Monday, April 21, 2008

Janteloven: Norwegian Modesty

The subtitle could very well be: Pardon my Humility

I've mentioned "humility" and "modesty" in this blog before, in conjunction with my Norwegian ancestors and their/my heritage. The May 2008 issue of Viking (the official Sons of Norway publication), contains an article dealing with just this subject: "A Modest Nation," by Berit Hanson. She writes that "Norway has often been described as a place where equality is prized and individual success is repressed," and then proceeds to tell about the history behind the desire for conformity.

Janteloven is described as a set of social imperatives that promote the Scandinavian belief that one should not assume he/she is better than another. The success of the group is most important: "Self importance is nonexistent, while conformity and social harmony are paramount."

The term was adopted from the fictional Danish town of Jante in the 1933 novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor), by Aksel Sandemose. While it may seem strange that a novel spurred a road map for social interaction, the mutually accepted mores of Janteloven were in place long before the author coined the term. The novel merely articulated and popularized some ancient cultural tendencies.

As long as people have lived in Norway, the concept of Janteloven has thrived because "people lived in small, agrarian communities and fishing villages where everybody knew everybody else. These transparent social conditions also meant that everybody monitored everybody else's behavior." Though the guiding principle is not exclusive to Scandinavia, this geographic area was wide-spread and often secluded, with sparse population--all of which heightened the effect.

Here are the "10 Commandments of Janteloven," from Aksel Sandermose's novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks:

1. Thou shalt not believe that thou art something.
2. Thou shalt not believe that thou art as good as us.
3. Thou shalt not believe that thou art more than us.
4. Thou shalt not fancy thyself better than us.
5. Thou shalt not believe thou knowest more than us.
6. Thou shalt not believe thou art greater than us.
7. Thou shalt not believe that thou art a worthwhile human being.
8. Thou shalt not laugh at us.
9. Thou shalt not believe that anyone is concerned with thee.
10. Thou shalt not believe thou can teach us anything.

Remember that these "commandments" are from a fictional novel and not a code that Norwegian school children have been forced to recite from memory, decade after decade. It's just that the ideas as expressed in the novel articulate the age-old Norwegian tendency to repress the individual. Sandermose's fictional account explores how a murderer places the blame for his criminal behavior on the town of Jante because of its repression.

Karen Patrick Knutsen, assoicate professor at Oestfold University College in Halden, Norway, is quoted as saying that present day Norway's social welfare system embodies the principles of Janteloven, "ensuring that the needs of all citizens are met, that no one is too rich or too poor, and that financial rewards are owed in part to the government (through taxation) and used to maintain equality among the citizens." A social welfare system, therefore, gives rights to all, "but also demands that everybody contribute to the system accroding to their abilities."

But, Norway is a changing nation, and the old social mores are changing along with it. No longer dependent upon fishing and farming, Norway has become wealthy from off-coast oil reserves, and wishes to make a useful impact on the world (see Protecting the Future for Families, this blog). There is growing acceptance of diversity, and especially of what individual creativity can bring.

What about ancestors like mine who emigrated to America? As they acclimated to a new country and a new way of life, why did the concepts of Janteloven hang on? My opinion is that Norwegians in America were anxious to hold on to any part of their identity they could, having left the homeland under duress in search of land and livelihood. They were adamant about offering their loyalty to the new homeland, but wanted to remain as Norwegian as possible while doing so. Is it any wonder they continued to hand down the old tried and true social mores among themselves? It probably did them some good in early pioneer communities, where neighbor depended upon neighbor.

But, in fast-paced modern American life, humility or modesty can be taken as a sign of weakness, a lack of intelligence, apathy, and more. When my cousins and I were children and our Norwegian-American mothers cautioned us not to make a big deal over some success in our little lives, they truly thought they were doing us a favor: "Shhh... someone will hear you; we don't want anyone to think we are bragging." Yet, it was not so much the things our elders said, but often the things that went unsaid that left the deepest impression.

In my Carnival of Genealogy blogpost about genetic traits, Giving Credit to Gene, I mention shyness as one of the personality traits my ancestors handed down to me ("could it have been the herring?"). Add the culturally ingrained Norwegian concept of Janteloven to genetic shyness, and it can all be downright stiffling! It has taken a lifetime to give myself permission to say, do, or even think certain things. This shows how powerful a legacy the cultural ways of our ancestors truly is.

Even so, there are many Norwegian-Americans, like Minnesotan Berit Hanson, the author of the Viking article, who have found that "certain attributes of Janteloven, such as modesty and humility, have made their way across the ocean and into [their] hearts and minds." There is certain comfort and a sense of belonging in doing things just the way our ancestors have always done, and in not being too ready to let go of our heritage--whatever form it has taken over the ages.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry for commenting so much! It's just fun to read. :D

    Sandemose said about janteloven:
    "It depicts the natural evil in humans and our ability to suppress each other", and he said that we were born with these traits.

    In elementary school we were taught the "Anti-jantelaw", where we were taught that we -were- someone. Janteloven these days is associated with bullying. The first "commandment" is popular with kids and teenagers. If a girl has confidence, there will be someone there to say "Tror du at du er noen eller?!", meaning "Do you think you're someone?!" - which is a terrible thing to say.
    You're not allowed to act like "you're someone" in schools, and if you do someone will throw that line at you.

    We're trying to balance it these days, between modesty and arrogance. No one likes arrogance and "hot shots", and no one likes bullies.
    We are a modest people, but we spit on janteloven, perhaps because it's a part of us that we don't want to acknowledge.

    I'm a much bigger fan of kardemommeloven. ;)