This morning when Debi and I were going over the end-of-chapter questions for Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, the Jante laws came up. Pronounced “YAN-teh,” they’re a series of 10 tongue-in-cheeck observations on small-town life in Scandinavia. Small-town life anywhere, as far as I’m concerned. If they can be summed up in a word or two, the first law comes as close as any: “Do not think that you are something (special).” Try to have a little humility.
Or, as Debi suggested, “Don’t get above your raisin’.”
We’re reading Waking Up White for a discussion group at church (well, actually, on Zoom due to the pandemic). “My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance,” Irving says in a publisher’s blurb on her website. “As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race.” And since Debi’s heritage is Swedish and mine is Norwegian, the Jante laws are part of the cultural baggage we bring to the discussion.
What values and admonitions did you learn in your family?” Irving asks at the end of the first chapter. “Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs. […] Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system.”
Certainly the Jante laws fit some of my unspoken beliefs. And they’re not all bad. Do not think that you are smarter than us. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you’re better than us. Do not think that you know more than us. Frankly, that’s kept me out of trouble more than once. But the laws cut both ways. You must not laugh at us. Do not think that anybody cares about you.
And this: Do not think you can teach us something. Hell, I violated that one every time I walked into a classroom. Or did I? The longer I taught, the more I realized I wasn’t teaching anybody anything, I was simply setting up the conditions so they could learn it. Maybe it helped me try to have a little humility. Not enough to brag about, though.
I don’t know what the discussion of Waking Up White will bring. And I don’t want to yet. Don’t get above your raisin’, Pete. Try to have a little humility. In the meantime, the Jante laws have been credited for everything from “Minnesota nice” (which is not without subtle racial implications, at least in the eyes of some who know it well) to longtime radio personality Garrison Kiellor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Here’s a primer on the Jante laws I posted to my blog Hogfiddle in 2011, when Norway was in the news due to a terrorist attack by a Norwegian white nationalist that claimed the lives of 77 people that summer:
Jante laws (pron. YAN-teh) are a typically Scandinavian code of behavior, from a Danish novel but widely recognized in all the Scandinavian countries … here’s what Wikipedia says: “The Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A fugitive crosses his tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933, English translation published in the USA in 1936) identified the Jante Law as a series of rules. Sandemose’s novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modelled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.”
The Jante laws are also in force, naturally, in Lake Wobegon. Small towns everywhere, I suspect.
Snippets from July 28 article “In Norway, Consensus Cuts 2 Ways” by Steven Erlanger and Michael Schwirtz in the New York Times, which quotes the Jante laws rather perceptively …
“When you are confronted with multicultural immigration, something happens,” said Grete Brochmann, a sociologist at the University of Oslo. “That’s the core of the matter right now, and it’s a great challenge to the Norwegian model.”
Norway’s leaders, from the royal family on down, have all praised the country’s solidarity, democracy, equality and tolerance, and all vow that these values will not change. Virtuous, peaceful, generous, consensual — this is the Norwegian self-image, aided by the oil wealth that props up one of the most comprehensive social welfare systems in the world.
For all its virtues, the emphasis on consensus here can also promote small-mindedness, smugness and political correctness. That is especially true when newcomers have different notions on certain values, including gender equality and secularism, even in an officially Christian country, that Norwegians hold dear.
“We’re a lucky society for many reasons, and not just oil,” said Ms. Brochmann, citing Norway’s distance from both the euro and the American financial crisis and its strong and transparent democracy.
“But many of these aspects of this consensus society have another side,” she said. “This is also a society of conformism,” she said, citing the “Janteloven,” or Jante law, based on small-town Scandinavian norms that govern group behavior, promoting collectivism and discouraging individual initiative and ambition in a world where no one is anonymous.
Text of Jante laws below, in Danish and English, courtesy of my cousin Lise in Copenhagen:
1. Du skal ikke tro, at du er noget.
2. Du skal ikke tro, at du er lige så meget som os.
3. Du skal ikke tro, at du er klogere end os.
4. Du skal ikke bilde dig ind, at du er bedre end os.
5. Du skal ikke tro, at du ved mere end os.
6. Du skal ikke tro, at du er mere end os.
7. Du skal ikke tro, at du duer til noget.
8. Du skal ikke le ad os.
9. Du skal ikke tro, at nogen bryder sig om dig.
10. Du skal ikke tro, at du kan lære os noget.
1. Do not think that you are something.
2. Do not think that you are equal to us.
3. Do not think that you are smarter than us.
4. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you’re better than us.
5. Do not think that you know more than us.
6. Do not think that you are more than us.
7. Do not believe you are worth something.
8. You must not laugh at us.
9. Do not think that anybody cares about you.
10. Do not think you can teach us something.