Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cultural Commentary: Growing up in the Shadow of the Jante Law

I am a Danish national.

I was born in Denmark, and I lived there (on and off) till I came to the US in late 1980, to go to college. Whereas my formative years were spent in many different locales in different countries, my family background is very definitely Danish, and it seems that my strongest social and cultural influences are Danish-- especially if we take the assertions that we "learn" most of our core values before age 14 seriously.

My first experiences with the US (notwithstanding previous short visits to New York, Boston and Virginia) were in the great state of Texas. To say that Denmark and Texas are cultural polar opposites would be an understatement... that's simply a fact, not a judgment. I have since lived in other parts of the US-- Arizona, Oregon, and now Washington-- and have a greater appreciation for the regional variation in core values within the US. That said, I do think all nations have "socio-cultural identities," and if you were raised with those identities they will likely shape some part of your value system and choices for the rest of your life.

I have never thought of myself as "particularly Danish." At the same time, even though I have lived in the US for almost 30 years, I don't think of myself as "particularly American." I guess I think of myself more as a "citizen of the world," than anything. As such, I feel neither particularly insulted or hurt when a US citizen points out to me (for whatever reason) that I seem "very foreign" or "very UN-American." Similarly, I also want to make clear that I don't regard such feedback as "negative" comments, merely "factual" ones.

However, whenever such a comment does come up, I am always curious. To some degree, I am curious about "what" seemed foreign... but mostly I'm curious to track whatever "it" was back to its cultural roots.

Yesterday and today I have been taking somewhat "light days," as I am trying not to completely give into some flu/virus that has been poking at my body for the past 5-6 days. Mostly I've managed to keep it at bay... however, the downtime has given me a little time to contemplate. This afternoon, I was thinking about the movie "Avatar" and how my sense of "rightness" about the Universe was bolstered and given hope by the subplot ("nature defeats machinery" rather than "man conquers nature") of the movie. This made me drill deeper into my general feelings of "disregard" for people who believe they are "something" because they have money, power, equipment or whatever.

Then I thought about the places, over the years, where I'd been "called on" my foreign-ness, while trying to fit into US culture. A series of words/concepts started to line up (non-competitive, non-combative, egalitarian, soft, invisible, unmotivated, unassuming, self-effacing, passive, cold, dispassionate) and suddenly a penny dropped.

The sound of said coin hitting the floor made me go do a little research on an old piece of Danish (and Scandinavian) socio-cultural heritage; something I never really considered to be much more than a piece of "cultural mythology:" The Jante Law.

I won't go into great details about what it is. It has its basis in a 1930s literary work that somehow became deeply infused into the subtext of the Scandinavian value system. The odd thing about it is that even though its influence is often dismissed and disregarded by cultural anthropologists and the populace at large, it nonetheless casts a very long "shadow" across the Danish social and cultural landscape. As Danes, we may not like it, and we may laugh at it, and ridicule it, and we may claim it doesn't affect us... but in very subtle ways, it has a significant impact on the way we form our values and how we "present ourselves" in the world.

The core principle of the "law" goes something like this: "Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us."

In the original book, the "law" was laid out as a sort of "Ten Commandments" by which people were supposed to live. HOW it got from being "a book" to being a central part (however subtle) of several national identities, I do not know. I'm sure I could research and find out, but I don't have the inclination. The truth, however, is that it did become infused in the culture-- to such a degree that cultural anthropologists around the world study and write about its effects, even while they disagree that it has much influence. Few guides to Denmark (and Scandinavia) fail to mention the Jante Law somewhere. It's NOT "imaginary," in other words.

Here's a rough translation of the ten "commandments:"
  • Don't think you are somebody
  • Don’t believe that you are as good as us
  • Don't believe that you are smarter than us
  • Don't believe that you are better than us
  • Don't believe that you know more than us
  • Don't believe that you are more than us
  • Don't believe that you are good at anything
  • Don't laugh at us
  • Don't think that anybody cares for you
  • Don't believe that you can teach us anything
From where I sit today, it sounds pretty dismal. I can also see why the cultural impact of such a thought pattern would lead to the sort of "brain drain" (a substantial exodus of independent thinkers and innovators to pastures greener and more welcoming) the Scandinavian countries experienced in the 1970's and early 80's.

I left that part of the world during that period.
Things that make you go "hmmmm...."

In the interest of brevity, I'll only paraphrase and summarize a few salient comments from cultural anthropologist Åke Daun's writings on the topic:

"There is a strong tendency among Nordic people to strive for socio-cultural homogeneity. Another typical Nordic feature contributes to this tendency: the wish for conflict free encounters in the private life.

Scandinavians are particularly prone to achieve consensus in attitudes and opinions, and generally avoid socializing with others than like-minded people.
Confrontations are regarded as particularly unpleasant. Nordic people generally do not believe themselves to be interesting enough to awaken the curiousness of others, and to compensate for this there must be food and beverages, and maybe certain activities, when meeting others.

Another feature worth noting is a "cultural shyness;" people feel inhibited around others they don't know well, and tend to be very (overly) observant of their own behavior since it is regarded as very important to control what kind of impression others are left with.

There tends to be very strict borders between private life and work life, which manifests as a general resistance to small talk about private matters with strangers (a characteristic which has periodically been reported to be a great hindrance to forming in business contacts in foreign countries).

The lack of passion a stranger might perceive in Nordic people is likely a reflection of both a genuine trait and the fact that rational reasoning has a strong precedent (preference) over for emotional reasoning. Not to be misunderstood, emotions are NOT at all disapproved of in most contexts, but they are regarded as "pure" emotions of no further value than to signal one's general sentiment with life or fate.

Quietness is regarded as the commonly accepted norm, and "noisy fellows" are strongly disapproved of. Vociferous stubbornness is deemed as very ill-mannered, as is interrupting and talking over the voices of others.

The Nordic ideal is to think twice before one speaks, and to utter only one's most firm beliefs, and then only when there is a considered and deliberate intention. The assumption is that what one says is going to be remembered for ages, and if one says something stupid or "wrong" it will be proof of one's stupidness and
general incompetence... and can be used against one in encounters for ages afterward...

To be kind and good-natured is important. It is generally seen as preferable to be quiet or agreeable rather than uttering a strongly opposing opinion, unless one really aims at hurting."


I have been sitting here for some time, contemplating this... and what it means.

Like the truth of most situations, there are two sides to this coin. In some ways, I feel a little more enlightened about myself, from a cultural history perspective. I'm still glad to be Danish, and I'm still glad I live in the US, not Denmark. Although I didn't start writing this because I was looking for an outlet to "pass the buck" to as explanation for being who I am-- I was just curious-- I find myself looking at me through slightly different eyes.

Ultimately, life is about balance. I look at the above and realize that American culture could "learn a thing or two" from Danes, and Danish culture could "learn a thing or two" from Americans. Both approaches to living have their merits. Neither is perfect.

So, I think I will leave this little anecdote and cultural history lesson with an old memory that just popped into my head.

I was five years old, and my Godfather (a powerful insurance executive from New York) was visiting us in Denmark. "Uncle Victor" spent quite a lot of time with me and was (as family lore would have it) "quite worried" about my seeming timidity. And he tried (although I don't remember it ALL that well) to teach me how to "Stand tall, look 'em in the eye, and tell 'em what you know!" Having been taught that the proper way to greet someone (per Danish culture) was "quick eye contact, followed by a slight bow of the head in deference and a handshake" made Uncle Victor's way seem strange to me. Or, as my mother once said I told her "He's nice, but quite rude."

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