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How I tackled Sweden's Law of Jante

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How I tackled Sweden's Law of Jante
Swedes are all equal - even if they're not. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
08:47 CEST+02:00
US native Steven Karwoski is a committed underachiever. He explains the challenges of "upping his game" to meet Sweden's celebration of achieving the average.

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.

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