January 26, 2005

A place called Jante

In 1933 the Norwegian Aksel Sandemose wrote a book called roughly 'A refugee goes back' or 'A refugee recrosses his tracks'. It is somewhat autobiographical, he being the refugee, a Norwegian living in a small farming village called Jante (pronounced 'yanteh') on the Danish peninsula called Jutland. He wrote down ten rules guiding life in the town, known as the Jante Law:

1. You shall not believe that you are anything.
2. You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
3. You shall not believe that you are smarter than we are.
4. You shall not imagine that you are better than we are.
5. You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
6. You shall not believe that you are more capable than we are.
7. You shall not believe that you are good enough for anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.

It's a dark book, and it definitely struck a chord in Scandinavia-- it seems that all over, when people want to describe for me what the Scandinavian soul is like, they will start talking about the Jante Law, usually in a negative way, but so that you know they see something powerful or something to fight against. I've had this happen in Lund, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm. At the lunchtable at work once I started defending the Jante Law, just to see what would happen. It was one of the most lively discussions I have seen at the University. My line was that it was an integral part of the ability to function as a community-- everyone needs to focus on doing their part.


At January 26, 2005 4:34 PM , Blogger fresca said...

This reminds me of "Babette's Feast," which acknowledges the grimness while showing the humanity underneath--isn't that set in Jutland, too? One of my all-time favorite movies. (Haven't read the story.)

I lived in Copenhagen when I was eleven/twelve, January-May 1973 (right before Watergate) and the kids in the public school I attended were REALLY weird to me: They were unfailingly kind and fair and inclusive!
On the playground, they always included me, the foreigner (and I was in a self-protective mode, so I doubt I was very approachable in American terms), and all the other odd kids, too, including a girl who, looking back I suspect was mentally ill. In America kids like that (including the stranger) would have been ostracized. I hear Danish society has changed--this was pre-foreign workers (Turks) and all, but my memory is of a very civilized place. (NOT particularly cheerful, however...)

At January 26, 2005 10:17 PM , Blogger Tim said...

Matt, it sounds like you violated several precepts of Jante's law by entering into that conversation. Good for you for sparking a discussion.

At January 27, 2005 4:20 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

F., the Danes are still very civilized. Its one of my favorite parts about living here-- the society is so harmonious & at peace with itself. Fredrik is in first grade and they work to teach them social skills-- including everyone, taking everyone's feelings into account. I was worried that they would waste their time with all this socialist indoctrinization, and when were they going to get to the reading and writing? But I changed my mind when I saw the method in action. There is order in the classroom, and with that foundation it is a great place to learn. Already they have learned much more than I ever did in first grade.

At January 27, 2005 4:26 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

It is important to have the right perspective on the Jante law. Like if I hire a plumber, I don't want some kind of ubermensh know it all of pipes. I want someone who is competent but admits he may be fallible. Same goes for a doctor or a lawyer-- anyone really.

I was talking with a Japanese friend once and he told me that the way Japanese society works is, if you see a nail sticking up, you pound it back in.

At January 27, 2005 4:34 PM , Blogger fresca said...

In New Zealand, this is called Tall Poppy syndrome: if someone gets too above the crowd, they are cut down.

At January 28, 2005 10:06 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Babette's feast! Excellent movie, I had forgotten about it-- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide 2000 helped me remember. Yes, its set in a small Danish town in Jutland, and is about two beautiful sisters who gave up fame and fortune in the big city to live a strict, sheltered religious life in this small town. Then they take in Babette as a housekeeper. Based on a story that originally appeared in Ladies Home Journal.
Reminds me of something I heard once that was said to be a Jewish saying-- God will punish you for all the gifts he put for you that you did not enjoy.

At January 28, 2005 4:45 PM , Blogger fresca said...

Ladies Home Journal? Huh, I didn't know that. Well, that must have been where Isak Dinesen got the idea for her version--I suspect she put a more metaphysical spin on it.


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