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Jante Law and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

 

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I’ve had a chance to study Danish this last semester at OU and on the side I’ve been reading about Danish and Scandinavian culture. In the process I have come across a concept called the Janteloven, or Jante’s Law.

While the term comes from a novel, it has taken a life of it’s own, as a shorthand to describe the cultural norms that marks Scandinavian life. A quick read of them makes clear how the stories we tell ourselves will shape the society we live in and vice versa, in this case, that undergird egalitarian societies.

I will highlight the positive version of Jante’s law as well as some of the negative flip sides of them to describe a way of understanding ourselves in relation to others.

1) You must believe everybody is somebody

2) You must believe everybody is as important as everybody else.

3) You may be cleverer, but that does not make you a better person

4) You must believe everyone is as good as you

5) You must believe that everyone knows something worth knowing

6) You must think of everyone as your equal

7) You must believe that everyone is good at something

8) You must not laugh at others

9) You must think everyone is worth caring about

10) You can learn something from everyone

Now there are the negative versions of this, which is how the term was popularized including “you must not believe that you are better than us, know more than us,” etc. But either way, how this gets played out in their societies is of interest.

It’s obvious that bragging is out, whether it is about how much money you make, what job you have, or what accomplishments you have managed to pull off. Scandinavian societies value the understatement and self deprecation. The one exception revolves around whether what you do is “samfundsrelevant”, i.e. socially relevant. If what you do in your job and your volunteer efforts involves helping other people or the environment, then you have permission to show some pride.

The wealthy are not permitted to show off wealth, not in a way that makes clear some sort of social division. This is not law,  just social convention. It is not that it isn’t there, though I will say that it was hard to find it anytime I’ve been to Norway or Iceland. We all know where snob hill is in American communities, it is less obvious in Scandinavia. Not just because they are more equal societies but also because such displays of differences are not respected.

What is respected is that the poor are cared for. This is not to make Scandinavian countries out to be utopias, especially for the newly arrived immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. But As the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven put it “We don’t give up on any individual. It’s when we’re at our lowest, we need a social welfare system the most.” That is the Nordic system in a nutshell.

These are societies where the customer is not always right but the workers generally are. It involves putting oneself in their place. So because of 5 week guaranteed paid vacations, union protected breaks, you may sometimes face lines, delays, limited hours that businesses will stay open. And this is supported, generally, because it means workplaces are humane places to work, because they consider the other person, the clerk, the customer service worker to be as important as themselves. I can imagine some of my friends who work retail would appreciate this.

Scandinavian’s egalitarianism is supported by public policy to be sure. High taxes on the wealthy, broad and generous programs for the poor and the middle class, whether it is national health care, child care, free higher education and the like. But some of this is cultural too. They feed into each other. And sometimes it is not law but consensus which produces these results.

For instance, there is no minimum wage in Denmark despite the liberal meme that says it is over $20. Rather it was based on a union agreement with fast food places. Almost 80% of the workforce in these countries are in unions and are therefore covered by such agreements. And these agreements cover whole sectors of the economy, not individual businesses, so no one can undercut somebody else.

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There is a lot of discussion around workplace equality itself. Decisions are more likely to be made by consensus, by a deliberative and collaborative process. The watchword phrase is “let’s work on this together” as opposed to decisions made unilaterally by a boss. For instance by law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees.

But everything from clothing (you can’t tell by uniform or clothing style who is the boss and who is not) to the titles one gives oneself to the decision making trees of businesses speak of a society that rejects hierarchy. And this seeps into the language, where the formal language found in Germanic languages have been done away with, for all practical purposes, replaced by the informal.

There are downsides. I can imagine my conservative friends would be upset to see societies where the cost for failure is little but the cost of wealth and financial success is high, in taxes and in social disapproval. But they have created societies that are largely middle class where poverty is largely unknown. I do think public policies play their role in that but in looking at the US we are not likely to get there anytime soon.

But it does make me wonder what are the cultural stories we tell ourselves as Americans that adds to our inequality? As someone who grew up with television shows like “lifestyles of the rich and famous” I’d love to see someone make a list of the cultural assumptions that undergird our society. And should we be telling ourselves different stories? And what role can the church play in telling a different story about one’s value and one’s relationships to one another? This might be a place to start.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

 

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Comments

  1. It seems like there are a lot of myths we tell ourselves. Here are the ones that I think hold back church communities from advocating for socialequity and a safety net for the poorest among us.

    * The myth of the “self made” millionaire, and thatit is right around the corner for any given person.
    * The myth that self sufficiency is possible and desirable.
    * The myth that we all start on a level playing field at birth.
    * The myth that we can afford wars, but we can’t afford a social safety net.
    * The myth that there must be winners and losers.
    * The myth that the criminal justice system works, and is blind.
    * The myth that racism is not a problem, and that gender equality is unimportant in the way people are treated.

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  1. […] about Scandinavian culture. In the process I have come across a concept called the Janteloven, or Jante’s Law. While the term comes from a novel, it has taken a life of its own, as a shorthand to describe the […]

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