• Sweden's news in English
 

How I tackled Sweden's Law of Jante

Published: 17 Jun 2014 08:47 GMT+02:00

Swedish culture celebrates the achievement of the average and looks negatively at attempts to exceed it. So when I moved to Sweden, I realized, as a committed underachiever, I needed to bring up my game - but only slightly.

Equality remains a cornerstone of Swedish culture.  This ‘we’re all the same’ mentality comes from the Scandinavian concept of Jantelagen or The Law of Jante, the cultural compass that celebrates 'everyman', discourages individual success and sets average as the goal.  It manifests itself in the culture not only with the ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a  ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

I found this overwhelming and struggled to keep up. Having all my previous attempts to succeed consistently land just under par, I enjoyed the underachiever status I had nurtured for years. Yet with a little effort I managed to reach the Sweden’s medium-set bar. And I basked in the glory of a world where I no longer explain my never-ending story of life failures. However, I became disturbed when, sadly, I discovered that I possessed a skill slightly-above-average: I can tell a story.

I realized this and the dark side to Jantelagen society when attending my apartment complex’s summer rooftop BBQ. Sitting with six of my Swedish neighbours, one who claimed her occupation was an improv artist.

Scary yes, yet it could be worse, I told myself. She could be a mime.

As Swedes can be socially inhibited, I took the lead launching into a story to break the proverbial ice. 

As the group became engaged I felt the rush of a good tale unfolding. I continued to build it naturally, revealing it slowly, hitting punch lines and taking a tangent or two, setting up my callbacks and drawing in the audience.

It was going well, really well, until the improv artist (whom my wife and I referred to as Fargo because she wore a fur winter hat like Frances McDormand’s character in Fargo and was a major freak) interrupted, bringing the story’s flow to a halt.  

Touching me on the shoulder she informed me, “Now Steven, you’ve been talking for quite some time here. It is time to let someone else speak.” She then rubbed her hands together creepily as if summoning the Genie of the Jantelagen Lamp and stated, “Ok let’s improv!  Imagine we’re on a talk show and I am the host, now I will hand the microphone to someone else.” She then handed an imaginary microphone to my tablemate.

I sat in shock, traumatized not just by the ruination of a good story but at having an improv session forced upon us. At least she didn’t ask the group to suggest an occupation.  However, I tried to think of one which justified throwing the host of a TV talk show host off a roof, just in case.

The new speaker awkwardly started, staring at me like a child stares at their dad as the authorities drag him away. The fun sucked from the air by a control freak uncomfortable with someone else’s skills and abilities. This is the Jante mentality in all its glory. We are all equal even though we are not. It’s better to have six people get equal time and tell pedestrian stories than have one person hog the mic and rock it right.  We’re all equal even if we are not, and, most importantly, you can’t be better than me even if you are.

I seethed a few moments then found an excuse to excuse myself and discovered the liquor was now set out. Helping myself to a single malt whiskey I sighed out loud, “Where were you when I needed you?” Fargo suddenly appeared expressing concern that our tablemates felt that she had insulted me a bit. As the spirits numbed my lips I laughed and poured another.

I realized that she might look like Frances McDormand in Fargo but acted more like Saga from the Scandinavian noir drama The Bridge. As she was so obviously clueless to social interactions that someone needed to explain what transpired.

I returned to my seat, stuffed my hands under my thighs and held back the one skill I possessed. Only taking my hands from under my thighs to sip the spirit that helped numbed my spirit and fall in with the flock. In every flock in Sweden there is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or an improv artist in a fur winter hat pretending to channel Scandinavian fairness and equality, yet really needing to control the herd and most importantly slaughter any exhibiting skills greater than their own.

With my creative throat cut and my moment culled I felt the familiar warm embrace my underachieving lifestyle. Silenced, I blended into the wall.

The argument for Jantelagen is that it assures no one feels inferior, living a lifetime of feeling inferior I understood this reasoning.

I raised my glass to Jantelagen and let the whiskey numb me.

Steven Karwoski lives in Malmö with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter or read his blog.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Swedish Astrid Lindgren prize for African group
Books used by the winning PRAESA group. Photo: TT

Swedish Astrid Lindgren prize for African group

An association that promotes reading among children has become the first African group to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's largest prize for children's and young people's literature. READ  

Opinion
Swedish firms must learn from Saudi business row
A Swedish workplace. Photo: Suzanne Walström/Image Bank Sweden

Swedish firms must learn from Saudi business row

Swedish companies worried about the nation's business links with the Arab world should instead be focussing on their own responsibility to promote and demonstrate ethical behaviour, argues business rights advisor Ruben Brunsveld. READ  

Canadian star sought for Sweden hockey attack
André Deveaux (left), Jens Hellgren and Mike Vernace celebrate a 0-2 win over Västerås on Sunday. Photo: Andreas Hillergren/TT

Canadian star sought for Sweden hockey attack

A Swedish prosecutor has ordered the arrest of Canadian ice hockey player André Deveaux after he was caught on video violently slashing an opponent in a pre-game warm-up for his club side in Ängelholm. READ  

US spy agency to feature in Stieg Larsson sequel
The actors playing Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish movies based on the books. Photo. TT

US spy agency to feature in Stieg Larsson sequel

The sequel to Swedish author Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millenium crime trilogy, due for release in August, kicks off with an artificial intelligence intrigue involving a US spy agency, the book's publishers have revealed. READ  

Swedes rescue Syrian refugee's cat in Sicily
Mela the cat arrived in Sweden on Saturday. Photo: Minna Lind

Swedes rescue Syrian refugee's cat in Sicily

A Syrian refugee will be granted her wish this Easter after staff at a Swedish animal shelter rescued her long lost cat from quarantine in Sicily. READ  

Profit concerns push Swedish schools abroad
Pupils at the English School in Täby, one of several hugely popular schools run by Internationella Engelska Skolan. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Profit concerns push Swedish schools abroad

Sweden’s publicly funded free school model has attracted huge interest in the UK and elsewhere, but with profits in the schools sector under scrutiny from regulators the biggest firms are now expanding overseas. READ  

Sweden unemployment stable as EU reports dip
Immigrants, scour a newspaper's job pages.Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

Sweden unemployment stable as EU reports dip

The EU has recorded the lowest jobless rate across the 28 nation bloc since 2012, with unemployment in Sweden remaining largely stable over the last three months. READ  

Jay Z rebrands Nordic streaming service
Jay Z launching the service. Photo: Brad Barket/TT

Jay Z rebrands Nordic streaming service

Rap mogul Jay Z launched a rebranded music streaming service on Monday with major star backing, after buying the Scandinavian sites Tidal and Wimp and their parent company Aspiro earlier this month. READ  

Beaver bites bus passenger in Sweden
Not the beaver in question. Photo: Daniel Rose/Shutterstock

Beaver bites bus passenger in Sweden

A man who was bitten by a beaver at a bus stop in Tyresö, south of Stockholm, has been describing the snappy attack. READ  

UN has 'great interest in Sweden' says PM
Sweden's PM Stefan Löfven. Photo: TT

UN has 'great interest in Sweden' says PM

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has told reporters in New York that the United Nations appears highly interested in his country, as he lobbies to get the Nordic nation a seat on the UN Security Council. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
Property of the week: Åreda
Sponsored Article
Why Stockholm is the 'Boston of Europe'
Was Swedish TV host too harsh on nationalist leader Åkesson?
National
Travelling over Easter? Don't miss our guide to rail disruption
Sponsored Article
'Sweden must embrace openness and diversity'
Blog updates

27 March

Celebrating Three Great English Exports In 2015 (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"Deputy Head of Mission Aidan Liddle joins us for another guest blog today. In 2015, England..." READ »

 

27 March

Editor’s blog, March 27th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, Europe remains in shock following the Germanwings plane crash in the Alps that killed 150..." READ »

 
 
 
Scandinavian airlines change cockpit rules after Greenwings crash
National
Sweden remembers Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer
Politics
Why petrol prices are going up
Gallery
People-watching: March 28th
What's on in Sweden: March 26th - April 2nd
Stieg Larsson's partner blasts Millennium trilogy sequel
Society
How to never miss your favourite weekly features on The Local
Gallery
People-watching: March 25th
National
Which words are changing in Sweden's latest dictionary?
National
Is this house 'un-Swedish'?
National
Sweden pays tribute to victims of Germanwings Alps crash
National
Neo-Nazi activity rising in Sweden
National
How to make Swedish Waffles
Gallery
Property of the week: Torslanda - Hjuvik
National
Stray dog Arthur moves in with Swedish owners
Sponsored Article
Ten tips for succeeding as a start-up in Sweden
National
Sweden triples maximum limit at asylum centres
Gallery
People-watching: March 21st
National
Why elderly Swedes are among the world's happiest people
National
TIMELINE: Gothenburg shootings
National
Can Sweden's feminist party score success in neighbouring Norway?
National
Why Brits can't get enough of Sweden
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's solar eclipse
National
What's on in Sweden this week
Royal wedding countdown begins
National
Viking ring reveals Islamic ties
National
TIMELINE: Julian Assange sex allegations in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: March 18th
National
One in three Russian diplomats are spies, says Sweden's Security Service
National
Hitchcock opera set to hit Gothenburg stage
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Northern Lights on show across Sweden
Technology
Why Swedish pop star Robyn is pushing for more girls in tech
Gallery
Property of the week: Umeå
National
Introducing Sweden's Eurovision 2015 entry Måns Zelmerlöw
Gallery
People-watching: March 13th - 15th
National
Why have Swedish prosecutors made a U-turn in Julian Assange case?
Sponsored Article
How Sweden and India can work together
Politics
Who's the new young leader of the Christian Democrats?
Travel
Why are Swedes so obsessed with Mallorca?
Gallery
Princess Estelle celebrates her mother's name day in Stockholm
National
What's on in Sweden this week
National
Obama's anti-Semitism team heads to Stockholm and Malmö
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

3,428
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se