Deconstructing Jantelagen

Christopher Neitzert
11 min readJan 8, 2017

I began to write this on the first day of the new year. It was a grey and cold day, the air as new with possibilities as the year. Unfortunately several days later most of them are again awash in a negative light that I am going to attribute to the antique Scandinavian ideal of ‘Jantelagen’ that is still widely practiced in the country of my residence, Sweden.

The goal of this exercise is to describe the vast negativity I feel in Swedish culture and an attempt to deconstruct Jantelagen for the mind-numbing and emotionally castrating social sedative that it is.

For those who have not encountered the phrase, I will be leaning heavily on the Wikipedia link for Jantelagen, personal experience as both a naturalized Swede, and someone who works and lives among many who kneel before the altar of Jante, some unwittingly as it is all they have and ever will know.

Jantelagen’ got its start as lampoon of Scandinavian culture by Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 work ‘ En flyktning krysser sitt spor’ (A Fugitive/Refugee crosses the tracks). The story takes place in a small working class Danish town named Jante, hence ‘the laws of jante’ or ‘jante lagen’.

Today the expression is still used to describe an attitude of distrust for individual success and originality. To create a mindset that actively discourages personal achievement, and prefers uniformity within the group.

Wikipedia says the following about Jantelagen:

“The premise of the concept in the story is a description of a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Scandinavian communities that negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.”

In the book, the Janters who transgress this unwritten ‘law’ are regarded with suspicion and some hostility, as it goes against the town’s communal desire to preserve harmony, social stability and uniformity.

There is an modern-day Swedish yarn that is often repeated is nears the point of cliche that captures this sentiment.

‘The only approved way to get rich is to be a pop-star, football player, or win the lottery.’

Though despite this sentiment holding much more strength in the days when the socialists ruled Sweden, to be rich is still a social stigma, and one never talks about themselves, their achievements, or even what they find to be cool outside of a very small group of close knit friends.

These humble behaviors in and of themselves are admirable, the practice of it is one of the traits make Swedes so popular the world over. But is a more sinister side to it, equal in strength to the upside; Which is simply, the threat of social alienation for having individual opinions, or a history of sucess because of the very high level of discomfort experienced in those who have not had or who may have observed the opinions, history or sucess.

When I first encountered the concept, I was horrified. As someone who grew up in the ultra-competitive, often very violent culture of North America, to me, the horror came from the idea, that nobody could strive to be their best, especially if it made others look bad. Being one who has not cared very much for other people’s opinions about me, I promptly put a pin in it and went on with my life, continuing my path of successes and failures.

Then, gradually over the years, the realization that Jantelagen is far more insidious than it shows began to grow on me like black-mold in an ignored cellar left to fester.

After some rather unfortunate encounters with practitioners of this parochial pursuit this cognitive corruption gradually exposed its gnarled and warty underbelly to me.

In reviewing each of these ‘laws’ I am going to take apart their order and lump then into a list of ‘functional’ categories of sorts. Then i will describe the impact I see and experience in modern culture in the horribly lame and avoidable ways it happens.

A majority of these rules are written with the sentence beginning with the pronoun “You’re” and ending with “we”. Statements that begin externally with ‘you’ and end internally with the speaker more often than not implies an insecurity on the part of the speaker due to the direction of the statement and the origin of the feelings, and how they are projected on the other. In other words, the “we” is forcing the “you” to own the “we’s” shit.

But first dear reader, while reading this, continue to ask yourself, who is this insanely jealous, vindictive, and oppressive entity “We” that is referred to in this pathetically fake equality?

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

This falls in line with Swedish culture and is probably the easiest of these to swallow. After all, the nail that stands up usually gets the hammer first, right? Wrong. This is the anchoring message, the basest of rules and not dissimilar to Tyler Durden’s message in Fight Club.

In both cases it is used very explicitly to break down the repentant reader and force them to agree to the remainder of these repugnant rules.

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

4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.

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

My experience with confidence is that many who are not accustom to it, often confuse it with arrogance. In the case of these particular lines it reads as though it was written by someone with little experience with the former and likely has quite a bit of experience in the latter without his own personal knowledge of that experience.

Sadly, the concept of confidence is muted here, Swedes try to take up as little space as possible, and actively go out of their way to shame anyone who takes more space than what they think is “lagom”.

A personal experience as an example is, I am a big guy, 180 cm tall and 100 kg with shoulders and legs being the majority of my mass. Now, I have never found a subway or bus seat that my shoulders do not spill over into the seat next to me. However here in Sweden, my size is enough that I have been castigated and asked to move from the seat i was in on several occasions by angry swedes. Once as I was told, I was too ‘tjokis’ (pejorative word for fat) for the seat, and on another time, I was “man-spreading” my shoulders.

Now, for those of you who know me and possibly those non-swedes who do not — this is crazy-talk coming from the people addressing me in such terms. But to the people addressing me, and those around, I was taking up more space than I had a right to, and I had to be punished.

Disappointingly so their concept of the space I had right to was from within their point of reference and did not take into account that I can not help being a big muscular man, not like I had a choice in that.

3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.

5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.

My experience with intelligence is that those who are truly intelligent is that more intelligence is welcomed not shunned. We welcome the unknown and new information and the challenges that come with it. Yet the structure of the rule displays a deep seated insecurity in the author and practitioners of Jantelagen about those who might actually know things that they do not.

7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.

Of course they don’t want anyone thinking that they are as good or smart as each other, for the best way to keep the boot on the neck of a group of people is to install an inferiority complex. The entire concept of ‘original sin’ as put forth by the Christian religions is the western prime example of this. Yet here in this once very christian country they have doubled down on the idea.

8. You’re not to laugh at us.

This, this is a plain display of the insecurity. Were a group were secure in themselves and their thinking, feeling, and doing this law would be redundant to the point of not ever having requirements on writing it. Yet, it cuts to the core of Scandinavian insecurities.

A once very isolated and exotic locale not too far from the Arctic Circle known mostly for seafaring and trading abilities, and later the incredibly high rate of inbreeding and related problems due to this isolation during the period these values were created and installed within the culture.

Given the forcefulness of all of the rules of Jantelagen, with this strange little self-conscious rule, I am forced to ask myself, why is this so important to that oppressive “we” who is addressing us?

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

This is rather interesting. As children we all had those moments where it was obvious that the important things we wanted to share had appropriately fallen on deaf ears: Yet to falsely drive this feelings of isolation and insecurity within your group is awfully strange. The reality is most of us, no matter how alone we feel, have one or two people who actually do care for us. The installation of false insecurities within a set of rules like this has only one purpose to disable the practitioner by driving discomfort and doubt in those prescribed to follow it.

The modern aspect of this goes a couple of directions. The first that if you are a victim you will find that nobody wants to hear your problems, and nobody wants to help. Yes if you talk about it you will be given false platitudes and offers of support, but when you go to call these in, you will be frozen out, left in the cold, on your own.

I have a personal experience about this, that I would love to post details about but would absolutely result in a some form of litigation from my angry ex-wife who is coincidentally Swedish.

10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

11. Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?

These are special rules that come with all forms of coercion and social control — The implied threat that exists at the tail of all lists of rules.

The threats here are multifaceted in that the author wants you never to explain, show, criticize, and to absolutely not to think outside of the box you have been told you are in. Additionally never try to innovate or improve because that is only a threat to the status quo and if you do, the implied threat, of using those few things they know about you, against you…

Later, the meaning of the Law of Jante was extended to refer to personal criticism of people who want to break out of their social groups and reach a higher position in society in general.”

…and as you can see, nearly 80 years after its inception, this strange cult of jante although no longer officially taught in schools, is a thing and a majority of the culture operates within these rules.

So, you want to get out of the Jante’s Penalty Box? I have some suggestions. These may be as unpopular as this post will be by the Swedes I know who will read this, however this is what has worked for me so far, and I somehow am managing to thrive and grow in the isolated and desolate ice-hole of Jante’s land.

Be prestige-less. Don’t talk up your successes unless in a job interview, then still play it down. My personal experience in this is; I was once explaining to a swede in a social situation how when I first moved here I had to work a construction job because I could not get a job in my field despite my incredible CV, patents, IPO, and all of the other things that set me apart from my professional peers. Immediately her face went up into a sneer. Later did I find out, that the sneer was about the contrast of making myself more special than the others I was competing for jobs with. Don’t talk yourself down, just don’t display your wins until asked, then be as humble as you can.

Show up, do your best. As simply done as written. Showing up is 80% of the game, your best is your best and just like having to take a shit, nobody will contest the validity of your claim to either when it comes down to it.

Put your best language forward. I am considered professionally proficient bordering on fluent in Swedish. However I also have a very thick accent when I speak it and occasionally display very poor grammar. Such to the point that when I speak in Swedish I am often replied to with “Speak English, I cant understand you.” Yes of course that is patently rude, but one should learn the language in any country they reside in. The fact is Swedes love to show off their English skills. They should, they are good at English and begin learning it in 2nd grade. They often speak better English than many Americans do. So, if your English is better than your Swedish, follow my example and put your best language forward. Getting your message across and understanding what others say to you is far too important than impressing a Swede with the few poorly pronounced words you know.

Produce, be productive! Not keeping your head down and only doing your work. But working smart and keeping up with the pace. In this land of parental leave, ‘vabbar’, 18 Bank holidays a year, and 5 weeks mandatory paid vacation, one has to work smart in order to be productive. Sweden has outpaced many of her peers economically because of this working smart. Swedes have nearly perfected it, and if you are coming here, pay attention, this is impressive even to me with my history of explosive growth startups.

Don’t be a victim. Not something you can control, but when something happens, and it always does. Do your best to pick yourself back up, go and get the help you need and keep on keepin on, don’t let fuckers or the events drag you down into the depression of victim-hood.

Don’t expect anyone to stand up for you or to help you. This is one of the more disappointing things in my opinion because it includes the social system and the people you know around you. Instead, ask, nej, demand the help you need from the appropriate authorities and ask your friends. The one true goal of any bureaucracy is to become so large and ineffective that it is impossible to replace with another bureaucracy, and you will get the run around from the Swedish Social System. Know your rights within these systems and calmly demand what you want within those rights, and in most cases you will get it, though usually on the 2nd or 3rd try.

Additional Items for my fellow Americans. The stereotype of Americans is that we are loud, obnoxious, probably violent, and mostly stupid. Keeping to the following suggestions will go very far in easing this stereotype and help open some more doors for you here in Sweden.

Use your inside voice everywhere. I am constantly telling noisy tourists “don’t be that kind of American” on the subway for having conversations so loud that the entire car can hear them.

Don’t talk about money. Like ever. Americans are pretty open about this compared to the rest of the world. This makes many feel insecure, and rightly so. I took at 67% pay cut upon accepting work here. Swedish salaries are well below American salaries, people here just do not understand.

Keep your religion to yourself. Roughly 21% of Swedes believe in a “god” compared to 80% of Americans. This is a deeply personal and private thing for Swedes, and even if you are certain you have the same beliefs, keep them to yourself, it is not considered polite.

Keep your politics to yourself. This is not nearly as black and white as religion for Swedes tend to pride themselves on being well informed on American politics and can speak generally more knowledgeably about American politics than most Americans. But, if you opinion differs from the Jante approved narrative, you might find yourself out in the cold, literally.

There will be more to this post and thread over time, keep coming back for more.

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Christopher Neitzert

Human, Hacker, Technologist, Ocasional Artist. This is where I sometimes document the ideats rattling around inside my head. more at http://www.neitzert.io