Law of Jante, a Scandinavian Code of Conduct

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Law of Jante, A Countryside Beast on the Brink of Extinction?

I first heard about Law of Jante while in Scotland’s Western Isles, when a friend there who knew I would be going to Scandinavia introduced me to the term.

She defined it as a sort of humility on steroids and declared that the mentality had been handed down to the Scots from the Norse who settled in Scotland centuries ago. But Jantes Law - or Jante Loven - as it is locally known originates from Norway.

Doing my homework before my trip to Scandinavia, I learned that Jante’s Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.” Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante, which he modeled on his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Jante was typical of all small towns and communities, in that nobody is anonymous.

The mindset portrayed in the book evolved into a colloquial term for the accepted code of behavior, known as Law of Jante. Adopted in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries, the term came to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success.

Later, during my travels in Scandinavia, I asked a few locals I met to give me their definition of Jante’s Law. I also asked these folks whether they thought in today’s global cross-pollination the concept was gaining or losing currency. Here’s what the Scandinavian people had to say!

What is Law of Jante?

As defined by Sandemose Law of Jante includes ten specific rules:

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.

Six Scandinavians Reflect on Relevance of Law of Jante Today

In my bid to further understand the Jante Law concept, I spoke with locals about what they thought about Jantes Law. Here are six of their opinions:

Big Accomplishments But Nothing Special

                           Renee Zeeberg of Hjørring, Denmark

Jantes Law Jante's Law Janteloven

I love Denmark. I especially love the northern part of Denmark where I am from. The light, the people and the culture. But If there were one thing that would make me move to another place it would be Janteloven (Jante’s Law). I know Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country in the world however I often envy the mentality of Americans. I am not an expert in American attitudes, however from this part of the world it seems that U.S. citizens encourage the pursuit of happiness and success. The Law of Jante does the total opposite!

The ten principles or commandments of Jantes Law are often claimed to form the “Jantes Shield” of the Scandinavian people. Humility is therefore a side effect of the law, however not in a positive way. If there were to be a positive side effect to this law it could be that it makes us quite honest and considerate people–simply because of the fear of standing out from the crowd and risking being ridiculed.

The Buried Church, Skagen, Denmark
The Buried Church, Skagen, Denmark

Janteloven often means that you are not allowed to be proud of extraordinary accomplishments. Just recently I was awarded Young Leader in North Denmark 2014 by Junior Chamber International. That was a big accomplishment and I have been working very hard achieving this goal. But because of Janteloven you have to undersell and almost make an excuse of yourself. Of course many people also congratulated me however there is always that underlying message that you are not good enough and you are definitely not to think that you are something special.

Scandinavian Social Structure Through Law of Jante

Jantes Law Jante's Law JantelovenJenny Ohlström, of Stockholm, Sweden

I believe Sweden has become a more open minded country in the recent decades. At least we want to see ourselves as this, and sure, much has happened during the last 50 years.

We nowadays know English very well from school and can interact with other cultures. And we travel a lot. On average every Swede makes 2.5 international trips per year! Nevertheless, I believe Jante still lives in the corners of all types of Swedish societies. High to low, Jante is there.

I have had the privilege to travel internationally since I was little and have got to know by heart many other cultures. Every nationality or social structure has it’s own spirit, soul and social behavior. I have also since childhood listened to and learned from my grandparents and their generation from the deep old south of Sweden.

My mother is as blond as you can get and my father was dark-haired. I am dark-haired and a Swede, which is a combination that was not common in my generation as I was growing up. I believe I’ve had an advantage because of this as I can blend in almost anywhere. Meanwhile, I have always had a life that is not a ordinary ‘Svensson life’ but I have many times met Jante back home.

My mother is as blond as you can get and my father was dark-haired. I am dark-haired and a Swede, which is a combination that was not common in my generation as I was growing up. I believe I’ve had an advantage because of this as I can blend in almost anywhere. Meanwhile, I have always had a life that is not a ordinary ‘Svensson life’ but I have many times met Jante back home.

Luther and Low Profile

I see Law of Jante as a complex matter that is difficult to avoid because it is part of a social ground structure. And this social behaviour gets forwarded to the next generation mostly without any further notice. I have tried to understand this matter and I have made my own conclusion:

As a Swede you respect someone who accept and respects you. When you bring it down to why you respect someone, I believe we still are very influenced by old Luther: Be good and do good. On the final day we will anyway all be judged equal. No need to take extra turns and put your head in the clouds. You may anyway fall down with the next storm and who was smarter then, hm? Better to be on the same level, using flat organisations etc.

Stockholm's Gamla Stan, or
Stockholm's Gamla Stan, or "old town"

Maybe because over 1 million Swedes migrated to America in the late 1800, the ones who were left behind became a bit grumpy–struggling hard as mostly farmers in the thin soil–and they therefore used the Jante law as a justification for their lives?

Or maybe a natural selection took place at that time. It was all the adventurous and open-minded people of Sweden who took a chance and left for America. And the rest, the more low-profile people who stayed may have been more easily “adoptable for Jante- thinking” stayed?

Read More: Interested in another Scandinavian cultural concept? Learn about hygge!

IKEA vs Bling

Jantes Law Jante's Law Janteloven

Asa Jane Bell of Gothenberg, Sweden

The idea behind Jäntelagen is ‘don’t think that you are any more than anybody else.’ For example, in Sweden, some rich people will simply downplay having money, as to appear as just ordinary people. Case in point–Ingvar Kamprad, the owner of IKEA, and one of the most wealthy people in the world. He walks around in his rubber boots, drives an old Volvo and lives a very ordinary life, for the most part.

Someone who is trying to show off usually gets met with a cold shoulder and may have a hard time getting respect and appreciation. Seeing that we are also very influenced by American things, the influence of Jante’s Law is starting to change a little in at least the younger generation. So now bling, bragging and other things are becoming a little more common.

Hamnkanalen Canal in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Hamnkanalen Canal in Gothenburg, Sweden.

As a country, Sweden has a long-standing history of socialism as it’s core value, and Jantelagen certainly spurs out of those beliefs. With socialism all people have equal power, and everybody should get to decide everything. But it’s important to remember that socialism works great as a theory, but in practice it can’t work all the way–as no “ism” can function in it’s purest form. It can’t work that all people get to decide everything, someone has to decide in the end. 

Lagom and Bergman

Jantes Law Jante's Law Janteloven

Brian Bell of Gothenberg, Sweden

First, Law of Jante may well have been coined by Aksel Sandemose in his book in 1933, but not his idea per se. It was already a prevalent feeling among Scandinavian people. It was nothing new, just newly written about! There are other closely related ideas in words like lagom [Ed. Note: a Swedish word meaning “just the right amount”], but his version is more radical and more direct.

My contemporary take on Jante’s Law is that while somewhat subdued, and further battered by the “next generations,” it is a true phenomenon in Scandinavian society. It is essentially the opposite form of “bling bling.” Nobody wants to bring specific attention to themselves.

I live not far from a small coastal town that Ingrid Bergman called home. She felt bad for the townspeople when her being there would cause a stir among the press and fans, who would come there to “see” her or the place. This feeling bad was in part because while yes, she was a star, she also was simply a star because of her job, not her “life” in a sense. People, even stars, live more simply here and it is in part because of this specific way of how the collective consciousness works here.

In addition, there is something that many people note about Sweden. It is that individual homes, cars, “stuff”… is common. In other words, everybody has a white painted kitchen. You are a real rebel if you have accent colors or some other radical alternative! I visited here in 2003-2004 and could ask for cream in my coffee, and get it. In 2014, the conventional wisdom has changed and now you may be able to get milk, but not likely cream because that fell out of favor and that is to me, part of this Law of Jante thing. This actually works in an odd way that also has some “world” bearing.

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Most people have either heard or believe that Swedish women are on average somehow more attractive than “other” women. It is probable that there are certain genetic features that Scandinavian women aren’t going to complain about, and there is a tendency for Swedes to enjoy outdoor activities and be more in shape relative to many places, and the diet is healthier.

Coffee Creamer, Yoga Pants and Law of Jante

There is something that I have been mulling over for a while which is this idea of collective consciousness and Jante’s law extends to both positive and negative things. So while I cannot find coffee creamer, I certainly can see all the women I want running around in yoga pants (or running tights as I think of them). But, it would be rare for a single woman to wear yoga pants as a statement. It is an all or nothing thing.

Dawn by David Jones
Dawn by David Jones

Therefore, basically most all women here wear yoga pants (and many men actually). So while it is certainly a sight to see when a tall, shapely, blue eyed blonde is shopping for dinner in something that's showing off every curve, it isn’t unusual to see it. That, I think, is part of the reason why when people travel here, they find the population to be remarkable looking. (Of course this extends to all areas of fashion, etc. )

Because of this seeming juxtaposition, between being very present and alluring, and this idea of remaining under the radar, socially speaking, it is only unusual when viewed from the outside looking in. A retirement aged woman wearing a short dress is only cause for stir outside of Scandinavian society. Within Scandinavian society it became part of the collective conscious somewhere along the line and thus isn’t going to raise any eyebrows and remain within lagom or Law of Jante if you will. This extends across all of the various pieces of society, again both positive and negative. Until someone starts a revolution here and all customer service people across Scandinavia become faster and the lines move smoother, we will all just quietly, and somewhat patiently, wait our turns while someone holds up the line arguing over the dates on a coupon.

Equality and Oil

Ingjerd Jevnaker of Oslo, NorwayNorwegian people Jantes Law Norwegian Values

The Law of Jante I think was more accurate in earlier days – I think now we have a much more individualist culture. However, I think in some cases it is valid, and probably more so in Norway than Denmark or Sweden perhaps.

For instance Norwegian people do not have any celebrities that can do whatever they like and say whatever they want. People get a lot of criticism if they go out in the media appearing big-headed and too bold. Berlusconi or Sarkozy could never have been state leaders in this country. Norwegian people want everyone to be equal and even the royal family has to be very down to earth in their public appearance. So in a way – it is a good law, because it prevents people from thinking they are so much better than everyone else.

Oslo City Hall
Oslo City Hall

The reason why I reckon Jante's Law is more valid in Norway than the other countries is that Norway has never really had any nobility or very rich individuals, but since the oil discovery in the 70s, we have had a very rich state.

But I do think we are a less egalitarian society now than we used to be.

Countryside Beast

Norwegian people Jantes Law Norwegian ValuesTollak Hjelmerviker of Bergen, Norway

There is a widespread perception in Norway and perhaps across the Nordic countries that we have an egalitarian society with a small upper class. This societal structure has helped to produce a “likeness culture” where the norms act as a pressure against the individual not to stand out, especially in an outstanding manner that can put us–the majority–in the shade.

In addition to Sandemose’s term Janteloven (Jante is another name for a small town in Denmark), Norwegian people have a word, bygdedyret, which translates roughly as “countryside beast.” Bygd means a village, and dyr means animal or beast. The “Countryside Beast” is watching you all the time if you’re doing something that the rest of us do not like.

Illustration “Nordic Beast with Fifty Eyes or More” courtesy of Colin Bowker
Illustration “Nordic Beast with Fifty Eyes or More” courtesy of Colin Bowker

It is especially true that in rural areas and small towns this phenomenon is strongest, just because everyone knows everyone. By traveling or fleeing into the cities, you can escape this animal to a greater extent because the social control is weaker in larger, urban society.

Being Good vs Best

In the past, let’s say 50 years, with the liberation of women, youth rebellion, media-evolution, monetary society, urbanization, internationalization, these unilateral equality norms largely had to be let go. In the 80s, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland said that it is “typically Norwegian to be good.” Later, it has been said that Norwegian people (as a nation and otherwise) want to be the best in everything.

We had the best Olympic Games in Lillehammer and we are the richest and best society with the Norwegian welfare model. And in the 90′s we beat Brazil in soccer. We have the song competition “Idol” and all sorts of competitions and prizes to cheer the best and the parents cheer their own on the football field etc. Norwegian people have found the culture of winning, and seen that we as a community need champions. And we have the PISA surveys [Ed Note: a worldwide study of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance in different countries.] And we have had to accept that the gap between rich and poor has increased substantially in Norway.

Norwegian people Jantes Law Norwegian Values
Bryggen, the old wharf of Bergen, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a reminder of the town’s importance as part of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th century.

At this point I have the impression that many people are opposed to the differences being so great, and there are certain objections against the PISA-hysteria and a belief that schools also have other values to protect. In 2011 there was a scientific study that showed that Norwegian people adhere to the standards prevailing in the society more than other countries. This also has great benefits–-having trust in each other makes society work easier.

I think the Law of Jante and “the countryside beast” are not very strong today, at least not in our larger cities. It may be present in terms of fashion and social media perhaps, but most people feel more free than before to follow their own desires.

More on Scandinavia

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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2 thoughts on “Law of Jante, a Scandinavian Code of Conduct”

  1. Being from a place that isn’t Egalitarian, I’d say the concept of Jante isn’t the worst. Yes it is not infallible. The pressures that Jante laws suppress have caused the likes of depression in states that don’t adhere to such. It can be saddening to see lengths people will go just to be above others. We see it everyday and it’s like a stab on the eye.

    • Agreed Collins Munyai. The norms different cultures have is always fascinating. There is always something to be learned about how societies around the world develop approaches to inter-relating!


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