Their ‘Law of Jante’ doctrine prizes equality…sometimes at the risk of mediocrity
Imagine Mark Zuckerberg bringing a bag lunch to work every day, or taking out the trash at the Facebook offices. In Denmark, it’s not uncommon for CEOs to do just that sort of thing. There, it’s practically expected for even the most prominent members of society to sacrifice themselves on the altar of humility.
It’s a mindset that many Danes find oppressive and stunting, but it’s also the same philosophy that helped create a socially aware, egalitarian society that repeatedly tops the list of the world’s happiest countries.
The term for this particularly Danish practice is the Law of Jante (or Janteloven), pronounced “yahn-teh,” a social custom that has unofficially characterized Denmark for centuries, but which was put down in black and white in 1933. Most of Danish author Askel Sandemose’s writings have sunk into obscurity. But one portion of his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, caused a sensation. Not only does Sandemose satirize his hometown of Nykøbing under a fictitious name, Jante, he renames all the residents and then skewers their way of life. In A Fugitive, Jante’s residents are simpletons aroused by local gossip and intent on maintaining the status quo, shaming anyone who seeks to elevate his social station. No one is better than us, the group, they proclaim. Their law states:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
To much of Western society, these rules might seem careless at best, if not downright cold-blooded. American children are taught the opposite: They are inherently special, with unlimited potential. All anyone needs is a dream and hard work to become the best at anything he or she desires. But to the fictional residents of Jante and, Sandemose argues by extension, Danes as a whole, raising an individual above the group is actually the cruel act. It devalues everyone else around that person. “[T]he envy part is not the important part. The important part is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal,” said anthropologist Anne Knudsen in 2014.
In reality, Danes don’t live by a strict set of commandments, but Sandemose articulated a pattern already prevalent in Danish culture. By aspiring to be average, and no more, they will likelier meet expectations and reap the satisfaction of attaining their goals, Copenhagen-based therapist Lindsay Dupuis told Quartz. They will be, simply, content.
The Jantelov roots trace back to the country’s poorer history, with a large peasant population, leading up to the agrarian reforms of the late 18th century. Society was egalitarian and survival was based on a collective effort. According to Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandanavian Utopia (2014), this evolved to the point that even when an individual became wealthy or improved his station, he was ostracized. In 1849, Janteloven became more or less official when the country was established as a democracy. The practice contributed to Scandinavia’s famous insistence on equality, including today’s social welfare system. And at the time of Sandemose’s novel, it dovetailed nicely with a broader fascination with socialism.
For the author, however, Janteloven was oppressive. His fiction implied that Danes’ nonresistance was taken to such an extreme that it created a culture of stifling conformity where any hint of human ambition was quickly squashed.
Janteloven still permeates Danish culture, according to both experts and everyday citizens. When Booth toured Nykøbing, the real-life Jante, he discovered that many of the shops were named without the slightest garnish — the hairdresser was simply “Hair,” and the bookshop was Bog Handler, or “Book Dealer.” He writes, “Jante Law operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.” Especially on the west coast, “anyone who even slightly broke with convention, or showed that they had any ambition, was frowned upon,” said a woman he interviewed. Some call it the “chip on the Danish shoulder.” Even wealthy businessman Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller (of Mærsk shipping enterprises) donated much of his fortune, climbed stairs instead of taking elevators, and worked hard into his nineties. Thus, Booth says, he was able to “avoid much of a Jante Law backlash.” Other ostentatious spenders and celebrities are not so lucky, especially if they relish the red carpet and fail to emphasize their working-class upbringing. Athletes who self-promote rather than emphasize teamwork are particular targets of disdain and critical press. “All newspapers, wherever they are in the world, relish a good downfall, but the Danes do seem to love them just that little bit more,” writes Booth. It brings that peacock back to earth, where the rest of us reside. Contentment restored.
In bigger cities, the Law of Jante wields less authority. There, upward mobility and personal pride is synonymous with modernity. Some Danes insist that Janteloven has died out completely. However, it creeps through in subtle mannerisms. Washington, D.C.-based columnist Annegrethe Rasmussen wrote about visiting her hometown of Copenhagen, where a friend asked how her son was doing in school. “He’s doing really well, he is number one in his class,” Rasmussen responded. The whole table went silent. “If I had said he was great at role-playing or drawing it would have been fine, but it was totally wrong to boast about academic achievement.”
No matter their denial, Danes can’t argue that Janteloven was crucial in building a national identity that, on paper, seems to function well. Social and income equality, health, work-life balance and efficient governance are factors that help Denmark nab the title of happiest country in the world. On the other hand, there aren’t the same incentives to achieve “success” as other Western nations. Besides a taboo on pride, Danish professionals earn less money. Executive top salaries are 75 percent of the European average; a 2016 ECA International comparison ranked the U.S. second in terms of middle manager net salary, whereas Denmark ranked fifteenth, behind Chile and Canada. “In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding; we create hopelessness, helplessness, and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity,” wrote newspaper commentator Niels Lillelund.
So, maybe the Danish CEO’s sack lunch is an expression of charming unpretentiousness, or maybe it’s just a boring sandwich, an average apple, and another sad meal in the happiest place on earth.