• Sweden's news in English

How I tackled Sweden's Law of Jante

The Local · 17 Jun 2014, 08:47

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.

Story continues below…

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
Bacon back in Swedish hotels after huge uproar
Bacon is back on the menu of Comfort hotels in Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Hayward/AP/TT

Bacon back in Swedish hotels after huge uproar

3 hours ago

Petter Stordalen, the owner of the Nordic Choice Hotel Group, has performed a swift U-turn by re-introducing bacon at the chain's Swedish hotels, just a week after banning processed meat.

Refugee crisis
Sweden tightens rules to curb refugee numbers
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Sweden tightens rules to curb refugee numbers

4 hours ago

UPDATED: Sweden has introduced a series of measures designed to stem the flow of asylum seekers into the country, after Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted the current high number is unsustainable.

Presented by Stockholm Business Region
How Stockholm solved a startup’s housing crisis
Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

How Stockholm solved a startup’s housing crisis

7 hours ago

The Stockholm startup scene has become more international than ever, recruiting the best of global talent to join the city's booming tech cluster. But if foreigners can't find housing, startups worry, it's all for naught. Now the City of Stockholm has stepped in.

Eurovision 2016
How to get tickets for Eurovision in Stockholm
Sweden's Eurovision 2015 star Måns Zelmerlöw. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

How to get tickets for Eurovision in Stockholm

8 hours ago

Tickets for the hyped Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Stockholm in May next year, are set to go on sale on Thursday. Find out how to grab a spot at the world's biggest music festival.

Refugee crisis
Bid to house refugees on Swedish cruise ships
Refugees could soon be accommodated on cruise ships like the one above. Photo: AP/TT

Bid to house refugees on Swedish cruise ships

8 hours ago

Refugees could be housed on Swedish cruise ships in a bid to ease the urgent asylum accommodation shortage as winter sets in, migration authorities have said.

Winter in Sweden presented by Kungsberget
Stockholm's secret ski resort: Kungsberget
Catch air at the Kungsberget snowpark. File photo: Kungsberget

Stockholm's secret ski resort: Kungsberget

12 hours ago

Not everyone enjoys 8-hour car trips or expensive train tickets just to hit the slopes. That's why so many Stockholmers opt for Kungsberget – the majestic mountain just two hours away. The Local finds out more.

Swedish Christmas gift sweeps up competition
A robotic vacuum cleaner. Photo: Thommy Tengborg/TT

Swedish Christmas gift sweeps up competition

12 hours ago

Sweden's cleanest Christmas gift of 2015 sucks. No, it really does. A Swedish retail research group predicts the most popular present underneath the tree this year will be a robotic vacuum cleaner.

Innocent 'terrorist' won't blame Swedish police
Boliden in northern Sweden. Photo: Cliff Karlsson/TT

Innocent 'terrorist' won't blame Swedish police

13 hours ago

A 22-year-old innocent man who was wrongly accused of planning a terror attack in Sweden has returned to the small northern town of Boliden – and insists he bears no grudge against Swedish authorities.

Champions League
Fans torn over Zlatan's return to Malmö
Zlatan Ibrahimovic at a previous match between PSG and Malmö FF. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Fans torn over Zlatan's return to Malmö

14 hours ago

As Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to his home town on Wednesday to represent Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League clash with Malmö FF, some fans are torn over who to support.

'Swedish politicians must admit they were wrong'
Sweden raised its terror threat level to 'high' last week. Photo: Yvonne Åsell/SvD/TT

'Swedish politicians must admit they were wrong'

15 hours ago

Terrorism and Sweden's border controls have hit the headlines in recent weeks. But it is time to start talking about how to help the country grow after the crisis is over, argues entrepreneur Tommy Jacobsson.

GUIDE: How to help refugees if you live in Sweden
IN PICTURES: New royal winter snaps of Sweden's Princess Estelle
Sponsored Article
Top five UK weekend getaways from Sweden
Mystery ice circle in Swedish river
Sponsored Article
Beaches, bikes, and buds: studying in Malmö
Blog updates

20 November

Editor’s blog, November 20th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, It has been a long and busy week for The Local as we reported on..." READ »


21 November

 (Joel Sherwood) »

"Sweden on high alert over threat of Republican candidates. The country raised its terror level to ‘high’..." READ »

Sponsored Article
Sweden must combat extremist 'mirage'
Property of the week: Kungsholmen, Stockholm
Stockholm film festival's top movies
Sponsored Article
How to figure out healthcare abroad
People-watching: November 20th-22nd
Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: the new epicentre of global leadership
Swedish King calls for bathtub ban
Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se
Sponsored Article
‘Food choices in Sweden destroy forests in Asia’
Analysis & Opinion
Why you should care about Sweden raising its terror threat level
Sponsored Article
The cheapest and fastest way to transfer money
Stockholm's best international bars
Is this the best warning sign ever?
Why are more Swedes getting fat?
Sweden's tribute to Paris victims
What is Sweden's sexiest name?
VIDEO: Madonna's emotional tribute to Paris victims at Stockholm gig
Nine of the merriest Swedish Christmas fairs
Sweden cashes in on new kronor banknotes
How lonely are you in Sweden?
Roaming bear shot dead in Swedish village in Uppsala county
Seven tips for scoring firm friendships in Sweden
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: