Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jante's Curse

WARNING! Cultural generalizations ahead!

Traditionally, all Scandinavian cultures have been governed by a sense of mediocracy, or a strive to fit in and not stand out. This is best described and known as "The Jante Law". The Law has 10 rules:

1. Don't think you're anything special
2. Don't think you're as much as us
3. Don't think you're wiser than us
4. Don't convince yourself that you're better than us
5. Don't think you know more than us
6. Don't think you are more than us
7. Don't think you are good at anything
8. Don't laugh at us
9. Don't think anyone cares about you
10. Don't think you can teach us anything

These laws are a part of our cultural heritage and have molded Scandinavians into very modest people, where the collective has been preferred over the individual. We are taught to reinforce this trait throughout our lives, in kindergarten, at school, in our professional lives and as seniors. Throughout life, you never need to worry about being left behind, however, it comes at the expense of never having the room to excel.

Don't get me wrong, I'm damn proud of being Swedish. I'm also damn proud of being myself. In the same way as I've come to realize my own strengths and weaknesses, I will not pretend that Swedes are the perfect people. I used to believe that Swedes were humble and modest people, but the recent years have made me revise some of my initial ideas.

Coming from a country governed by Jante, being brought up in the Chinese sentiment of "if you work really, really hard, you can be the greatest at what you set your mind to" and now living in a culture where everybody is the best at whatever, has made me think. Having just returned from Sweden and Taiwan it has all became quite clear.

Let me give you an example. During the trip to Sweden and Taiwan I got asked one particular question on more than one occasion: "What are you doing in the US?" My answer: "My husband got a job at Google so we moved to Silicon Valley and now I'm a homemaker/housewife." The most common response to my answer:

US: That sounds great! You're so lucky! Do you like it here?
Taiwan: Your husband must have worked very hard and be very clever.
Sweden: Oh, you're not working? It must be hard. What do you do with all your time? I would go crazy if I didn't work!

Also, during the past few years, I've noticed more and more "friendly competitions". It could be about who's kid started to walk the youngest, who's last vacation was the greatest or who's conference was the most boring or who's had the most problems etc. Every time I encounter a "friendly competition" I'm reminded of Monty Python's sketch: "Four Yorkshiremen".

I know this phenomenon is not limited to Swedes, but how does this rhyme with "The Jante Law"? Either "The Jante Law" is only a myth or it's actually a curse. Maybe it has turned Scandinavians into spiteful and jealous people who can only feel good as long as others don't feel better. So, the next time I hear a "friendly competition" it might be a sign that Scandinavians have changed and feel free to be more boastful or it's a reminder of "The Jante Law". It's not important if you're happy or if you're proud, as long as you understand that you're not happier or prouder than the people around you.

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