Have you ever had the feeling that everyone around you wear the same clothes, live in the same houses and talk about the same topics? Ever felt like the odd one out – and that it is not appreciated? Then chances are you’ve been Janted.
Jantelagen was for many years the unofficial governing philosophy of Swedish and perhaps Scandinavian society. The word translates to “Jante’s Law” and it is based on a short story written by a Danish-Norwegian named Aksel Sandemose in 1933 about a fictitious small town (not dissimilar from the one I currently live in) where the locals are governed by 10 laws de-emphasizing the individual and success and encouraging the collective. There are 10 rules but they basically boil down to the tenet that individuality and achievement are discouraged. It is advisable to shuck your individual tastes and temperaments and to go with the flow around you.
While there has been much public debate regarding Jante’s laws and whether they are in fact still relevant in modern global heterogeneous society, many Swedes feel a historical or vestigial obligation to abide by them. Or if not abide by them, then they will at least be subconsciously aware of them. Its is less obvious in bigger cities. But in some places that are less affected by the outside world (for example, the town I live in), these laws are in fact the ruling party.
According to the experts,
you know when you’ve been Janted when:
- You see a large group of friends dining out looking assiduously similar (same haircuts, same glasses, same style of clothing) eyeing each other and making sure to order exactly the same meal.
- You wear a new outfit and are feeling pretty good about yourself when somebody says “Are you going to a masquerade ball tonight” making you feel garish and tacky.
- At a social gathering (an office fika, a family dinner) with a group of people from very different personalities and backgrounds, conversation is kept at LCD (lowest common denominator), somewhat inane topics such as napkin patterns, weather and jokes at somebody’s expense
So how does a foreigner get around them, you ask? Well, we’re here to help you out:
1) Think about the GOOD THINGS about modesty on the whole
Watch the Real Housewives, any one of the series, it does not matter. Read a book like “The Devil Wears Prada.” Just as jante is frustrating, so are people who constantly attempt to self-aggrandize their situation, show-off and put others down. As adults we should know this. It’s also not polite to speak only about yourself and not show any interest in others. It’s also not particularly polite to ask nosy questions to people you do not know well. It’s not polite to brag or boast or show-off. Coming from New York City, where I worked doing public relations in the film and restaurant scene for over 10 years, the Swedish humility and humbleness were actually quite welcome!
2) Meet Janters halfway
If you know you are in a majority Jante situation, it’s a good idea to meet them halfway in a non-threatening way. If you have new or exciting information that you’d like to share, wrap it up in a way that does not intimate your [perceived by them] privilege. Re-frame education as sharing in a gentle neutral manner. Present the facts first rather than opinion or adjectives. One nice thing about Jante is that I’ve learned to really appreciate receiving a compliment and I am now able to take it at sincere full-value since flattery comes so infrequently.
3) Find like-minded people
There are always Swedes around you who do not think Jantelagen is a great thing. They might not make themselves known in non-urban areas, but you absolutely can find like-minded folks who can support you emotionally. When you meet these people, you will appreciate them. Chances are they will not make their support known loudly, but in one-on-one interactions. If you don’t know where to look for these folks, your chances of finding them are increased amongst Swedes who have a foreign spouse, have lived outside of Sweden, have an interest in non-Swedish literature or activities or are innovation or entrepreneurially minded.
4) Don’t Lose Yourself
You still are somebody with a past and personal tastes/abilities. Regardless of how much somebody (or a group of people) actively suppress your individuality and past history, don’t lose it. Find an outlet for your memories, your language, your interests, your history. Live your life as you normally would do, albeit without public ceremony (isn’t that just decent adult civility anyway?) I am completely gobsmacked when Jante-abiding locals in my town tell me that I should just stop speaking English in my private home, and that my children should not learn English until the rest of the local children are reading English at school (!). I have learned not to argue back, as would be my natural instinct. Instead, I’ve adapted the smile, nod and quietly go about what I normally do. Janters don’t want an argument. No, that would be unsightly. After saying their piece, I politely acknowledge their perspective.
“Tack för tanken. Det ska jag ta med mig,” I say (Thank you for your consideration. I will take the thought with me to reflect on.)
And then I go about my merry way, carrying on doing as I was doing before. There’s no sarcasm in my reply, though I cannot promise that I will not inwardly roll my eyes and pray for the day we get to move away from this mentality.
5) Use it as a way to get to know Swedish Culture
Where I live, Jante is the ruling party. There are a great many unspoken codes and rules to living in a very decidedly Swedish society that does not warmly welcome input from outside cultures (and yes, that includes Stockholm or even neighboring Blekinge). I always try and see the bright side to things so I’ve utilized this period of my life to get to familiarize myself with Swedish culture from a fun POV. My kids love fredagsmys (Cozy Friday) and lördagsgodis (Saturday candy).
Oh, and it is pretty fun to take the day off before a holiday to get into the mood. When in Sweden, and all that…
Amy moved to Sweden from Brooklyn, USA in July 2011 with 1 child, 1 Swedish husband, 2 large suitcases and no idea what she was getting herself into. Two years and two more children later, she has learned the magic ballet of Regional Jante but is looking forward to a day when she does not need to utilize it so very often. Read about her adventures in starting a small business at expatmompreneur.com
You can find out more about her experiences at www.expatmompreneur.com.