Yeah I think it is hard to explain scandinavia to people as it is both extremely indiviualistic and group oriented. The collectivism in Scandinavia is not quite like in asia, although there is some overlapping. My own experience with asian culture is that it is far more paternalistic and top down. Scandinavians tend to be extremely anti-elite and anti-hierarchy while at the same time placing a large trust in government.

How much time have you spent in Scandinavia? I grew up there and it's very much alive and well.

Most of my life.

I don't deny there is a certain consensus driven culture with a general fear of conflict. But I don't agree that Scandinavia in particular has, as people tend to argue, a dislike for successful people nor necessarily of people being different, as long as there is also substance. Especially with there being so many well liked successful Scandinavians. It seems to me like people most often mean:

A) That the grass is greener somewhere else. Which can be true in many cases, but is usually more down to individual circumstances.

B) That they like more appreciation for their social status. As in more egalitarian societies few things are by themselves impressive.

C) Or that they actually want more collectivism and people to be invested in their success, in contrast to the sometimes cold Scandinavian individualism.

In term more destructive collectivism I think the US/UK (who loves to hate celebrities), central Europe (where everyone have only themselves to blame) and Asia (with a lot of social pressure) is worse.

Never mind that the author was a known misanthrope...

Moderation and a comparatively egalitarian approach are quintessential Danish qualities, all too often thoughtlessly maligned and ridiculed. The fact is, for better or worse, these traits have served us well as a functioning society for the last thousand years, and in my guess, far longer back than that. A few data points: The last Danish regent or head of government to die violently was king Erik Klipping. The date may resonate with some Americans. It was the 22nd of November. But it was in the year 1286. We have had no real civil warfare since the late viking age. Some unrest leading up to the reformation ("Count's Feud") was actually a war against North Germans. The reformation itself was settled fairly amicably. No real bloodshed, the monks and nuns were often allowed to stay in their monastries for as long as they lived. No pitched battles in 1848/49. A delegation went and saw the king. A democratic constitution was announced. An overwhelming majority of Danish jews escaped unharmed to neutral Sweden in 1943, a thing only possible because of a quiet but widespread support in the general population.

Really, we haven't done too badly. But it's not a societal model particularly well geared towards the present day influx of large numbers of people with quite different and often more muscular attitudes to everyday interictions.

Well I think the schleswig-holsteiners would disagree. They fought two wars before they were allowed to decide for themselves:-)

It is about scale. My country Norway was under Danish rule for 400 years, yet it was never anything like the oppression and brutality the Scottish and Irish experienced at the hands of the English. It is why despite Scandinavian having fought numerous wars agains each other, there is not much bad blood. None of the wars were really that terrible.

Telling was how Sweden and Norway fought when Norway declared independece in 1905. It did not last long because the Swedish king did not want to make Norwegians hate Swedes. Not the kind of thing that would ever have concerned and english king or people like Bismarch.

There were complex aspects about both those wars. But they were indisputably fought between Danes and Germans. Schleswig-Holstein was a German duchy under the Danish king, not a paart of Denmark proper.

The second war, in 1864, ended with a huge loss of Danish territory to the emerging German superstate. The northern half of this territory was returned to Denmark in 1920, with the southern remaining German. This was the result of a referendum in the wake of World War 1. Everything was orderly and civilized, and the border region to this day remains a model of how to handle such things without undue upheaval - thus exactly confirming my point above.

Well - that is how things evolved - but in the early 800, when the ejderen border was created no one thought of themselves as german.

Probably not. Although I am getting ever more suspicious about the latter day dogma about the nation as a purely modern invention. Denmark was well enough defined and understood a thousand years ago.

You learn about this when you grow up in Sweden.

Wise people will tell you to disregard it as it won't get you anywhere.

Wise listeners will take that advice to heart but also refrain from mentioning their progress too much as that might put sticks in the wheels when moving through society.

The end result is perhaps something resembling humbleness. Which, if it comes from the heart, is a beautiful quality to have and strive for. But when its imposed on you by society gets a slightly more ominous tint.

As a Dane, this is what I grew up with. One of the reasons I love living in New York is that it's simply non-existent.

However, I do think the Law of Jante exists in most small communities where being the same is considered a virtue.


This comment breaks the HN guidelines badly by bringing extraneous flamebait into a substantive and interesting thread, turning it into a political flamewar. That may not be arson but it is criminal negligence. Please don't do it in HN threads.

It's up to each of us to prevent this, just like we don't light cigarettes at gas stations or let campfires smolder in dry forests. That's not hard. I feel like Smokey the Bear.


May I suggest ten close readings of https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15374168 (once for each comment currently in this off-topic subthread) as a good example of what we do want: substantive, grounded in experience, civil, teaching something new.

Edit: I want to add something about the mechanism at work here. Not to pick on you, but as an illustration for everyone.

If we look at the path taken by this subthread, what can we say about it? It gets consistently more generic. That is, it starts with something specific (a self-observation of Scandinavian culture), swaps that out for something much more generic (small towns: good or bad?), goes to more generic and inflammatory things (gang violence) and then to informational heat death ("Religions can inspire peace or war").

So we can sum up how to avoid the unwanted this way: Don't go generic. Note that that's not the same thing as "don't go off-topic". Going off topic can be fine if the direction is interesting. The trouble with the generic is that's predictable and seductive, producing not only the uninteresting but a lot of it.

(I might come back and add more here. If there's one point I wish I could effectively communicate to the HN community this thing about not going generic is it, because it makes the difference between interesting and lame discussion.)

If you oppose genercism, you cut the thread too late; it's the previous one that discusses large vs small communities ...with zero support or examples. The comment you refer to was the more specific one on that subject.

I considered that, but your comment was the one that really unmoored from the specifics. The parent comment was still tied to the topic, and pretty obviously not intended as an attack on small towns.

The site guidelines say "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize." Had you followed that, I bet you wouldn't have reacted the way you did. It's doable but it takes a conscious effort, one that many users (including me) have had to make.


If those generalizations don't apply to your small community, fair enough. But what then makes it okay for you to state generalizations that don't apply to my urban area?

> What voters vote for wealth redistribution? Mostly urban areas.

What do any of those examples have to do with Jante? You think gang violence is because people are trying to stop other people from rising out of poverty, rather than someone trying to rise out of poverty through crime? Please tell me you don't think gang bangers are out there telling kids not to go to school because of Jante. That's hilarious.

> What voters vote for wealth redistribution?

1. You're not to think you are anything special.

6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.

> Where does Antifa corner someone with bad speech and beat them up?

4. You're not to imagine yourself better than we are.

> Where does gang violence (epitome of contrived us vs. them) happen?

2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.

8. You're not to laugh at us.

9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.


> You think gang violence is because people are trying to stop other people from rising out of poverty, rather than someone trying to rise out of poverty through crime?

Tomato, tomato. First, gang activity is perceived to be zero-sum; a gang protects its territory. Second, vengence is primarily about hurting the other guy, not helping yourself.

Suburban violence rates are almost as high as urban rates. Rural violence rates reported to the police are significant, but may be lower than urban and suburban due to lower reporting rates. When you look at victimization rates of violent crimes not reported to the police, there are nearly as many rural victims of violent crimes as there are urban victims. And note especially that the rate of aggravated assault victimization is higher in rural areas than urban. This doesn't prove you're wrong, but it is fairly suggestive evidence that the idea that violence happens in mostly urban areas is off the mark.


As far as wealth redistribution, which kind are you talking about, the kind where the rich take from the poor, or the kind where the poor take from the rich? This seems like a political troll unrelated to the Law of Jante, but it's safe to say that all voters vote for wealth redistribution, it just depends on which direction you believe it should go.

> which kind are you talking about

Sorry, that was vague. I meant the way it is most often used: wealth redistribution towards equality.

> It is frequently heard in politics, usually referring to perceived redistributions from those who have more to those who have less.


Not just vague, but wildly and needlessly politically charged. Capitalism is a system that redistributes wealth away from equality by definition, and it highly encourages and favors individualism, by definition. Suggesting that the Law of Jante would judge social programs that aim for the common good to be individualistic seems misguided and blind to the economic realities of the growing inequality we actually have.

> Second, vengence is primarily about hurting the other guy, not helping yourself.

What kind of romantic world do you live in where you think crime is motivated more by "vengence" than economics? You've been watching too many gangster movies or something where you think it's all about vendettas and less about fighting over highly profitable criminal enterprises like drugs. Have you heard of the war on drugs? This Jante reading of urban violence is preposterous.

so, jante's 'be humble' is actually coded rationalization for violence. what a world.

for some reason this reminds me of a time when a few internet eccentrics were trying to suggest that hegel's dialetic was some kind of freemason/illuminati conspiracy theory.

in some ways jante isn't all that different from japanese wa, or really even the attitudes of many rural americans.

> jante's 'be humble' is actually coded rationalization for violence

It can be, yes.

Religions can inspire peace or war, depending on how strongly their followers need others to agree.

is jante a religion, or really anything very similar? is there a 'holy book'?

Not sure what you mean. How is it related to Jante?

As a German living in Sweden since more than a decade ago, I've often appreciated the impact the Law of Jante has on Swedish culture. However, at least in central Stockholm, many people nowadays express aversion against the Jante Law, as they associate it with the old socialist Sweden in which many of the freedoms (and choices) of today apparently didn't exist. I'd assume though that it still works as a guiding principle in many decisions Swedes make and behavior they demonstrate - no matter what they publicly say about this philosophy. Compared to Germans and many other cultures I know, Swedes are pretty good at not taking themselves too seriously, which I consider to be a result of Jante.

Wow. I just learned about this on a visit to Norway. The way it was explained to me, this is one factor that could hold the Norwegians back as they move toward a post-oil economy, because they're going to need to focus on sectors like tech where there's huge variance in talent and outcomes which they'll have to accept to make it work. That said, there was some great activity in Oslo during Innovation Week.

It is a caricature and not exactly how we act in Norway. I work in the Norwegian tech sector and don't really see this as the problem.

The problem is more about getting investors to novel ideas. It is much easier to get investors to back crazy ideas in the US than in Norway.

Other than that I think Norway has many strengths. It has an efficient government where it is easy and quick to start a company. Unlike the US starting a company is low risk because you got covered with public health care regardless. You got good unemployment benefits you can use for a year while getting your company up and running.

I honestly never felt there was a shirtage of ideas and talent in Norway. The problem is on the business side of things. We are poor at marketing ourselves and think in terms of how to profit from innovations.

But it is in no way impossibe to make it in Norway. Most of our billionaires are self made. In fact we have more billionaires prr capita than the US and more social mobility.

I totally buy that Norway has many strengths, and like I said, I was really impressed with the entrepreneurs I met there.

I think the problem with cultivating a tech ecosystem in many first-world cities is the lack of capital channeled through sophisticated investors who can deploy it in tech.

That's one factor behind Silicon Valley's continued gravity for international entrepreneurs -- they keep running into the funding gaps in their homelands. Sadly, the Trump administration seems to be making it harder for international talent and international capital to meet in the US.

I lived in Europe for many years, and saw a lot of capital that just wanted a safe real estate bet.

> Most of our billionaires are self made. In fact we have more billionaires per capita than the US and more social mobility.

Sure. But Norway is a country with enormous oil reserves, like the Gulf Emirates. That's basically luck. The question is: How can you build an economy with less/zero dependence on arbitrary allocations of natural resources, especially given that the price of energy is trending toward zero?

Sounds like you ran into the local neoliberal cliche...

I'm reminded of http://www.paulgraham.com/cities.html (and I was curious how much people who've lived in each place agree with the descriptions of the messages, and how stable they are over time).

Not this again...

How then in Sweden we have a startup boom?

The end result is that people demands more proof before accepting that your idea is exceptional. I'd guess that this could reduce noise making it easier to focus on relevant startups.

Or simply a case of "shut up and do it".

Never mind that the "laws" were formulated as a caricature of small town behavior by a known misanthrope.

They are not and never have been a formal guiding principle for Scandinavian thought.

Because it has nothing to do with the Jante Law. Those who succeed don't comply to it.

Sure they do, at least some of them. People frown upon anyone, including billionaires, who is too full of themselves, and I think you can definitely tell the difference if you compare the 1% in Scandinavia with places such as New York.

An anecdote will illustrate what I mean. My mother was at the pharmacy once, and as the lady at the register was explaining to the man in front of her how the discount system works, with stamps etc he listened politely and patiently. She couldn't have guessed that he was the owner of H&M, the 17th richest man in the world.

The older I get and the more I travel the more I appreciate this aspect of life in Scandinavia and I don't think there is any indication that this has hampered growth or entrepreneurship, quite the opposite.

The point is not that you shouldn't do your best, succeed and make a lot of money, it's about how you should behave if you do succeed.

Not sure I understand what you are arguing compared to what I said. Can you be a little more specific.

Maybe I misunderstood you, but it seems you're saying that people _either_ "comply" with Jante or succeed, but my point was that Jante, broadly understood, affects even successful people.

Sure, if you take it literally then I suppose it would stop people from succeeding but the way I see it "Jante" is what explains the relative humility of many successful Scandinavians. In a way it's just a flippant way to describe the (downsides of) the Nordic egalitarianism, as argued eloquently elsewhere. So in that sense there is no real opposition between Sweden being full of successful entrepreneurs while enforcing Jante.

Humility is not what Jante Law is about. Jante Law is about conformity. You definitely don't have to live in Scandinavia to be a humble millionaire or even billionaire. In fact, one could argue that the successful people in Scandinavia are humble because of the fear of the Jante Law.

All I was saying is that people who are successful mostly ignore the Jante Law otherwise they wouldn't try to become successful, to begin with.

None of this is an exact science of course.

>In fact, one could argue that the successful people in Scandinavia are humble because of the fear of the Jante Law.

This is pretty much what I _am_ arguing.

Ok, not sure how that contradicts what I said which was about becoming successful not about how you deal with the law.

That's actually a pretty good question, in my opinion. I don't have an answer but it appears initially to be a contradiction. However, obviously it is not. Importantly one should not take these principles literally. Few to no people do this today.

I disagree with that few comply. Like with a lot of cultural norms, the compliance with Jante is often happening subconsciously. When a Swedish founder on stage makes a joke about herself/himself (and thereby becomes instantly likeable), that could be one result of Jante.

I didn't say few comply. I said that those few who are successful don't comply :) Pretty important distinction.

You are right, that was my fault, thanks for pointing that out.

I still would disagree though. As a German in Sweden I see a lot of compliance with Jante among people who express aversion against Jante.

One can be humble, not too self-absorbed and not consider oneself the best and most important person on this planet (aka showing basic compliance with Jante), and still be successful. I'd argue that this might even be the way to go for sustainable "growing the pie for everyone" success.

are we seriously not gonna mention that this is a thing because Nordic countries have a homogeneous population?

try not to stand out when you're the only person in the room that's not a 6 ft tall pale skinned blonde

It refers to fashion, behaviour and the like, not your natural physical attributes, that I may add are not quite accurate either. I am not 6' tall nor am I blond, despite being to my knowledge ethnically Swedish or Scandinavian since at least a century back. I moved away from Sweden a couple of years ago but the Sweden in which I grew up in there were a lot of immigrants for various reasons and by now a couple of generations of them. Some of these people have now become major popculture phenomenons precisely because they do not follow the stereotypical Law of Jante characteristics, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is no stranger to claiming to be the best or speaking his mind.

Personally, I find the effect of the Law of Jante to in many cases hold back the progress of Sweden, in that the desire to improve is often low to non-existent, okay is preferable.

Man why do people keep saying this dumb shit? Do you guys never watch FOX news about the impending takeover of Sweden by muslim immigrants? Anyway Scandinavia has been multi cultural for a few decades already. Most of my neighbours in Oslo are neither blonde nor Norwegian. I got thais, kosovars, pakistani, kurdish, vietnames, thamils etc neighbours.

Anyway Janteloven has nothing to do with physical appearance. It is about how you carry yourself.

Leprous, a Norwegian band, has an album "Tall Poppy Syndrome" with lyrics which reflect this law: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36HuYPnx5oE

You can condense the ten rules down to one:

1. You're not to think.

I think "Be humble" would be a better one-line version. They're basically about not believing oneself superior to others.

Not really. Notice the stuff about you not being better than us or having anything to teach us. Janteloven has the flip side that everyone thinks that they have nothing to learn.

More like "Be humble or we will exclude you from society".

Or maybe: you are not to give reasons (display of wealth or whatever) for other people to think of you as someone who would feel superior to others.

I don't know if you live/have lived in Scandinavia but this is depressingly accurate.

Not true, you can think, as long as you think like everybody else.

Which is not thinking for yourself.

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